‘It’s hard work being a Catholic trade unionist’: the northern voters who defy stereotypes
“I think it could be a lot of us,” says Claire Mitchell, a co-Down writer who describes herself as “a Protestant who feels Irish and wants Irish unity.”
he 45-year-old who wrote Ghost Limb: Alternative Protestants and the Ghost of 1798She says she’s always felt this way, but in recent years she’s “felt a need to say it out loud” and engage with others “who are bubbling with radically different ideas.”
It is fair to say that in Northern Ireland there have long been some people from Catholic backgrounds who do not favor a united Ireland and some from Protestant backgrounds who do not wish to maintain union with Britain.
Exactly how many isn’t entirely clear: getting them to speak on the record can be a challenge. But according to a recent poll by North American polling firm Lucid Talk, 7 percent of Protestants would support a united Ireland, and 11 percent of Catholics would not.
Mitchell says there has been a lot of “self-censorship” among those from the North who are of Protestant background and support, or at least are open to, Irish unity.
“People can be disinherited, thrown out of churches, subjected to social alienation and abused online, especially women,” she says. “But it’s not just Protestants. It happens to anyone with a cop-on and opinions challenging little crazy groups.
There will be more freedom of speech in 2022 than there was a decade ago, she says. The Brexit referendum – in which Northern Ireland voted 56 per cent to remain – accelerated existing talks on unity.
“A lot of people have decided it’s important to speak out post-Brexit because of the uncertainty and the political vacuum it created in the North,” Mitchell said.
“Brexit means that hoping for the best and believing that we can make Northern Ireland work is untenable. I’m not convinced that unity is a sunlit highland, but it is an opportunity for rethinking. Inequalities are so entrenched in the British state that we as a society can really breathe.”
I’m uncomfortable with the idea that you can be claimed by a policy that has never done anything to convince you
Mitchell is a socialist and environmentalist who “cares about people’s democracy,” which is why she has voted against her constitutional preference for a unionist socialist candidate in the past, for example.
Like everywhere else in the world, people in the north don’t always fit into exact categories. One of them is university lecturer Stephen Baker (54) from Newtownards.
“I have come to the conclusion that I have never been a Protestant, a unionist or a loyalist. It’s a background, not a destiny,” he says.
“I am not politically, unionist or culturally loyal. I’m open to Irish unity. I identify as a socialist. I am interested in social and economic issues. At this point in my life I would probably vote for Irish unity.”
He says the unions are not making a good case for the union and that the unit is “an opportunity to talk about the political settlement that we’re going to live in because it’s clear that the one we’re living in right now isn’t working “.
“I’m uncomfortable with the idea that you can be claimed by a policy that has never done anything to convince you,” he says.
Many of his friends are talking about the constitutional election they might face in the future.
“I’ve always had friends around me who identify more as Protestants and Unionists, but even there there’s an openness to talk about something new,” he says. “They have lived most of their lives under English Tory governments and they are fed up with it.”
Difficult to sell
Stephen McCarthy (34), who comes from a Catholic background in West Belfast, decided he was a unionist as a teenager. He is now Head of the Constituency Bureau of the Ulster Unionist Party.
Calling him “the UUP’s Catholic candidate,” as some commentators are doing, is misleading, he says.
“The press often portrays it that way. I’m not a practicing Catholic so headline ‘UUP will operate Catholic in South Belfast’… I understand the historical significance of this but it is not correct. I have no religious beliefs and describe myself as a trade unionist with a working-class nationalist background.”
He is a trade unionist because he believes ‘making Northern Ireland work is the most important thing’, although he knows others who think the same way would be slower to embrace the term.
“Even if people are unionists and would vote to keep the union, there are still those of Catholic backgrounds who might not want to identify as unionists with a capital U because of the baggage associated with the label,” he says. “The word unionist is hard to sell to people from a Catholic background who are content with the status quo.”
Retired police officer Noel Rogan, 59, from Larne, Co. Antrim, grew up in a Catholic family but says living in a predominantly union town has influenced his attitude.
“A lot has to do with the bowl you’re baked in. I was in Larne throughout the conflict and missed the big conflict in the towns, so my experience was different from other Catholics. I’m not a practicing Catholic, but that’s the family I grew up in.”
He says many unionist political leaders take unionists from Catholic backgrounds for granted.
“It’s bloody hard work to be a Catholic trade unionist,” he says. “There’s thoughtless remarks and mockery about the Irish language and various graffiti and so on that’s thrown at you all the time. Feeling like you are the most undesirable irrelevant person but they might need you for a vote.
“I don’t understand how the penny hasn’t dropped in terms of respect and the need to broaden the pull of unions. Unionist political leaders don’t take people like me in. At election time, I am handed election material that contains nothing that would appeal to Catholic trade unionists.”
He says no one knows what a united Ireland would entail. So far he has not been tempted and remains risk averse.
“What I can see is a continuation of the conflict on the other side of the coin when less than about 65 percent or anywhere in that region voted for unity.
“There are many unknowns that have not been addressed when it comes to pensions, healthcare services and governance issues. It depends on the quality of life. I’ve had a rewarding career in the police force. I had to be better than Protestant colleagues because I always felt suspect. It was not easy for me in police training. I think that’s why I’ve worked in mediation and conflict work around the world.
“It’s been a difficult journey but the police have helped me raise a family and have a good quality of life so I’m lucky enough to be British. That’s not to say that could change across the board. It’s complicated.”
He ticks the ‘British’ box when filling out forms, but is also comfortable with his Irishness.
“I’m British. I’m Irish. I have relatives in the south. I have a great affinity for going south. That Irishness flows through me. I think I have multiple identities, being from Northern Ireland, but I suppose whichever one you’re currently stronger at.
‘Not enough is being done to promote the UK’
Sheila Davidson is a board member of Together UK Foundation and a retired public relations professional
“I grew up in a Catholic family, in a mixed environment. My father was a police officer. I went to the convent school, but grew up with different influences.
The Together UK Foundation is a group of like-minded people who believe that the best way forward is with one United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is getting £15bn from the pot and we don’t think this is handout; it’s about sharing the richness of the contribution we all make.
We all come from different perspectives. We are not partisan. We believe we want to independently produce facts and figures that inform people about what is in their best interests going forward.
In Northern Ireland some people see unionism solely through the Orange Order and the Protestant community, but I think there is a much larger percentage of people who would see themselves as petty unionists, which would include any kind of belief and none. It’s a much bigger debate than just orange and green, and it’s about giving people a platform to have these conversations that are already happening.”
“We have gone far beyond traditional caricatures”
Professor Colin Harvey is a board member of the pro-unity group Ireland’s Future and an expert on human rights law
“It remains important that the constitutional conversation about the future of this shared island is diverse and inclusive. And in a significant way, this is already happening quietly.
Civil society discussions here have moved far beyond traditional caricatures. Critics refuse to acknowledge this, but it is so. If you look at the community-based consultations on the island, they tend to resist easy labeling.
Complexity and nuance arise from intricate human stories and interacting stories, North and South. Resilient and robust activist cultures tend to focus on discussions of change in practical, values-based, and issue-oriented terms.
And when you examine the evidence, it’s often women from diverse backgrounds who — quite literally — are spearheading the thinking on societal change.
Pluralistic grassroots movements are proactively changing the island in the here and now and helping to imaginatively shape the future. This also includes the creation of language and narrative worlds in which people feel comfortable.
The ancient language does not capture what is happening on the island.”
https://www.independent.ie/news/its-hard-work-being-a-catholic-unionist-the-northern-voters-who-defy-stereotypes-42271364.html ‘It’s hard work being a Catholic trade unionist’: the northern voters who defy stereotypes