'Protestant Perceptions of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland' edited by Dominic Murray (2000)
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PEOPLE AT PEACE
I worked in a mill which was predominantly Catholic. We had 450 workers and only 70 of them were Protestant. It would have been quite easy to say "well, the majority here is Catholic so we'll go along with what they say", but we Protestants were able to maintain our own culture. We negotiated around the 12th July to have our bunting up and all that kind of thing, while at other times of the year our Catholic fellow-workers put their bunting up. There was little animosity about it, there was still an underlying
friendship among us all, and some of those friendships last to this day. One example of this took place six months after the mill closed. The word went round - because we still keep in touch with each other - that one of the girls had died. We all went to her funeral in St Paul's Roman Catholic chapel on the Falls Road and I actually witnessed Protestants taking communion at her funeral Mass and I thought that was just unbelievable as this was in 1991 when the violence was still going on.
With the Troubles in 1969 being followed by internment, there were some very difficult times for Protestants in the mills. My factory remained open and we had to go to work at a time when the whole Catholic community was in turmoil. For example, the time that Bobby Sands was dying, and indeed the whole Hunger Strike period, was a very anxious period for Protestants within the mill as was the time when Michael Stone went into Milltown Cemetery and shot three Catholics dead. Mill workers were not remote from what was happening all around them: Protestants worked alongside women whose men had been arrested and interned for IRA membership, while Catholics worked alongside people whose husbands had been imprisoned for UDA or UVF activity. These circumstances could easily have made things very nasty for the Protestants in the factory.
As a senior shop steward I had to negotiate all the time with such issues. I can remember way back early in the Troubles, when the soldiers came onto the Falls Road and they were welcomed with tea and biscuits by Catholic residents.
However, I also recall one young woman I worked with marrying one of the soldiers in the short time they were there. Quite soon, the British Army became the enemy on the Falls and this woman found herself married to one of them! It was a very difficult situation and it was all about supporting her through that time when her family insisted she pull out of the marriage, and for a Catholic that was a difficult a situation to handle. So not only did we have to confront issues like low pay and poor conditions, but we also had to work through the impact of what was taking place in the wider community. But in the process, one gradually helped to build up people's belief that they could not only make a difference to their working conditions, but, as far as the wider issues were concerned, it was possible to help them realise that, even in the most difficult of situations, there could still be possibilities for solutions if people were willing to look for those solutions.
In all, I worked in the mills for 38 years, and anyone who has done likewise will agree that it was like a small community of its own. This is really what sustained my hopes and my optimism. The girls in the mill showed their support for each other time after time. During tense periods, usually following some bad incident or whatever, the Catholic workers would have escorted us out of the mill and up the road to the safety of Merlin Street or Lanark Way. One particularly difficult time was during the UWC [Ulster Worker's Council] strike in 1974 when my workplace, Blackstaff Mill on the Springfield Road, took the decision to remain open. That decision left the Protestant workers
facing a very real problem. They either got to work or lost their wages. While some of them chose not to come, the majority of Protestants did decide to go to work and had to climb through barricades and brave the threats of people in their own community just to do so. As a shop steward, I felt I had to be there, I had to make that stand, because nobody was going to keep me out of my work, whether it was the IRA or the UDA.
Yet despite all those difficulties, some of them very serious, many Protestant and Catholic mill workers have remained friends over the years. All this coverage in the media about most Protestants hating Catholics just isn't true in my experience. I think you form friendships that grow with you, and you are determined, come what may, that while those friendships might have to change or adapt to circumstances in some way, they are not going to be lost.
I have one particular Catholic friend, a very good lifelong friend, and we have different points of view and have had many an argument about the political situation, but nonetheless that girl would remain to this day one of my best friends. Even in the days when she could no longer visit my home in Springmartin, we would meet in neutral territory and we have always kept that friendship up. Neither of us think of it in 'romantic' terms of a Catholic and a Protestant maintaining their 'cross-community' friendship. We are simply two human beings who have supported each other through a lot of bad times.
In fact, I think it would find be difficult to find anybody in Northern Ireland who doesn't have such a relationship with someone from the other community. No matter how fierce a Protestant, no matter how much they might criticise the Nationalist community, they will inevitably finish up by saying "but I do have a lot of Catholic friends"! By the very nature of this place - we are a small country here - it would be very difficult for it to be otherwise.
I think too that my experience is replicated over and over again in different workplaces. It makes one strong, and some very strong individuals have emerged from within our communities. Indeed, if you asked any Protestant or Catholic community worker who has really been outspoken or is strong in their beliefs, you would find that in their past experiences there has been similar networking and forming friendships together and simply realising that people are people and that if we only could work together there would be a far better future for us all.
going no further". Right across Northern Ireland there is a remarkable amount and variety of community work going on, including cross-community work or joint community work. So that gives me hope that even if, God forbid, the Executive does not last, we would never go back to the bad old days because there has been that whole community infrastructure built up.
Throughout the past thirty years it has been community groups which have, not only sustained communities, but at times have helped pull people back from the brink. Yet, people outside those communities probably don't understand what it's like to actually live in an estate abutting the 'peaceline'. For many years people living there were perceived in terms of 'troublemakers'. Often they were described as that 'poor community up there'. Strategies were employed such as 'let's give them some financial help and let them form their own wee community associations’. But even in the context of funding, these communities suffered because they were seen to lack a track record. The reality is however that even with their daily problems of poor health, poor housing conditions and poverty the communities are still vibrant. They are still working together to improve people's lives.
Despite a catalogue of horrendous atrocities, people in both communities (at the worst of times perhaps only a few brave individuals) were still prepared to cross the 'divide' and reach out to one another. In my own community, the Shankill bomb of 1993 was probably one of the most dreadful things ever to happen to the Protestant community in the Greater Shankill area. People were stunned, and rightly outraged. There was a real sense that some kind of limit had been reached. Yet, despite all the anger and all the real fear that existed, the community was able to get itself up again, and when the next atrocity occurred, this time to Catholic people in Greysteel, people from our community were able to go to Greysteel and hold their hand out and say "we know where you've been".
As with many other aspects of life, if one hits rock bottom and knows somebody else in the same position, there tends to be an immediate affinity with that person. Religion doesn't come into it or anything else. You each know what it is like to be confronting such circumstances so you both help each other to get out of it. This has been one of the bridging elements in Northern Ireland over the years. Omagh is just the latest example of this. When the Omagh bomb exploded in 1998, it was devastating for the community there, and yet that same community is recovering and is now doing the most amazing things. The same kind of thing is happening all over Northern Ireland. In almost every community there is an incredible amount of untapped potential. Although it seems people just don't appreciate the resourcefulness they have, they should realise that our communities, no matter how low they get, still have that capacity to pull themselves up again and that there is nothing that our two communities cannot achieve by working together.
But it has been difficult. There was a time when even to be talking in a 'cross-community' manner carried risks. Women's groups have always worked across the peaceline, but ten years ago it would have been done more secretly.* People had to find ways around this problem, and they devised imaginative ways of taking certain people away for a day, usually to a 'neutral' venue, to expose them to the views of the other community. I can remember being at a conference in the Europa when we looked at things affecting people living along the peaceline in West Belfast. It was a fairly unpleasant experience, and I personally found myself under great verbal abuse because of misconceptions some people had of the 'power' I was assumed to have within my own community. But yet we all learnt something about each other from that experience. 'Cross-community' work may be somewhat 'fashionable' at the moment, but there have been many community workers who really stretched themselves and took many risks at times when it wasn't so fashionable.
There were many occasions, of course, when all the effort put in seemed to be in vain. I used to work with young people and would be trying to build up their confidence and get them to believe that there was a better way forward. Then another shooting or bombing would occur and everything seemed to be undone. Often for example, work would have taken place for months getting both communities together on a particular issue, perhaps something to do with socioeconomic realities on the ground, only for such an incident to happen and wreck the process. Yet still, people went out the next day and began to do the same thing all over again. Sometimes when you heard news of yet another atrocity elsewhere in Northern Ireland, even though you were appalled by it, you found yourself being grateful that it didn't happen in the Shankill because you knew you would have to start from scratch all over again. The point is that many of our politicians would not have that experience because they have lived in a different world remote from all that. They haven't lived in the 'political' world such as exists at the grassroots, where you have to take chances and risks if you are ever going to achieve anything.
THE BIRTH OF A NEW CONFIDENCE WITHIN THE PROTESTANT COMMUNITY
the fact that many ex-paramilitary prisoners were coming back into our community who had obviously developed a new political analysis. This had the effect that, while hitherto, politics was something done by somebody else, ordinary people were now taking an active interest in the process.
A further factor of great significance affecting the political process in the Greater Shankill area, was the birth of the small Loyalist parties (the Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party for example). These encouraged the community to see a different facet of politics. For the first time, people engaged in politics were talking the same language as the people on the ground. These people knew their problems. They did not talk down to them but rather talked with them. It was at this time that the whole scene changed in the Shankill.
These smaller Loyalist parties are still trying to build up a support base in the community. Similar, in a way, to what Sinn Fein have built up within Nationalist areas. Sinn Féin were very active in the Catholic community long before the ceasefires and they have built up a strong relationship at grassroots level. Whatever Protestants might think of their politics, Sinn Féin are there on the street when people need help, and they are expert at dealing with everyday issues. I think it is important that the Loyalist parties try to build this same kind of strong relationship with the grassroots. It is important however that they go about it the right way. In one sense they are seen as 'Johnny come lately' and they
haven't yet convinced all Protestant community workers that they are actually there for the good of the community, rather than just seeing grassroots work as a means of securing votes in the future. They will have to tread very carefully, because the Protestant community has been down that road before. Both the Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party have always claimed to be working for ordinary working-class Protestants, but the Unionist Party have never had any real interest in grassroots issues, and the DUP is now pursuing policies which I feel bear no relevance to the real needs of the community in which I live.
These smaller parties must always remember to listen to what people are saying at community level. Many in these parties would have been former community workers and that's good because they should know what's happening at the grassroots. But the people cannot afford to just sit back and allow the PUP or the UDP to be the voice of working class Protestants. The community must not be pushed into the background again, even for these new voices. This is especially so, since quite apart from those now involved in the 'new politics', there have always been many community workers, on both sides of the interface, who are not only capable of working for the benefit of their own small localities, but are also quite capable of working on issues which impact upon the wider society.
I accept, however, that community activists always need to be watchful that they don't get 'incorporated' into the system, to the detriment of grassroots needs. Some years ago, when I was at the Stormont Talks as part of the Women's Coalition team, I was told by an NIO official (a leading figure in the Government now): "I see you have taken the Queen's shilling". # I took great offence at that. I firmly believe that you can't win if you are not 'in', but that does not mean that you have to become part of the establishment. In this regard, for a number of years, the government has tried to 'buy' the support of community workers. They were invited to dinners and events of all kinds. But many community leaders on the Protestant side have now seen through all that and, while they are prepared to work the system, it doesn't mean that the system will easily work them.
My experience has always been that if you get a committed group of people together, irrespective of their gender, religion or whether they are able-bodied or not, there's nothing they can't do. I travel extensively, speaking to a wide variety of groups and the energy and the commitment that people are giving to their local community is truly impressive. Because of all the effort that has gone into this intense community involvement, the Protestant working class, in West Belfast in particular, is increasingly developing a more vibrant and purposeful voice.
In late 1999 however, it would appear that we are almost back at the stage where, in terms of 'real politics', our communities are being kept behind closed doors and we are only being drip-fed what the media tells us. For many in the Protestant community, the peace process seems to have lost its focus.
During the worst of the Troubles, community groups just got on with the work that had to be done, and proved so effective in what they were doing that eventually many of them were courted by government agencies. But now, when it looks like the elected politicians are going to take over again, I suspect that those politicians will try to sideline or ignore community groups. We are now being told by the politicians that they are the elected ones and that it is they who will work out the solution. However, I firmly believe that no one section of our society - politicians, community workers or whoever - has that right. Everyone in Northern Ireland needs to make a contribution to the peace process. I view it like a patchwork quilt. Everybody makes their own little square and it will be put together and bound round by the peace process. No particular group has the right to say 'stand aside and we will take it from here'. This is why it is so important that the Civic Forum, which has been proposed as part of the Good Friday Agreement, really proves effective.
At the moment the peace process is being held to ransom because of these two absolutes. Unionist politicians are telling us that it's a case of: 'no guns, no government'. On the other side there is the counter-claim, 'no government, no guns'. But there is a middle opinion in all of this. I talk to many Protestants who say the 'decommissioning issue' is a red herring, because everybody knows that if the paramilitaries handed in all their guns tomorrow, they could buy them the next day. And if many Protestants believe that to be the case, then who is it telling the First Minister David Trimble and the other Unionists that decommissioning is something which definitely has to happen before we can all move forward? What has happened is that we have elected people who have polarised themselves once again, who are going back to the bad old days when they won't speak to each other. It makes one wonder where we go from here if the Agreement falls. The DUP, under the leadership of Dr. Ian Paisley, quite clearly state that they will never work with Sinn Féin. But how do they know that that's what the majority of the Protestant people want? Are they more concerned with party needs rather than really determining what is best for the community? I think people in the community should be asked their opinion on these 'absolute' positions, but we are not being given that opportunity. Only the smaller parties have actually consulted with the grassroots. Ordinary people are, once again, not being consulted by the bigger parties.
THE CIVIC FORUM
It can be argued that it will be disastrous for Northern Ireland if the Civic Forum becomes just another layer of bureaucracy. If a new society is to be created, it can only come about in partnership with those at the grassroots. It must always be remembered that it was working-class areas which suffered most during the Troubles. They were torn apart in the course of it. It is vital therefore that people at the grassroots must have some means of getting their voice heard, if only to ensure that they are not dragged down that path again.
POLITICAL REPRESENTATION AND GROWING AWARENESS
In the past, we were represented by the Unionist Party. At the time these were referred to locally as the 'fur coat brigade'. I lived in the most appalling conditions as a child, we actually had to squat in a house and yet we were Protestants - the supposedly 'privileged' people. Later I worked in very low paid work, in a mill where the conditions were atrocious. It must be asked who was representing me in those days? Who was fighting for my needs? Certainly not the people we continually voted for. This apparent paradox was made possible because, in those days, working-class Protestants felt they had to support the Unionist Party. As a child and as a young adult I can remember the border with the Republic of Ireland being the biggest issue. This was despite the fact that we lived in terrible conditions and I had poor health as a child.
I can remember being asked why the Protestant working class did not join with Catholics on the Civil Rights marches. The argument was put to me that this would have been an opportunity to make working-class voices heard. The reason however was quite obvious. It was because the Civil Rights movement was sold by the government to the Protestant community as an underhand way to bring about an all-Ireland. The Protestant community accepted such an analysis because people were probably not as politically aware as they are today. We were all very naive in those days. In fact, when the Civil Rights thing started I remember having a discussion at home and someone saying that it wouldn't last. It would be all over in two or three months. This was because people at that time did not have any inkling that things were about to explode. We had certainly no idea then that we were going to go down a road of sheer thuggery for thirty years that had nothing to do with political beliefs.
Since that time the Protestant community has become much more politically aware. This awareness may still only be in its infancy, but I think it's something that is going to grow. Evidence of this is the fact that in a number of meetings I've been to recently in the Shankill I notice that you can now hear different opinions being expressed quite confidently and quite forthrightly. Five or six years ago you wouldn't have got that. In addition, think tanks have been established to consider new ways of governance and community work. These have given people the opportunity to express and deal with issues that previously, few wished to hear. Often people responded to the emerging literature by saying ‘hey, that's exactly what I thought too, but nobody ever asked me before’. For all of these reasons, I am convinced that, if the Assembly becomes established and some kind of a peace settlement is achieved, then awareness of, and participation in, what might be described ‘ordinary politics’ will reach unprecedented levels among the Protestant community.
At a more formal level, I have always considered it a grave error that my own union, the Transport and General Workers Union, supported the view that the British Labour Party should not organise in Northern Ireland. This was a mistake since there is a real core thinking around what might be considered priority issues of labour at grassroots level. The Labour Party itself, by not organising here, prevented people from having an opportunity to vote for such 'bread and butter' issues.
Within the Women's Coalition too, there is a lively and healthy debate taking place. The prime objective of the movement was to ensure women’s access to ‘Talks’. The setting up of a new political party was never envisaged. Perhaps the greatest success of the coalition is the way in which it succeeded in liberating women within the other political parties to actually claim their ‘rightful place’. I was at a meeting recently at which there were about 70 or 80 women all engrossed in debate. Within that room there were very staunch Nationalists and very staunch Protestants, but they were actually getting down to discussing real issues. This kind of interaction is going on to a very large degree at the moment. It might not be that visible to the general public. This may be partly due to the fact that it does not seem to hold great interest for the media perhaps because it is not 'glamorous' enough. But it is happening. For many years, women avoided politics. But now that is changing and already there are young women who are eagerly anticipating the next election. I think those women will bring a real sense of their community with them.
THE WAY FORWARD FOR THE PROTESTANT COMMUNITY
It's probably unrealistic to expect the political parties to change their behaviour significantly. However, it is unfortunate that even at community level we have divisions within the Protestant community. If those of us working at grassroots level could just join forces and utilise all the energy which exists, it would be of tremendous advantage to our community. Regarding the Protestant community in general, we have to begin to convince people that the diversity of opinion which exists within the Protestant community, rather than being viewed as divisive, should instead be seen as their real, and perhaps greatest, source of strength.
If, however, we in the Greater Shankill Partnership want others to hear the diversity of opinion within the Protestant community, and learn about the healthy debate which is going on, then it must be widely promoted. Until we are prepared to tell our own story, nobody is going to learn about it. Quite often however, the media cannot find spokespersons from the Protestant community. It has always been a failing in the community that individuals are loath to come forward in any real numbers to let their voices be heard. This has resulted in a lack of knowledge and understanding of the community both within Northern Ireland and further afield. For example, when we first went to the United States, most Americans I met assumed I was a Catholic simply because the group was from 'West Belfast'. They did not realise that there were 7,000 Protestants living in West Belfast. Such misconceptions are solely the fault of the Protestant community. They are not telling their story, yet it is essential that this story is both told and understood.
This situation is made worse by the fact that more often than not the media tend to focus on the most negative aspects of the Protestant community. We don't challenge the media enough and so allow them to perpetuate all these unfavourable stereotypes. That wouldn't happen on the Catholic side. There, Sinn Féin has the slickest 'PR' machine imaginable. We don't have that. What tends to happen on our side is that most shun the media because of a distinct lack of trust in it. The result is that the media is left to print whatever it likes. As aforesaid, the Protestant people in Northern Ireland have an important story to tell. They have had their share of ups and downs, they have certainly had their fair share of the bad times, but they have also played their part in holding our communities together.
I was at a big conference in the States earlier this year and this Sein Féin woman got up and gave us the '800 years of oppression' - or her version of those 800 years, particularly the last 30 years. A young woman sitting beside me was from one of the Loyalist parties and she got up and gave her version. There was quite a heated debate over the differing versions. The girl from the PUP said: "look, I don't agree with a word you said, but I respect your right to say it." When those two women went outside together, they didn't go away as friends, but they understood each other's position better. More importantly, they weren't shouting at one another in megaphone diplomacy as some of our male politicians have a habit of doing. They were calmly talking about what they might do, and what they could do, and I think that's the way forward. I personally don't agree with an all-Ireland, but at the end of the day Catholics could come to be the majority in Northern Ireland and that could be their wish, and as a democrat I would have to accept that.
I often find myself in certain meetings with someone pushing a really republican point of view about something. But it's good to be able to listen to them and then say: "well, that might sound good from where you're coming from, but let me tell you where I'm coming from." It is then possible to sit down and to respect one another's positions. That is one of the things that happened at the Women’s Coalition. In it there are a number of very strong-minded people on both sides, but their common objective, of getting women into the Talks, transcended their differences.
It is also important that my own community becomes more confident in itself. I would like to see a belief developing in the Greater Shankill area, and indeed the whole Protestant community in Northern Ireland, that they can take part in whatever the future holds, and firmly establish our role in that future. This should not be through any sense of 'taking over' but through a genuine desire to work together. The most important factor which is lacking at the moment in the Protestant community is a confidence in the future, and a preparedness to play a full part in it.
One interesting facet of community work in Northern Ireland is the fact that Protestants simply do not laud their successes. For example, there is a tremendous amount of very sound and farsighted activities going on all around the Greater Shankill area but we seem hesitant to publicise it. For instance, the Springboard project sends hundreds of young people on international trips. Many of those young people have come back and actually got really good jobs. Also, this year for the first time ever from the Shankill community, we have a young man going to Oxford and a young woman going to Cambridge. Maybe if we did laud our achievements more, it would be easier to encourage more such success stories. Those of our young people who have achieved things have had to struggle to get where they wanted and their families are constantly struggling for money to support them. This would not be the case in the Catholic community. There, the people would be likely to do whatever was necessary, through Bingo nights or whatever, to raise the money to help the family.
This demonstrates a negative aspect of the Protestant community and indeed, a major difference between the two communities. In the Catholic community, for example, if you have a small community group starting up, another group will help it to fill in application forms for grants etc. and even provide expertise. But this does not happen in the Protestant community. On one occasion, our community was seeking some legal advice from a solicitor who was living on our estate but he simply would not help us. However, in the Catholic area, people can get all the advice they want through young Catholic solicitors who are training and getting excellent experience at the same time. That's how their community gained confidence and experience. The service was available to both Protestants and Catholics but yet you wouldn't have found one Protestant solicitor there.
At a local level, I attend Ballygomartin Presbyterian Church and am a full member of that Church. We [the Early Years Project] opened the Martin Centre which is just on the other side of the street from the church. As the centre grew, more space was required and I asked the Church to lend me the church hall. The group was willing to pay the church, but under their constitution they couldn't hire it out, so a contribution was made for light and heat instead. After a number of months we were simply ‘evicted’ with no reason given. The minister claimed that it was the church committee which had made the decision not to lend the church hall out to anybody. Now there is a church hall sitting empty, which could be filled with people every day.
Indeed, throughout Northern Ireland, you will see almost all the Protestant church halls closed. It is very rarely that one is open in the middle of the day. On the other hand, across the Province, on any day you will find Catholic church halls used as mother and toddler groups, youth clubs, advice centres and for many other different community facilities.
FEARS FOR THE FUTURE
Just as I think the Protestant people have a very vital part to play in the future of Northern Ireland, so I also believe they have a vital role to play in the future of the peace process. But we have to be flexible, we aren't going to get everything we want. In any kind of negotiations, you never do. We must find some kind of compromise which will allow the peace process to develop. If the process collapses, it is going to be very difficult for local community people to pick up the pieces again.
I know there are genuine fears in the 'No' camp around the decommissioning issue and all that. Indeed, everybody could have those fears. Nobody wants guns, nobody in this day and age wants armed police walking up and down the street. But the one thing that really annoys me about the 'No' camp is that we haven't actually heard what their 'plan' is. Looking back over this past thirty years, the ‘No’ camp seem to have been saying 'No' to everything. They didn't want the Secretariat at Maryfield, they didn't want this, they don't want that. But surely eventually they have to say ‘Yes’ to something. The problem is that we haven't yet heard what they will say 'Yes' to. They would need to tell us quickly, because I think that sooner or later the British Government is going to want to wash their hands off the whole thing.
At the time of writing, the New Assembly is up and running and I think on a surer footing than before. One thing I am convinced of is that local people want to see it working and its results on the ground. For this reason, I would place a lot of my hopes and reliance on the community itself. We have been led by the nose for so long by politicians making our decisions for us. But I really believe that we are beginning to learn that we can do things for ourselves, and we can change this society for the better. If the politicians fail us yet again, it may be that the only hope for a better future might lie within our two communities.
* The peaceline is mainly constituted of a wall, in places over 23 feet high, built during the worst of the Troubles to separate Protestant and Roman Catholic communities. Originally restricted to West Belfast, it is currently to be found in many parts of North Belfast.
# Originally referring to Irish men and women joining the British army but now often used as a derogatory term to refer to community workers being seen as becoming part of the establishment by working with the Government on peace issues.
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