The Émigré – Moderate/Middle Class Protestants – by Brian John Spencer

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When the Hyde Park bomb news broke I was horrified.

On the rule of law and due process, immunising and exempting credible suspects who face credible evidence from justice – by way of unchecked, secret letters – represents a serious blow to western democracy. We are all bound on equal terms by a common code known as the rule of law. Upon that equality we share a sense of shared society. Exempt a few from the standards you impose on the many and you risk serious societal breakdown.

On the actual politics, I felt utterly dejected. I wanted to join the so many in Northern Ireland who have exempted and absolved themselves from the whole process.

On the debate I felt unable to comment. It was before my time. It was a matter for victims. Frighteningly complicated, too deranged a political quarrel, a forever cycle of claim and counter-claim.

On the future, I feared for our ability to move the political economy forward and for our “normalisation”.

Then I thought of the counter-narrative: Of the “other Northern Ireland”. That world which has liberated itself from sectarian debate and from unionism and nationalism (the world Heaney and others said). Those people – young and old, victim and non-victim – who know nothing of the past and want nothing to do with the past. The world we hear little or no word of.

“Get yourself educated and get out of here… We are going to have to leave it to another generation.”

These words then fixed my mind; spoken by the son of a woman murdered by a loyalist death squad. When I heard them, I felt it imperative to say something.


Firstly, for the sake of balance, fairness and hope, we need to hear the story of “the other Northern Ireland”. The “normal Northern Ireland” Mick Fealty, Pete Shirlow, Fionuala Meredith, David McCann, Professor John Brewer, Ian James Parsley, David McElfatrick, Brian Feeney, Jim Fitzpatrick, Jamie Pow , Rick Wilford, Lyra McKee, Brian Rowan and John McCallister and many others have attested to.

We need to hear both stories. Nobody should have a monopoly on the process. There should be no hierarchy of attention. There should be no privilege or special treatment granted to victims, fundamentalists or violent types (not in any way linked).

For every relative of a victim who wants the truth, there’s a relative who wants to move on. Like the South African Kader Asmal. Like Kevin Skelton of Time To Move On.

For every fanatic, there are hundreds of moderates.

For every Jamie Bryson, there are 1000s of pro-agreement, pro-compromise unionists who recognise that Sinn Fein did not land in office by some dreadful accident, but by the good faith of a very many people who gave the party their vote.

For every blocked parade, 100s proceed unabridged.

For every belligerent politician who stood at the Haass talks and held out on a deal, there were thousands of unionists who wanted a deal, a deal they did not get and an explanation for which are yet to receive. For every Sinn Fein call for justice there is a duplicitous support for amnesty.

The victim, fundamentalist and the fanatic dominate the agenda. What of those like Hannah Nelson who have utterly divorced themselves from the squabble?

Hyde Park is not the only affront to justice; giving a hearing only to one half of Northern Ireland is unpardonable, an affront to a free and fair society. (Excuse the cliche but…) Democracy does not start and end at the ballot box – we need to hear from other persuaded, passionate voices. Believe it or not, it’s not just the victim, fundamentalist, loyalist, Orangeman and fanatic who has unalterable convictions, cherished traditions and unshakeable values.

Secondly (looking more specifically at the unionist half of the “other normal Northern Ireland”) the DUP should give careful thought to those many Protestant unionists not installed at Twaddell, protesting or waving a flag, or those not talking about a “holy war” and the “extermination” of Protestants.

Here’s my point. If the DUP allows its reaction to the Hyde Park opacity – which needs enlightened – to be one dictated by these forces, they risk further alienating moderate unionists. Unionists who look at Twaddell and claims of “holy war” with a fathomless and unspeakable disbelief.

To reiterate, I condemn the sending of secret letters; the sending of which should be fully investigated. I quite agree with Colonel Tim Collins here. Sunlight is the only remedy and only way to regain the trust and accountability of the public.

Within the “other Northern Ireland” there is a huge body of Protestant unionism that is utterly at odds and variance with the current trajectory of political Unionism. As it’s been said:

“Loyalists are doing a grand job of demonising Unionism and encouraging educated Protestants to leave NI.”

“If we absolutely must speak of “exterminating” certain communities and “eroding” a culture, it is moderate and middle class Protestants who are being “exterminated”.

Look at this young man who’s resolved on his intent to leave Northern Ireland to escape the madness.

“When I’m finished with my degree I’m probably going to get the hell out of Northern Ireland, I’m sick of the same old bull**** sectarian arguments peddled over and over again.”

Look at this young woman studying in the US who said Americans have an incredibly negative perception of Northern Ireland because of a delinquent minority:

“Why do those people always behave like such freaks? That tiny minority makes them all look like a bunch of losers dude.”

Look at this young man, born in Northern Ireland, now living in Australia:

“[I’m] annoyed by Northern Ireland Unionism’s lack of substance/vision/morality. Seeking the alternative. Currently in Australia.”

Or this Protestant taxi driver who said that politicians do too much to appease the “nutters”:

This is the whole history of moderate, middle class unionist in two lines. And of course, Irish senator and protestant, David Norris, spoke for so many Protestants when he called last summer’s loyalist rioting an “appalling embarrassment”.

Violent loyalists, hardliners in the OO and political fundamentalists habitually, serially and routinely bring Northern Ireland into disgrace and incur the contempt of the world. In doing so, they create a cold house that alienate moderate Protestants and forces them to opt-out of the civic process. This has given rise to two phenomenona:

One, we have what Brian Feeney called the internal émigré  and what Alex Kane suggests could be called, “Opt -out-couldn’t-care-less-about-the-whole-thing-anymore unionism.” As Feeney said:

“None of these internal émigrés participates in or endorses the antics of the yahoos waving flags or hammering big drums outside Catholic Churches… [the Haass talks]failure will simply reinforce the majority of unionists in their opinion that, in the words of Alex Kane, they prefer to go to the garden centre that bother voting.”

Two, we have what we could call the external émigré. The same as the internal émigré, entirely divorced from Northern Ireland life, but living, often forced by political and economic circumstances, abroad.

People have long spoken of middle class Protestants being raised and schooled in Northern Ireland, then exported to university or to work abroad, never to return. In April 1982 Sir Peter Frogatt, vice-Chancellor of QUB said there was “a considerable exodus to British universities especially on the part of the Protestant community.” In May 2008 a study found that two-thirds of students from Northern Ireland do not return to the province in the short to medium term. It also found that Protestant school leavers (34%) were more likely than Catholic school leavers (23%) to migrate to study in Britain.

In 2011 Stephen Farrey revealed that a third of the 35,000 students attending university in Northern Ireland are Protestant. Only a fifth at Magee are Protestant.

It leans towards Protestants, but ultimately it cuts both ways. The bottom line is, we’re sacrificing our best and brightest on the altar of mindless sectarian squabbling. As David McCann said, ‘Northern Ireland’s greatest challenge is the loss of the best of our next generation.”  This – not flags, parades and the past – should be animating minds.

The protestant brain-drain is not only a detriment to our local economy, but it also condemns and exacerbates “brain-dead” unionism and loyalism. (Perhaps some of our protestant émigré friends could come back and give loyalists the political education that veteran loyalist Raymond Lavery said they so desperately need. Certainly they would surely be keen to extinguish loyalism’s terrifically damaging “phantom fears”.)

The Hyde Park Bomb case needs addressed, and in full. However there are broader issues that must be faced. We cannot allow fringe unionism to dictate events. We must hear from the “other Northern Ireland”: those who don’t want Sinn Fein playing the sore thumb policy for a United Ireland, or the DUP playing bogey-man politics with impressionable loyalism. Moderate unionism needs to reclaim that cause, only they can offer an open, welcoming, persuasive, Catholic-friendly and ‘unremittingly positive’ case for the Union.

The Union needs to be saved from unionist extremists who say they’re British but operate by Ulster nationalism, a code opposite, antithetical and hostile to Britishness. All they do is give an unremittingly negative case for the Union and in doing so make the argument for secession.


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About Author

Brian is a writer, artist and law graduate.


  1. I only see only hope, one alternative, one educator for unionism, and that is NI21. At last the beaten-down moderate cross-community Northern Irish are catching on that they have to act, otherwise DUP anti-intellectual political delinquency will continue unabated to destroy Northern Ireland. The reaction and vision has happened at last, and from here on in NI21 will steadily grow imo.

  2. Colin Mccord on

    My daughter today went to a job interview. In London. She sees no future for herself in Northern Ireland and the brain drain continues unabated. This is the real current crisis in Northern Ireland where our future is being diminished by every highly educated young person that leaves to seek a “normal life” elsewhere .
    Normal to many people means different things. Unfortunately some people in our society think that normal is causing mayhem, rioting, political grandstanding and building sectarian Utopias in which they can give their hate driven instincts full reign.
    The sad depressing truth is that they are comfortable in this role. It is easy to do the same thing every time. Thirty five years of the troubles were not a “conflict” but a period in which the most vile murders were committed and Northern Ireland brought to the brink of destruction. We as a province made history by seemingly inventing new celebrities. The celebrity murder or terrorist. Hero worshipped by many in their communities and free to strut around in full view of victims and their families impervious to the hurt and distress that their celebrity status brings.
    It is safe to do the same old thing time after time and requires no independent or constructive thinking or approach. The problem is that doing the same old thing gives us the same old problems, 35 more years of “normal”.
    It really is the “Last Chance Saloon” for Northern Ireland.
    A new Northern Ireland normal must be constructed.

  3. Well said. I can only offer that those of us committed to being here, bringing jobs and challenging the status quo, need to spread this message. Only a “prosperity process” – committed to with the same zeal that brought ceasefires, will change anything. Only prosperity will bring home the young and old for whom emigration was a necessity. Stakeholders in a vibrant economy will not shut down businesses at the holidays, stage protests or riot. Equality of opportunity depends on abundance – all parties need to put the economy first.

  4. Eve, I agree but all parties are not interested in the economy, Westminster handouts allows them the time and luxury of picking at tribal sores to satisfy their own tribal playing-to-the-gallery and prop up their narrow fiefdoms. The only way change will happen in NI is through the political process – the vote. DUP-UUP-SDLP-SF are tied in to a sectarian squabble system and do not have sufficient inducement or inclination to break out of it. A political movement must and is taking place, NI21, it remains to be seen how big it can grow. An expanded NI21-Alliance in NI(though I hesitate with ALLiance) will mean bigger reasonable voices to diminish and challenge the sectarian destruction of the others. People who don’t vote must use their vote for the middle ground, and others must be persuaded to switch from the tribal/polarised parties to a better way. Only then will NI begin to change and actually be more accurately represented, and real politics take hold. Tell your friends to vote, check out NI21, join them! Otherwise we in NI will remain in this hellish limbo while our children plan to get the hell out.
    Our economy CAN do better. Our public services CAN be more efficient and cost effective, We CAN utilise our resources better, we CAN get more of our young people to stay and be an engine room for our economy. But not while DUP/SF strut about the place crowing at each other and doing bugger all else except incite mayhem. Mobilising the vote is the only way to effect change.

  5. michael rogan on

    Are these the same moderate unionists who said and did nothing during the decades of the sectarian dictatorship that characterised Northern Ireland, the legacy sadly prevails,
    The benign Ni21 you yearn for is not the future, grasp the nettle, the challenge that is creating a new Ireland both economically and culturally ,one that cherishes all of our children..

  6. SpencerWatch on

    This is a nonsense argument that misses the point entirely, and sounds more like you have spent too much time reading the opinions of vocal Nationalists and self-loathing “liberal” Protestants rather than talking to many of the quiet unspoken Protestant mainstream who switched off from anything Nationalists or the “liberal” media say a long time ago. Local Ulster Unionism simply has not had power to implement any form of policy in 60 years (with most of the knowledge of “liberals” to a time when it did have power lacking in the critical thought and to counter mendacious nationalist propaganda – the only concern of a “liberal” is of “rights” while ignoring the responsibilities that go with those rights and understanding of standard common-sense counter-subversion/counter-insurgency/counter-terrorism tactics ).

    Currently, no one locally has the power to do anything in the flawed “power sharing” arrangement. The whole unnecessary “process” has been dictated by the British government, whose main concern over the years has been the excessive ego-stroking of militarily defeated Republicans as to ensure bombs out of England, Tony Blair’s legacy, and little else, to a point where it has almost been snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

    Ulster Nationalism is also the common bond which inescapably binds together Unionist and Nationalist, Protestant and Catholic. It should be allowed to be strengthened over a British nationalism which we have little control over locally.

    Posts from “liberals” like yourself only encourage Republican ethnic intimidation every time you talk up how wonderful community-elected mass murderers are (and falsely make out supporting waving a flag to somehow be more intimidatory than an elected mass murderer). In the obsession with attacking conservative Unionist politicians (as is also done in propaganda rags like the Irish News on a daily basis but not reciprocated in mainstream Unionist media, and would be considered “hate speech” if directed against anyone else), the likes of Spencer let the individuals who vote for rubbing salt in wounds off scot-free and make excuses to justify their choices as he falls for their repeated mendacious propaganda. Only a politician looking for a vote treats the electorate as if it cannot be criticised. As David Trimble said astutely, Protestants simply want to be left alone, and from time to time have some pride in their own existence. Many are weary in having to constantly defend themselves from incessant hate from nationalist neighbours despising them for daring to exist, and many Protestants leave, not due to Unionist politicians, but from not wanting to live amongst neighbours with such vile hatred directed against them with such an unrelenting zeal. Your encouragement of this hatred from Nationalists does not help things one iota, and the only thing you are building by doing so is your own smug ego as you seek approval from both the deceptively vocal Irish Nationalists and other emotionally damaged smug “liberal” peers.

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