Orange Heroes?

'Northern Protestants – An Unsettled People'  by Susan McKay
(Blackstaff, £12.99)

First let me declare my 'credentials' before reviewing Susan McKay's book. I was brought up a Protestant in Belfast, born during WWII. My great uncle Sam had been a 'Labour-Unionist' politician in the 1920s and became the first Speaker in Stormont. I attended N.Ireland's 'premier private school' Campbell College. I didn't knowingly meet a Catholic until at the age of 18 I went to University. I know these people of whom Susan McKay writes. Her grandfather was an Orangeman, mine was a Mason.

I have never met Ms. McKay but I would like to say categorically that she has written by far the best book on the 'lost tribe'. She has divided N. Ireland Protestants into six 'geographic' and 'geopolitical' areas. She begins with the 'Gold Coasters', the affluent, vacuous middle class who have prospered rather than suffered during the 'Troubles' and inhabit – or infest – County Down in the Hollywood – Bangor belt. Back in the thirties John Betjaman was begging 'for the bombs to fall on Slough' and T.S. Eliot was musing about 'How beastly are the Bourgeoisie.' Their remarks, as Susan McKay's interviewees' candidly reveal, apply to Cultra and Hollywood and ever so respectable Bangor. These are the 'upper class' backbone of the Official Unionists. They would never vote for Paisley but they wouldn't vote for David Ervine either. For these people the odd (very rare) twinge of guilt is easily assuaged by cultivating one's garden or holidaying in Tuscany. Charitably, these people are a waste of space!

But the Gold Coasters still, although they would not admit it, need 'the frontiersmen' to keep the uppity natives down. The stormtroopers. The vulgar tatooed hordes whom they see on the TV before they turn over to the latest cookery programme, and who they only encounter at the occasional roadblock in support of Drumcree or whatever. McKay meets them in the Protestant working class estates of North Belfast. Rathcoole. Mount Vernon. The Shore Road. Miles of urban blight. Estates run by the paramilitaries – the UDA and the UVF. Older residents terrified to protest when their Catholic neighbors are put out in the latest 'ethnic cleanse.' Paying the protection money and seeing the kids into drugs, joy riding and vandalism. McKay talks to the 'Protestant's only working class playright' Gary Mitchell who still lives in the area and writes about Orangemen and the bigotry – of course, Mitchell is now the 'tame Prod', fêted by the glitterati in London. The Catholic impresarios always love a tame Prod. McKay also talks to paramilitary 'brigadiers' in Larne and Carrickfergus. The new self appointed mafia. She travels in 'KAT' (Kill all Taigs) zones and everywhere the picture is one of arrogance and apathy at the same time. Defiance and fatalism. Bigotry and bluster. The bullyboy Kultur of a class betrayed.

Portadown, the bitter harvest, presents as definitive a picture of the cockpit of Drumcree as you're likely to read. The Orangemen are portrayed accurately as for the most part embittered and lost. They see the old supremacy slipping away. And rats caught in a blind alley of history can turn vicious. They admit that 'the Fenians' are better propagandists than them so they 'counter' this by kicking the odd taig like Robert Hamill to death. They are ill served by leaders the likes of Harold Gracey or the deceased psychopath Billy Wright, the local saint as far as the Loyalist Volunteer Force is concerned. Drumcree. The hill of the Ravens. As McKay details the history of this shrine to Orangeism one can be forgiven for mistaking it for the hill of the raving, where Davy Jones is regarded as 'an orator.' Contrast McKay's book against Ruth Dudley Edwards' pathetic Orange apologia 'The Faithful Tribe.'

Borderlands – South Armagh. Protestants have either opted to live in peace with their Catholic neighbors here or have been forced to move back into the hinterland. Bitter Protestants here. Nearly all have lost family members who were in the UDR or the RUC – as well as being in Loyalist paramilitary groups. The older people all remember the B Specials and mourn their loss. We hear from 'FAIR' – a Protestant relatives group run by Willie Frazer and Brian McConnell both of whom had relatives killed by the IRA. Frazer's father of course was also a UVF man when he was in the UDR. McConnell's uncle was in the UDR but was one of the Dublin bombers. FAIR has now split into two factions. Money troubles. And it's not just S. Armagh. Fermanagh is borderlands. Everybody knows everybody. And it's all about land. Historically.

Ballymoney. Paisley country. Sickening hypocrisy stalks North Antrim. Everyone McKay talks to is in a state of denial about the sectarian murder of the Quinn children. Pickets at the Harryville Catholic church where Mass goers were harassed and attacked once a week for six months. Old money. Old stock. But when the children leave for England they don't come back. And if they do they don't join the Orange Order.

Derry. Ivan Cooper the Protestant 'Lundy' (like myself) talks to McKay about his childhood and the changing attitudes. The Apprentice Boys (the oldest apprentices in the world, don't they ever graduate and get a trade?) West Bank v. East Bank. The last bastion of the Empire crumbles. Young Protestant teenagers show that they're just as bigoted as their parents.

Roy Greenslade of the Guardian (who has a house in Donegal and is a regular visitor to Ireland) wrote a review of this book which he praised but claimed was 'depressing.' Rubbish! The truth shall set ye free! Buy a copy read it and recommend it to your friends if you want to know how these strange people think. When you have, you will never want to buy another book by the likes of Ruth Dudley Edwards.


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