Partisan patriot games will not unite Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter….

Today is the 225th Anniversary of the Battle of Saintfield.

Over the course of the last decade we have managed to navigate the choppy waters of centennial commemorations. This period of remembrance and reflection has coincided with Sinn Féin becoming the largest party across our island. In the wake of this deep green tsunami, the parties that once dominated nationalist Ireland, North and South, have been increasingly forced to reassert their own republican credentials and sidestep nuance. Connolly House (or more perhaps 44 Parnell Square) is setting both the political agenda and the populist historical narrative.

The new rules of engagement surfaced in the shutting down of the debate around the 86-year history of the Royal Irish Constabulary; but nowhere is it more apparent than in the shifting sands of what constitutes ‘our patriot dead’. In essence, many republicans want to mainstream their contention that there is no distinction between the United Irishmen of the 1790s and the Provos of the 1970s.

This summer marks the 225th anniversary of the Presbyterian tenant farmers who ‘turned out’ in Antrim, Saintfield and Ballynahinch. As historians continue to mine this seam and deepen our understanding of a rebellion that happened nine generations ago, we can use their insights to challenge our own preconceptions. We are not going to agree on a shortlist of what constitutes Irish martyrology but we can at least ask questions about what happened in the North in the ‘98 and what occurred more recently.

We often approach the 1790s as a missed opportunity, a time when Presbyterians, Catholics and a smattering of Anglicans made common cause in the name of liberté and égalité. The optics are easier on the eye than the prolonged sectarian bloodletting of the1970s. The background orchestra to the ‘98 is one of Enlightenment ideals, the American and French revolutions, and a radical Presbyterian Belfast in the vanguard of Transatlantic abolitionism and Irish republicanism.

Sorting the patriots from the oppressors in the Ulster of the 1790s may therefore seem a more straightforward exercise. The watchful Shan Van Vocht places the Defenders, the New Light Presbyterians and even the mortal sinner Tone on her right. They are ‘the sheep’. Mother Ireland casts the Anglican Ascendancy class, the yeomanry and the fledgling Orange Order to her left. They are the ‘goats – condemned and cancelled. And yet, even this sorting exercise is somewhat messier than it first appears. Let us consider some of the untidy edges.

In Georgian Belfast, some radical Presbyterian merchants were heavily involved in the Belfast Charitable Society at Clifton House, a centre of social activism and later abolitionism. That is unsurprising. However, some Presbyterian loyalists toiled tirelessly in that same society and they matched the Presbyterian republicans with a similar energetic concern for the poor. No simple parting of the waves there. Presbyterian radicals and conservatives rubbed shoulders within the three Presbyterian meeting-houses on Rosemary Street. The leading United Irishman, Henry Joy McCracken, attended Third Presbyterian, which subscribed to the Protestant Reformation tenets of the Westminster Confession of Faith. This ‘Old Light’ kirk therefore also defies our preconceived rubric. The preacher at Third, the Rev Sinclair Kelburn, was a conservative evangelical with a strong social conscience, a musket in the pulpit and a fervent desire for an Irish Republic.

Whether or not certain Antrim and Down townlands ‘turned out’ in the summer of 1798 – Belfast was largely absent – may have been strongly influenced by any number of causal factors. The particular ferocity of General Lake’s militiamen in the immediate vicinity, or the bellicosity of the resident Calvinist preacher, or the passions stirred in the local hostelry, or the availability of a literate adult to read aloud the Northern Star newspaper – it really could be that erratic. Meanwhile, in County Armagh, just 40 miles away, radical Presbyterianism was in short supply, with Presbyterian and Catholic tenant farmers locked in fierce competition for limited land and resources. The lines were blurred.

What of the much lauded religious tolerance of the Presbyterian United Irishmen, remarkable as it was in 18th century Europe? Qualification is again required. One of the reasons why radical Presbyterians applauded the French Revolution was because it did not just bring down the monarchy and aristocracy of the Ancien Régime; it also struck a blow against Catholic imperial and clerical power. ‘No Pope here’ so to speak. Presbyterian republicans were always conflicted, haunted by a fear that dethroning Anglican power would enthrone Catholic power. It helps explain why the United Irishmen were a rather short-lived affair.

To what extent then can we see the 1790s in the 1970s? The United Irishmen were reacting to decades of oppression and discrimination, stemming from the Penal Laws and other injustices. General Lake’s crackdowns in Antrim and Down provoked a reaction from the Presbyterian tenantry. Oaths were taken on the Bible and pikes readied. Leading United Irishmen like McCracken and Rev Sinclair Kelburn, incarcerated in Kilmainham, smuggled out instructions to their waiting volunteers. Crown forces were running a network of spies and informers that subdued Ulster when Wexford rose; and McCracken’s men carried out assassinations of suspected agents with bodies unceremoniously dumped in the Lagan. The On-the-Runs took to the Belfast hills. It all seems strangely familiar when played against the Ulster of the 1970s. It was – and it wasn’t. 1969-97 was in many ways a very different beast.

Derry, the cradle of our recent conflict, demonstrates the inherent tension in placing, or not placing, the Provos alongside the United Irishmen. For many in the Bogside, Shantallow and Creggan it is incontestable that both groups of combatants belong to the ranks of the ‘Patriot Dead’. Their right to inclusion, it is asserted, was forged in the batons of Duke Street, the Battle of the Bogside, internment and Bloody Sunday. The Paras radicalised a generation of Catholics and swelled the ranks of the republican movement. It now seems to count for little that in the midst of the mayhem of the ‘70s and ‘80s, the majority of Derry Catholics were with Hume rather than McGuinness.

But when it comes to any ‘Patriot Dead’ construct it is also necessary to consider the perspective of the Protestants of the Maiden City. 12,000 of them fled their ancestral West Bank homes during the 1970s. Where many in the Bogside celebrate IRA gunmen, the Tullyally and Clooney estates see Provo bombs and bullets that rained down on their community, expelled them from their Cityside homeland and cancelled them. Where Bloody Sunday swelled the ranks of the IRA, Bloody Friday and Claudy saw a UDA recruitment surge in Irish Street and Nelson Drive. Many working class Catholics joined the Provos to defend their community; and many working class Protestants joined the British army or the UVF to do precisely the same. Tell a Derry Protestant that the ‘siege heroes’ buried under the Saint Columb’s Cathedral mound or the Derry Boys who died in two world wars do not belong to the ranks of the patriot dead. I understand the depth of their feelings. I attended primary school with the children of ‘the Exodus’ who were rehoused in the council estates of the Waterside, and my maternal family walked those streets for generations.

At secondary school in Cork, during the 1980s, we were taught the Faith and Fatherland version of Irish history. The only ‘good’ Protestants were those who joined the national struggle. McCracken, Emmet and Parnell were honorary members of this saintly Elect. There was a fair dose of virtue-signalling in this apparently magnanimous gesture of Catholic Ireland allowing some planters to make the cut. Carson and Craig, by contrast, were anathematised. Mother Ireland, the Shan Van Vocht, had passed her eternal judgement. But in more recent times it was remarked that a wonderful Christian Brother, who taught history in another Cork school, was challenging the prevailing orthodoxy. His class was asked to consider if Carson was in fact another type of Irish patriot, a proud Dubliner who pursued what he believed was best for his fellow Irishmen and women.

Have we now entered a process of applying hero and villain status to the generation and a half of the recent conflict? Will the RUC, like the RIC, become pariahs in a Sinn Féin dominated Ireland? Will the Provos be elevated to the pedestal occupied by the United Irishmen? Will loyalists be condemned as fanatical outliers? This offers an ominous vision of a New Ireland, given the thousands of victims and survivors who had evil visited upon them by republicans, loyalists and the state and who struggle on with an empty chair at the table, or their disability benefits and a lack of closure. It is also very arbitrary. People across the divide were radicalised by the conflict. They rushed to defend their respective communities. The organisations they joined were but an accident of birth.

Partisan patriot games will not unite Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter. They will guarantee a simmering discontent and a deep sense of communal alienation. If your only interest is in uniting territory or defending Ulster or settling some perceived tribal scorecard then fill yer boots. Those who wish to unite people need to think more carefully about any construct that involves elevating the chosen sheep to the right and banishing the accursed goats to the left. History may belong to the winner but reconciliation belongs to the wise.


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