“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I…”: The fears of the Unionist working-classes

 Note: Over the last 15 months, I’ve been working on a book about the Reverend Robert Bradford, the Ulster Unionist MP murdered in November 1981. Some of the insights and quotes here are drawn from my research. 


It feels like Northern Ireland is at a fork in the road. One way leads to the “dark old days” (a euphemism for The Troubles). The other leads to a (hopefully) permanent peace.

Lately, I’ve been blogging/tweeting/arguing about politics a lot more than I usually do. I was eight years old when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. I didn’t see its impact until I was 16, at college and making friends with East Belfast Orangemen. By then, the notion that Protestants and Catholics couldn’t be friends was laughable. We called each other sectarian names with affection. It was our way of distancing ourselves from the pain our communities had inflicted on each other.

We could talk about the past without being angry. My friend’s Grandfather was a B-Special. My Mum was a West Belfast Catholic who saw members of the B-Specials help loyalist mobs burn Bombay Street down. Our family histories intersected in a very tragic way yet to this day, we’re good mates. My Mum harboured no bitterness and I knew well-enough to know that no side or organisation was “all bad”.  My friend, for his part, was horrified.

I, too, was horrified to learn of the horrors people from my community had inflicted on my friends families. If I learned anything during those two years at tech, it was that neither side could claim a monopoly on pain. Bar victims, no one could seize the moral high ground.

Yet both sides do. That’s the problem. The peace walls in Northern Ireland are not just physical but mental. When “one of our own” is hurt, we speak out, protest, march. When something happens to “one of them’uns”, we say nothing.

Consequently, much of the conflict was driven by the assumption and fear that the other side harboured only ill-will. This is a belief we need to abandon if we are to avoid another civil war.

Sometimes, I get told I’m too “sympathetic” to Unionists. I don’t believe I’m too sympathetic. I believe I try a bit harder to understand them because they think “my kind” is their enemy and I want them to know we’re not. Fundamentally, humans don’t care if you agree with them – they just want to be understood.  The news each community hears about the other tends to be framed through negative newspaper headlines: “Paramilitary victim speaks out,” “Youth injured in sectarian attack.” It’s not the media’s fault – they’re just reporting what’s happening. Yet it still arouses old fears about “them’uns”.

This is why, on both sides, we need people reaching out a hand of friendship and acting as role-models. Catholics need to show Protestants they have nothing to fear from us – and vice versa. Despite years of efforts by community workers, we haven’t quite crossed that bridge.

Yet it is happening. A few months ago, a senior Unionist involved with the flag protests remarked to me: “I can now understand why the Nationalists kicked off [in the 60s]. We’d have kicked off for less!” Recently, an ex-IRA volunteer told me he felt the media’s coverage of the flag protesters was vindictive.  He was furious at it. In the “fleggers”, he seemed to see the frustration of Nationalists and Republicans in ’69.

In many ways, the flag protests have placed Unionists in the shoes of their Nationalist counterparts, albeit over 40 years later. Slowly, the two minorities are reaching out to each other.

The majority of people in Northern Ireland have already made their peace with the past. The minorities, however, are still in ceasefire mode, frightened and unsure of when the violence will start up again. As someone who grew up on an interface area, I can understand that mindset. It’s a feeling of constantly being on standby in case something bad happens. Not trusting people means they can’t hurt you again. This is why working-class Unionists, especially, dislike Sinn Fein being in power. They fear the party’s commitment to peace is temporary, that its members will return to violence if democracy does not deliver a united Ireland on their desired timetable. “They’ve never said sorry or admitted that violence was wrong”, one victim told me. “I’m afraid that they think it’s okay to kill me for a united Ireland and that that’s what they’ll do if [being at] Stormont doesn’t get them what they want.” This sentiment was echoed recently by Jamie Bryson, one of the flag protest leaders: “It is playing to the notion that we must keep Sinn Fein happy because if we don’t they will kick the sleeping dog, the IRA.”

“Ceasefire mode” thinking is common to victims – whether Catholic or Protestant – and anyone who has suffered any kind of trauma. Rather than lambasting them for “not moving on” quickly enough, we need to listen to them. Many live in a permanent state of fear that the gunmen will return.

The biggest problem of the peace process so far has been the refusal of each side to walk in the other’s shoes. Instead, we just assume the worst: “They only want to march there to piss us off”, “Collusion wasn’t as bad as they’re making out.” Yet when you take away politics and religion, a working-class man in the Shankill worries about putting food on the table as much as a working-class man in Ardoyne does.

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