Who am I? (Part 1)

3 Dec

During the annual summer tensions in NI this year a relative asked me why I was so “against [my] own people.” That is, why so critical of the protestant/unionist population that I ostensibly hail from? The answer at its most basic is simply because I don’t feel that the so-called representatives and leaders of unionist, loyalist or protestant people actually do speak for me and my views. The more comprehensive response is probably based in a tortured sense of identity.

A statue of William III in Carrickfergus. Photo © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

Symbol of protestant resistance in Northern Ireland – a statue of William III in Carrickfergus. Photo © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

The exposure to ideology I had growing up was almost exclusively protestant/unionist. The rhetoric of ‘Ulster says No’ and ‘1, 2, 3, DUP’. Orange bands on 12th July. My father worked for Bill Henderson, the owner of the Belfast Newsletter and former Ulster Unionist politician. My grandfather’s shop in Derry had been firebombed by the IRA and left a lasting impression on the family. This was the world I knew.

But I was also removed from much of what went on. We lived at the foot of the Craigantlet hills during my formative years in a fairly isolated house. Trips into town weren’t overly frequent, and I only recall a couple of instances of evacuation owing to bomb scares. My bit of East Belfast wasn’t known for its tension.

Once the quiet lane behind our house was on the news as someone was shot in his car. I remember the police coming to the door asking questions, telling him we’d heard nothing then telling mum we’d heard all sorts of things. I’ve no idea if we actually heard the shooting or not.

By the 1990s we had moved into the Garnerville housing estate right beside the RUC training barracks. A mighty wall of green corrugated iron with cameras all round faced our living room. The sound of their band woke us many a Saturday morning. I took it all for granted that this was how things were.

Somebody else was shot in the alleys behind the new house. An internal loyalist affair.

I accepted security checks in shops – the queues outside Debenhams as bags were searched. I didn’t think twice about the presence of soldiers on the streets, or the fact that the police carried guns. They scared me, but I wasn’t a law breaker so I didn’t worry excessively.

At some point in my teenage years my attitude shifted. I questioned the assumed unionism I had been brought up in. I watched nightly news reports of tit-for-tat attacks between Catholics and Protestants and knew none of us were safe. If I was stopped in the street by thugs I was screwed either way. I couldn’t sing any tribal anthems. I felt unsafe watching the bonfires. I didn’t like the hatred of Catholics expressed by many.

My Christian development changed how I thought. I became wary as I devoured Jack Chick publications and attended a Brethren church. Both fountains of intolerance and hate. But I also had a Methodist minister at school. My BB and youth club was at a large pentecostal church. Our Scripture Union group at school was a real mix of backgrounds.

Photo © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

Photo © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

I began working with a peace group – the Horizon Project. A cross-boarder, cross-community group aimed at bringing different young people together. I made friends for life here. I saw an alternative future. We were basically all the same. No thoughts of violence. Plenty of hormones.

I read Augustine. I refused to join the school’s Combined Cadet Force (CCF), a way of preparing school boys for the British military. Instead I ended up head of our Social Services unit, working with disabled kids, elderly folk and the like. I outed myself as a pacifist, a conscientious objector.

I am working class protestant by birth. As a child of the 80s we had the upper hand. The population majority. The majority representation in government. Historically unionism had maintained control through gerrymandering. Internment had targeted republicans almost exclusively, ignoring crimes committed by loyalists. While I couldn’t fault the police chasing bombers and gunmen I still cannot condone the prejudiced persecution of the wider republican community and the comparative lack of pursuit of the loyalist bombers and gunmen.

I am a Northern Irishman. I hold a British passport but I am not British. I am happy to be called Irish because that’s more like what I feel. But given the option (and this should be widely recognised officially) I am Northern Irish. This country is heavily influenced by cultures of Ireland and Britain. Since before partition NI has felt different from either parent nation- but with overlaps. Ideology means many here refuse to accept the impact that that heritage has had on shaping them, how much they carry, to the point where they shout you down when you speak up for that inheritance.

I’m a modern day mudblood. In my veins courses Irish catholic heritage, and Ulster-Scot protestant heritage. I’ve recently taken a DNA test as part of my genealogy research, and I’ll be interested to see what the science says about my family’s make-up. Most of my Scottish line I’ve traced back to Ireland. My grandfather used to joke (at my grandmother’s expense) about her having Spanish forefathers. I wouldn’t be surprised if the results lean very heavily towards an Irish ancestry, with perhaps a little Scottish. I’ll share the results in the new year when they come back. Maybe they’ll suggest something else, but right now I feel it would be disingenuous to disown my Irishness.

We are products of the society we are born into. We don’t make a choice in that – nature does that for us. Most of us inherit the politics and religion of our parents. Some of us will move away from that faith, mostly into atheism, but few will shake their politics. As a nation we need to learn to move past this original sin mentality that keeps us fighting each other, dividing us up into ‘us’ and ‘them’. We cannot keep brow-beating this generation for the mistakes of their parents and grandparents. We cannot treat every republican or unionist as if they are militant with a grudge to spend. We cannot repeat the errors of the past.

Twelfth bonfire, Newtownards. Photo © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

Twelfth bonfire, Newtownards. Photo © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

I acknowledge the injustices perpetrated by my perceived community in the past. I understand the feeling of disenfranchisement by the perceived other community. I understand why people on both sides got caught up in militant struggles, defence and retaliation. I understand we are not a healed society. But we cannot continue like that. I’ve heard such anger and bitterness from both protestants and catholics this last year – the fears of the other haven’t gone away, with both firmly believing themselves to be right and the others bitter and vengeful. Its scary to listen to. If only they could hear themselves.

I listen to lines about how the Twelfth celebrations are an example of pageantry and aren’t sectarian. Then I see the bonfires becoming adorned with flags, election posters and other weighted symbols and they become totems of hate once again and I cannot be a part of that. Tribalism and sectarianism only cement division and mistrust. They weaken us. They allow us to be manipulated by those in power. For a Christian order, Orangeism stands out against Jesus’ command to love our enemies (Matthew ch5 v44).

I believe in dialogue. Listening. Trying to understand. When someone tells me I’m wrong I’ll listen to their argument, I’ll try and research the areas I’m faulty in. And either I’ll reaffirm my position or it will change. Being able to stand up and say, ‘Yup, I was wrong’ is important. I want to understand, to move forward. I’ll listen to any politics, any religious exchange, and I’ll stand and ask questions of myself and others. Testing one’s faith, one’s understanding, is important. I have broken my own rules, my own prejudices repeatedly, and been happier for it. I’m not betraying my ‘people’ because tribalism is something imposed on us by societies and the xenophobic. I’m being true to myself.

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