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20 October 2005 Edition

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Opinion: Protestants and republicanism - BY FEILIM O hADHMAILL

The last few weeks in the North have brought into focus once again the difficulties faced by republicans in achieving acceptance among large sections of the unionist community for even quite modest change — never mind the Irish Republic we strive for.

Centuries of colonial rule, with its accompanying privileges combined with a genuine fear that an Irish democracy would lead to rule (and oppression) by the native Irish have served to unite the bulk of the of Protestants around a peculiar concept of loyalism which appears confusing, not least to the British themselves.

Yet the fact remains that without the support of at least a section of that community and, I would argue, the acquiescence of a majority, the likelihood of a peaceful transition to a new independent Irish republic is unlikely.

Breaking down privilege through the promotion of the equality agenda is clearly important in removing part of the raison d'etre for descendants of the planter community wanting to remain separate from the rest of Irish society. However, the concept of an independent Ireland must also be attractive enough for people in the North (and not just unionists) to want to buy into. Republicans thus need to couple the promotion of the equality agenda with a vision of a new Ireland, which can stimulate the imagination of the current generation.

The past eleven years has seen major changes in Irish society North and in the South including major changes in the relationships between both parts of Ireland and Britain. There have also been major changes in republican thinking, strategy and tactics.

A number of local factors — a period of relative peace, the erosion of the British constitutional guarantee, of unionist power and its old certainties, the equality agenda, cross-border initiatives, relative prosperity, demographic changes, the emergence of an increasingly confident nationalist middle class in the North, the Celtic Tiger, secularisation of society, increasing multi-culturalism , have all combined with international influences — globalisation, the EU, etc, to produce a convergence North and South, of social, cultural, economic and political structures, influences and interests.

It is no longer the case that unionists in the North can clearly identify their interests as being wrapped up in a Six-County state based on sectarian privilege and propped up by Britain. Britain, under pressure from nationalist Ireland and the international community is slowly removing the props of unionist power and supremacy.

While it is clear that the unionist community has many social and cultural aspects which unites it and keeps it separate from nationalists in the North and people in the South, on an economic level it is increasingly unclear to many northern Protestants that their economic interests lie in such separation

The traditionally 'Protestant' industries are in decline or increasingly challenged through the equality agenda. They are also increasingly becoming foreign or southern-owned. The are no longer guaranteed jobs in the Shipyard. While Protestants are still marginally better off economically than Catholics this masks a reality of great poverty and deprivation amongst many Protestants. It is increasingly the case that the Protestant and Catholic working classes are sharing the deprivation, which exists in the North.

It is arguable that it is too simplistic to say that economic interests are no longer the major issue they were in the past. There is the major British subvention to this part of the world every year, which doesn't include the massive injection of funding for employment in defence. If Protestants are to contemplate a united Ireland they must believe their standard of living would improve as a result.

It is also is arguable that it is the social and cultural aspects of unionism which prevents most Protestants nowadays from embracing the concept of a united Ireland.

Historically, Protestants have politically, economically, socially and culturally viewed themselves as one community united in defence of shared interests against those trying to destroy them. This is despite the fact that the Protestant community represents a multi-faceted spectrum of opinion, views, interests and religions.

Anyone who is part of a community recognises the strength and importance of community bonds. Those Protestants in the North who have been attracted to republicanism can testify to the difficulty presented by such community bonds. While the concept of unionism remains part and parcel of such bonds it remains difficult to attract Protestants to republicanism.

The social and cultural dimensions of Protestant allegiance towards unionism have strong historic roots. The historic refusal of Catholic Ireland to embrace Protestants reinforced the social and cultural bonds between diverse groups of Protestants. This process was reproduced and reinforced by the social and cultural apartheid of living in the North.

For Protestants to embrace republicanism as opposed to unionism they need to embrace it socially, culturally, economically and politically. Their concerns, needs, expectations and dreams on those levels need to be addressed by republicans. It means breaking down the social and cultural apartheid, which exists in the North and between North and South.

Republicans need to re-assess how they can contribute to breaking down social and cultural barriers which exists between themselves and many northern Protestants as much as they need to break down barriers between North and South. It means being able to show Protestants that in a new Ireland they wouldn't be outsiders -- and that they are not outsiders now as far as republicans are concerned.

Republicans have long claimed to be the inheritors of the universalist principles espoused by the United Irish Movement and the French Revolution, where concepts of citizenship transcend ethnic identities, the common name of Irish person replaces the ethno-religious divisions of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. Yet emerging from one major ethnic group and being based there usually leads to an over identification with one ethnic identity, its needs and concerns. Is it either desirable, appropriate or possible to promote a universalist, as opposed to ethnocentric, concept of citizenship while being indelibly linked to one ethnic community?

Ultimately, if republicans are serious about creating a republic based on universalist concepts of citizenship they need to transcend the old ethnic divisions. This means recognising that there is a difference between an ethnic identity -- British, Protestant, Scots-Irish, etc and a political philosophy — unionism.

Unionism is a political idea -- nothing more. There is no historical imperative, which prevents Protestants from being non-unionists. Even if the concept of Britishness is taken as one aspect of the culture of northern Protestants there is no requisite that this should dominate political thinking. Many British people live in many different countries throughout the world without feeling a need to promote a union of that country with Britain. Why should it be different in relation to Ireland? In fact the reality of life in Ireland today is a multicultural one.

In the 1790s it was Protestants in the North who led the way in promoting the new doctrine of republicanism. The current challenge to republicans is to construct and define a republicanism which can again attract a sizeable northern Protestant component.

An Phoblacht Magazine

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