The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants, edited by Burgess and Mulvenna – Book Review

contested identitiesEdited academic collections are often technical and specialized – appealing to academics, but offering little to other readers interested in the topic. The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants (Palgrave 2015), edited by Thomas Paul Burgess (UCC) and Gareth Mulvenna (Queen’s) is an exception to this trend, as it draws in an eclectic range of contributors from academia and beyond.

(Unfortunately, the book carries an academic price tag – £68 – which places it beyond the ‘reasonable’ price range for most.)

Burgess, now a senior lecturer in UCC, is from the Shankill Road, previously worked on the Opsahl Commission, and was a member of the band Ruefrex. Mulvenna is a visiting fellow in Politics at Queen’s, where he is writing a book about Ulster’s loyalist ‘tartan’ gangs of the early 1970s.

Beyond the usual academic voices, the book features journalists (Eoghan Harris, Henry McDonald, Malachi O’Doherty), a political figure (Billy Hutchinson), retired Presbyterian minister (Rev Brian Kennaway), playwright (Graham Reid), and community worker (Neil Symington). What it lacks is women’s voices, with the female contributors confined to just one chapter: ‘Doing Their Bit: Gendering the Constitution of Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist Identities’ by Fidelma Ashe (Ulster University) and Caireen McCluskey (now called to the New York State Bar). (There also is a brief discussion of women’s contributions in James Greer’s chapter on ‘Typical Unionists.’)

Burgess and Mulvenna’s Introduction to the volume begins by citing the Haass Talks’ issues of flags, emblems, and the past, noting that (p. 1):

‘… the responsibility for the impasse that scuppered the Haass talks and brought violent protest onto the streets of Belfast seems to lie directly with the apparent intransigence of the so-called and supposedly monolithic Protestant-unionist-loyalist bloc, or ‘PUL community’, and its apparent inability to embrace these matters.’

Some of the chapters address these three issues, but taken as a whole the book encompasses a much wider range of concerns and perspectives, going some way towards illuminating the complexity of the PUL community.

It opens with the contributions of the three journalists, ranging from Harris’ changed southern perspective on unionism, McDonald’s analysis of stereotyped nationalist perceptions of the PUL community (both north and south), and O’Doherty’s chapter on ‘Loyalism and the Media,’ where he describes working with PUL groups in media workshops. This is a particularly interesting account where O’Doherty acknowledges the groups’ distrust of the media (which they see as out to get them), which leads to suspicion and a lack of constructive engagement. Although O’Doherty shares some of the strategies PUL groups could use to engage, he concludes with a rather bleak example (p. 38):

‘[One group member] thinks anyone can phone a reporter and tell any lie about loyalists and get into the media.

What I want him to see is that he could have a relationship with the media himself, if only to be called on occasionally to offer his own perspective.

I say, ‘Sinn Fein faced the media for decades being asked only about bombings and shooting and they developed a thick skin and winning smile. You could have done the same. You still could.’

The book’s impressive scope is displayed in further chapters on the portrayal of loyalism in film, sport and community allegiance, the Scots-Irish diaspora in America, loyalist bands culture (including analysis of how band participation builds confidence and community), Reid’s reflections on his upbringing and family history, and Hutchinson’s account of ‘paramilitarism and political manoeuvrings’, which also includes recollections from his childhood and teenage years.

With the marching season approaching (or already having begun in some places), a particularly relevant chapter is Kennaway’s on the Orange Order’s attempts to reposition, rebrand or reinvent itself and the Twelfth, ‘The Re-invention of the Orange Order: Triumphalism or Orangefest?’ Kennaway traces much of the Orange Order’s current public relations problems to the ‘Drumcree Debacle’ (p. 70), and covers strategies to improve its image such as the creation of ‘flagship’ twelfth and Belfast’s Orangefest.

One of Kennaway’s main concerns with Orangefest is that it emphasises culture rather than faith – perhaps not a surprising concern for a Presbyterian minister. He recounts the efforts of some Orangemen, such as former Deputy Grand Master Rev Stephen Dickinson, to return the organization to its religious roots through an internal group called ‘Orange Reformation’ (p. 76), an ultimately failed effort that ended with Dickinson’s resignation in 2011. Kennaway also notes that (p. 72):

‘The Orangefest concept has not been universally acceptable among Orangemen. Not just because it is not ‘traditional’ but also because it has not addressed the core issue of the behaviour of bands, which has brought such discredit to the public image of the Institution.’

And (p. 79):

‘The bottom line is you cannot present a positive image under the guise of Orangefest and not take steps to deal with the negative image constantly publicly displayed year after year. The negative image, all too public in recent years, of members appearing in court charged with a variety of criminal offences, and the constant provocation by the engagement of bands with perceived or real paramilitary connections, negatives any positive impact.’

For him, the ‘culture’ that Orangefest is attempting to save is not authentic and will not be so until and unless the Order returns to its basis in faith.

Among the academic chapters, Ashe and McCluskey’s work on the gendering of identities breaks some new ground in the area, going beyond the expected and stereotyped assertion that Catholic-Nationalist-Republican women have been more prominent politically and socially in their communities than have PUL women. While admitting that PUL women have been ‘less visible’ (p. 55), they provide an account of how women have become more involved in protests in recent years – with their visibility especially increased during marching conflicts and the flags protests. They argue that while participation in these protests has highlighted women’s roles, it has also reinforced gender stereotypes and inequalities, even though [quoting the 2013 research of Stapleton and Wilson] p. 66:

‘… [the women] claim that through the strength and success of their “female-only” protest, the men have come to accept them as co-players within the community structures that have particular (gendered) strengths to offer’ (Stapleton and Wilson 2013: 17).’

In terms of the potential future of PUL identities, there are two intriguing chapters that if read side-by-side, offer contrasting perspectives. (The two chapters are not presented consecutively in the volume, though I think it might have been useful to do so, in order to draw attention to their inherent contrasts.)

Robbie McVeigh’s chapter on ‘No One Likes Us, We Don’t Care: What is to be (Un) Done about Ulster Protestant Identity?’, is a stinging critique of much of what constitutes PUL identity. His analysis is based on historical examples of counter-cultural identities and failed unionist political projects. McVeigh doesn’t mince his words (p. 125):

‘Britishness, unionism and the Northern Ireland state create a series of straightjackets that prevent innovative thinking. The structures that have trapped us in counterproductive and self-destructive reaction have to be ditched – Britishness, ‘Ulster’, the Northern Ireland state. All of the reactionary baggage we load onto our youth should be consigned to the dustbin of history: loyalty, royalty, Orangeism, Fenian-baiting and Taig-hating – throw in the collarettes and the coronation mugs. We need to stop sacrificing ourselves on the whim of British imperial nationalism – that should be the main lesson we learn from the Somme.’

McVeigh calls for a ‘revising or rediscovery of Irish Protestantness, in all its complexity’ (p. 129), which means ‘coming to terms’ with Irishness and constructing a new politics based on that.

In contrast, Mulvenna’s chapter on ‘Labour Aristocracies, Triumphalism and Melancholy: Misconceptions of the Protestant Working-Class and Loyalist Community,’ presents a more sympathetic (if that is correct word) portrayal of loyalism and, I think, a more realistic analysis of possibilities for the renewal of identity, community and politics than throwing in the collarettes and embracing Irish Protestantness. The contrast is captured in the last sentence of Mulvenna’s chapter (p. 175):

‘There is no need to surrender tradition, but if it gets to the stage that the rest of the UK is saying they don’t like you … you should care.’

Mulvenna opens the chapter with an analysis of the presentation of loyalism and the Protestant working class as ‘poor white trash,’ a stereotype which was exacerbated during the flags protest – not least through the widespread use of the term ‘flegs.’ He argues that the protests have been debated in ‘social class terms’, which ignored the fact that ‘The protesting loyalists did not see the ‘new’ city centre as a place in which they were welcome anyway’ (p. 161).

Mulvenna then moves to a historical account in which he locates loyalism in a broader discussion of British working class identity and de-industrialization, before detailing how the violence of the Troubles contributed to a breakdown of civic life. Crucial to his argument is that ‘descriptions of the Protestant working class as historically ‘privileged’ has created a distorting effect on commentaries about the current malaise in the Protestant working class and loyalist community’ (p. 159).

Further, he notes that loyalism and loyalist initiatives around commemorating the ‘decade of centenaries’ have often been perceived and portrayed as ‘triumphalist.’ But unlike McVeigh, Mulvenna argues that loyalists can create and construct more positive and affirming identities from their cultural resources, including the upcoming 2016 commemoration of the Somme (p. 172). It’s worth dwelling on his conclusion (p. 160):

‘… by recapturing something of the civic life that existed before the Troubles, things might slowly be turned back in their favour, re-empowering a community which for so long has been bereft of strong leadership and kinship networks.’

With such diversity and complexity within the PUL community, it’s no surprise that the contributors to this volume offer such differing perspectives and disagree on key points. This enhances the contribution of the book, which deserves a wide audience, especially outside academia.

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