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Creating divisions by going looking for them

(Susan McKay, Irish News)

Protestants living south of the border in Louth, Cavan, Monaghan, Sligo, Donegal and Leitrim have lately had to become used to a new sort of visitor.

Researchers have been calling. One of them said some of the people she surveyed had already entertained four others of her kind. A quiet minority has found itself at the centre of a flurry of studies and reports, five of which were discussed at a weekend conference in Co Monaghan.

A survey of the surveys, called "Identifying the Protestant Community, its Needs and Perspectives", was presented.

Protestants had been asked to identify themselves – were they Protestant, Irish, Orange, Ulster-Scots, British or Irish and British? Had they experienced intolerance or intimidation? Did they feel isolated? Was their culture respected? What was their relationship like with the Catholic community? No wonder one of the reports identified a certain "research fatigue" among those interrogated.

There was much that was interesting in the findings.

In general, Protestants felt respected by their Catholic neighbours. "We each went to separate churches but that was the height of it," was one no-nonsense reply.

In general, they considered themselves Irish. There was a description of the Derry-Raphoe Action Group, set up to encourage Protestants to play more of a role in the community, meaning the community which included Catholics and others. This was proving productive and successful.

However, there were disquieting issues. One report stated that it "could find no evidence of any displacement or forced migration of the Protestant community ... into the southern border counties". Hmmm... why on earth would it have found such evidence? The political situation in this country was never such that there was any likelihood that Protestants would be forcibly driven into the Republic.

One study found that "there are cases of bitterness in the border counties". Cases of bitterness is a good phrase. While some interviewees were "adamant" that the Protestant community had experienced no disadvantageous treatment, others insisted they were a "victim group".

Not surprisingly, complaining voices were associated with the Orange Order. The fact that you couldn't have a Twelfth of July parade in Monaghan was cited as evidence of discrimination against Protestants.

Many Protestants would run a mile from such an event.

The Ulster Scots Agency was irate, claiming some Catholic community groups engaged in a "Spot the Prod" system of tokenism, making sure to have a Protestant on their committees in order to avail of "cross community" grants. A Highland Fling was performed. There was a demand for Protestant political representation. Protestant politicians for a Protestant people?

One study found a "perception" that Protestants were discriminated against by funding agencies. It also found that Protestants tended not to get involved in community development, didn't come to social events organised by Catholics and were "slow to reciprocate their initiatives". It is perhaps worth noting that if you don't apply for grants, you don't get them.

There were demands for funds for "single identity" community development work with Protestants and for funders to be sensitive to Protestant morals regarding lotteries, for example.

Of course, the Orange Order requires that its members must be Protestant and "never in any way connected with the Church of Rome". In some contexts, "single identity" means sectarian. The potential availability of EU funding has made some unlikely organisations take an interest in community development. (The Catholic Church is one of them.)

The Protestant population in the Republic declined steeply after partition. When Ian Paisley called the Good Friday Agreement a "prelude to genocide", he claimed that thousands of Protestants south of the border had already been "eliminated". There were, in reality, no massacres. The Catholic Church's "ne temere" decree, which forced couples in mixed marriages to swear to bring up their children as Catholics, must carry much of the blame. There is also its outrageous and ongoing domination of the Republic's education system. The needs of minorities should be met, and their rights respected.

However, the idea that there is a distinct border Protestant community which needs to be cultivated as such, seems to me separatist and divisive. The border area has a great tradition of mixed marriages – how do those families fit into such a notion? They don't. They are well integrated. The needs of Protestants who have moved in from Africa and elsewhere were not surveyed or discussed.

There was talk at the conference about "Protestant culture" and "Roman Catholic culture". Culture isn't defined by religion. Researchers should beware creating sectarian divisions by going looking for them. Let's not turn the south into the north.

June 1, 2005
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This article appeared first in the May 31, 2005 edition of the Irish News.


This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News



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