‘The irony of an Ulster Protestant as custodian of the memory of the men of 1916’ – by Brian Spencer

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An Ulster Presbyterian is in charge of how the 26 counties of Republic of Ireland celebrate the centenary of the Easter Rising. Could there be a grander irony? Let me leave this for a moment to look at Northern Ireland.

The myopia of Unionism is a mortal one. A Unionism that unflinchingly supports the Union but congenitally alienates Catholics from that Union, is Unionism doomed. The future of unionism rests on promoting a “relentlessly” and “unremittingly” a positive unionism. This is said adtedium as expounded by cartoonist Ian KnoxFather Des and Gerry Lynch.

That said, the inverse is never said. The success of Republicanism rests upon making the relentlessly and unremittingly positive case for a United Ireland.

Unionists cannot be coerced or conscripted. Unity must be a consensual one. The affection and connection of protestants need be won. An Ireland united by electoral arithmetic alone is still a partitioned Ireland. It will still be the Ireland of which Yeats spoke, two opposite narratives, two festering and antithetical boots. It has to be about seduction, not hectoring, hassling and hustling.

Edward Carson said it, John Redmond said it, even the greenest of Green Brit-phobic, Eamonn de Valera came to know it and say it. “The only policy for abolishing partition that I can see is for us, in this part of Ireland to use such freedom as we can secure for the people in this part of Ireland such conditions as will make the people in the other part of Ireland wish to belong to this part.”

Former Taoiseach John Bruton and Bertie Ahern said it. They all know it. They all say it. Yet, they don’t act upon it. Historian Ryle Dywer said: “Eamonn de Valera, his big aim was to end partition but he did nothing to end it. He made no moves to bridge the gap. Why did people not see through that?”

Fine words don’t butter parsnips. This de Valerian inaction and omission have been the defining characteristic of all Ireland republicanism, Gerry Lynch said: “The performance of Nationalist parties in persuading Prods of the benefits of a United Ireland is even more abject [than unionist parties persuading Catholics of the benefits of the Union]– they can’t even persuade Nationalists to back the idea.”

Martin McGuinness has met the Queen and discharged other perfunctory protocols of statecraft but that is less for the northern Protestant and more to palliate the progressive south.

Sinn Fein has abandoned working class Protestants to the extremes of Orangeism. The Sinn Feinism of Castlederg and hunger strike murals shudders moderate suburbia. The spectre of Adams has something of Cromwell to many in the Protestant-unionist community. What ever happened to the multi-confessional, non-sectarian republicanism of

Wolfe-Tone that works to unite Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter? The tactic of prodding loyalism and reaping the fruits of the moral high ground is growing old and showing it’s futility.

The language of “culture war” is and deeply irresponsible, but any perception that British identity is being attacked will only serve to alienate and partition Protestants. De Valera effectively outlawed expressions of unionist sentiment by legislative injunction and mob veto. This cannot happen in any Ireland united. You can flap a Union flag and still be Irish – Redmond did it.

We hear Adams say, giving the distinct impression that he has two bars of lemon soap stuck up his nose, that Sinn Fein want a “new Ireland” and “an agreed Ireland”. What on earth does that mean?

Where the political climate of northern republicanism is hostile to unionism and aspects of Britishness, the political climate of the southern republican establishment is vastly more hospitable.

I return now to  Heather Humphreys and her appointment as Fine Gael minister for arts. A native of Ulster’s county Cavan and a Presbyterian, she was elected TD for Cavan-Monaghan in the 2011 Fianna Fáil implosion election. Cavan blood flowed among the signatures on that Solemn League and Covenant, and as Lord Farnham said: “We in Cavan were prouder of being Ulstermen than anyone in the whole Province.”

The Unionist impulses of the Irish Protestant die hard; and if this isn’t an act of generosity and hospitality to the Ulster unionist community I don’t know what is.

Then the former leader of her party, John Bruton, violated the inviolable when he questioned the Easter Rising. I’ve often said in ‘remembering Ireland’s patriot dead’ Ireland is forgetting those Irishmen who wanted to stay in legislative union with the people of England, Wales and Scotland. Any United Ireland has to have a narrative that accommodates and cherishes all it’s children and citizens. An inviolable 1916 narrative partitions and dismembers a whole part of it’s children and citizens. A “new Ireland” and an “agreed Ireland” would need a narrative that doesn’t demand the sickly religious certainty of the republican orthodoxy. A unanimous, unchallengeable republicanism is unthinking and dangerously authoritarian. Unity will not come through a republicanism that is anthithetical to Unionism by its absolute unanimity.

Why the obsession with the violent separatism of the American revolution and the revulsion at the peaceful, orderly and democratic autonomy that came to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa under the Westminster Act of 1931?

If Bruton’s remarks and  Humphreys’ appointment don’t spur civilised debate and dialogue between the people across this island it will be a shameful and deeply regrettable act of ignorance on the part of unionism and will be an act of I selfishness on the part of republicanism.



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About Author

Brian is a writer, artist and law graduate.


  1. My Dublin based colleagues had a saying………’ All very well spouting grand theories but fact is one needs a Protestant to nail it to the wall’. The inference being that RC’s were cerebral and non-RC’s more practical. So why are the two senior law men in the six counties RC’s? And highly respected too.

  2. A wayfaring American on

    If people don’t digest anything more than some of the things this article sets forth, a large step forward will have been made in Ireland.

  3. “Sinn Fein has abandoned working class Protestants to the extremes of Orangeism. The Sinn Feinism of Castlederg and hunger strike murals shudders moderate suburbia”

    Like all conceits, this sounds good without much substance behind it.

    I don’t think SF ever set out its stall as the saviours of working class protestants from “the extremes of Orangeism”, nor do I see how they would fulfil that role even if they wanted to.

    I also don’t think that moderate suburbia (whatever that is) “shudders” at Castlederg, Derrylin or murals. For may people in NI the Troubles had little direct tragic impact on their lives and the visceral sentiments around a terrorist campaign for people living in Castlederg are as far removed from moderate suburbia’s understanding as is the ‘plight’ of working class protestants.

    In 2014 ‘moderate surburbia’, the liberal middle classes; the ‘guilty prods’; the new professional class, or whatever other label you want to use are far more interested in holding down a job, putting food on the table and doing the best they can for their families. That’s the problem with attempts to come to some collective conscience of the wrongs of the past. The up and coming generation in NI do not want to be held responsible, (nor should they) for the sins of their fathers generation. They have in many instances already moved on.

  4. Deputy Heather Humphreys’ recent promotion to a Junior Ministry is for political reasons, with a firm focus on the next general election in 2016. She’s a Fine Gael TD in a constituency that will be hard-fought. The fact that she has responsibility for the 1916 centenary commemorations is incidental.
    That she is an Ulster Presbyterian may be ironic, but is ultimately irrelevant. She has a job to do, and hopefully she’ll do it well.
    There is no message to unionism in the appointment of Deputy Humphreys. Indeed the idea that northern unionists would be interested in come hither overtures from the republic would be news to most southerners. Unionist reaction to any wooing by the republic is and has been based on a consistent theme of mind-your-own-business.

    The republic does not dwell on the concerns on unionists to any real extent, even less so after the Good Friday agreement. We do take more notice of concerns of northern nationalists, the perennial holders of
    the short straw in all this. But empathy has its limitations, as one would sympathise ineffectually with a sibling stuck in a bad arranged marriage.

    The writer examines this non-event through the prism of unionist identity. The Irish identity in the republic is becoming increasingly broadened through immigration. This is a European phenomenon. My
    children go to school with children whose parents are from Poland, Rumania, Nigeria, Jordan, the Philippines and so on and so on. And we don’t live in a city. The Irish identify has to stretch and grow to provide the education and opportunity that these Irish kids deserve. That’s our focus down here. So one of our ministers is an Ulster Presbyterian. So what.

  5. Well we do need debate, this article and the responses prove that.

    Perhaps you might ponder why Ireland was partitioned, and why it was inevitable- Fanning reckons by 1912, Mansergh by 1911.
    I’ll tell you Eamonn – it was because one unitary State could not handle British nationalism and Irish nationalism. It’s fine to talk of Canada, New Zealand and yeah, even Scotland achieving orderly separation – in these countries the native culture has been supplanted by a British one – so let’s have Home Rule and the Commonwealth Games.

    Pearse was our Gaelic leader. He wanted Éire Saor and Éire Gaelach. He didn’t get it, and the modern Irish republic has failed to achieve it, but let’s not talk of an agreed Ireland. There is nothing to agree on.
    You are part of the Anglo world or you are not. Tiocfaidh ár lá. Go deimhin.

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