Covid restrictions have drawbacks but afford time to clear out old materials stored for much-delayed future use. Amongst old photographs, marked electoral registers indicative of older practices – or are they – newspaper cuttings, reports and publications by various parties and individuals, I come across fading copies of the Protestant Telegraph Vol 11 from the mid-1970s: ‘THE TRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE’ is writ large under the title.
One copy from 1976 perused and the tone and tenor of the publication is laid bare. It is pre-Trump Trumpism. In the midst of attacks on the government and political opposition of the day and claims that ‘support for the Common Market is diminishing,’ the bulk of the commentary, in language which to repeat would cause offence, is targeted at the Roman Catholic church in Northern Ireland, Europe and other parts of the world. It is rhetoric and invective which reflects and nurtures sectarianism.
Associated with the late Dr Ian Paisley, the church, and the political party which he created, it is a type of Protestant Unionism which in various political theatres has served to misrepresent Unionism and damage the Union. Ironically, it has also pushed people away from organised religion.
The political legacy has been apparent again in recent days. Where this not the case, Edwin Poots MLA, the DUP Minister for Agriculture, would not be engaging in a condescending damage limitation exercise to ensure listeners that he “cherishes his Catholic friends and neighbours.”
He cannot have been unaware, given the renowned expertise of the DUP electoral bean counters, that the majority of those who live in what he referred to as Nationalist areas, often not canvassed at election time, have in all probability been baptised as Catholic.
Given the historical pedigree of his party which struggles to engender pluralism and remains attuned to a particular brand of Protestantism, the inference would be obvious to many listeners even as some political unionists prefer not to listen to what they do not want to hear.
It has modernisers but sectarianism and communal division has been and remains too much of a political commodity within elements of the DUP for coded words not to be seen for what they are. They point to a form of unionism wishing only to talk to itself and a throw-back to the prejudiced profiling of those marked registers.
In spite of the peace process and claims to inclusivity, it continues to live with its wounds and views politics as damage control.
This unionism fails to see that when you choose your voters and give up on some of the electorate, you effectively give up on yourself. It is a lazy sense of preferential politics; a product of conflicted relationships and resistance to meaningful dialogue that treats one chosen constituency as worthy of engagement.
The complex nature of intertwined denominational religious affiliations that run like a faultline through this type of political conviction is leading many at the community level to prefer a civic or pro-Union stance rather than a traditional Protestant unionist identity. In the case of religion, it has served to successfully inoculate against the potential value of beneficial insight and enlightenment.
Meanwhile, Unionist politicians, the latest being the DUP’s Paul Frew MLA, continue to exhibit characteristics of politico-religious grounding in the Assembly. They would do well to revisit a parable in the New Testament where pouring ‘old wine into new wineskins’ is not advised.
They will know that to benefit from the new, the old is best discarded. Dogma and rigidity cannot be confused with fidelity, with Protestant unionism and its proponents presenting as a human barrier to progress. Unionism in any form cannot be about the preservation of the supremacy of preferred sects or factions.
It will only serve the community best where it promotes equality and policies compatible with welfare, education, and the economic well-being of a society grown tired of surviving on the edge of a precipice of uncertainty characterised by short-termism, wheeler-dealing, and cluttered mindsets that serve only to throw the community and politics into periodic distress.
It lies exposed once again that this is too often at the behest of combative and privileged unionism strong on self-righteous dogma but lacking in understanding of the need to address the needs of the whole community regardless of creed, race or political affiliation.
You can learn from the past to build a better future but you cannot walk into that future backwards unless you are looking at the trenches you have left behind, to realise the years you have wasted therein,
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.