Thirteen men and one woman gathered in front of the church shortly before 1pm on a Sunday. With a glance at his watch, one of them announced that it was time and the fourteen figures, dark suits and bright orange sashes, set off once again on a march they have been trying to complete, without success, for 21 years.
They chatted amiably as they strolled downhill, past a hut bearing their slogan: “Here we stand, we can do no other.” At the bottom of its gentle slope the narrow road crossed a ditch where they were blocked. This time, the 1,095th time, a lone police officer stood in their path.
Alastair Power, the district secretary of Portadown District Loyal Orange Lodge 1 and the youngest among them, stopped short of the officer, who wore motorcycle leathers and a fluorescent yellow jacket: “Sir, I would ask you to remove yourself and your officers from this point so that we can complete our 1998 Parade.”
This is Drumcree, a quaint hamlet just outside Portadown in the north of Co Armagh in Northern Ireland. This ritual of protest has been repeated since 1998 when the police prevented the Orange Order, the drum-beating heart of hardline Protestant unionism, from parading down the largely Catholic Garvaghy Road.
Back then, the Orangemen and their supporters had brought Northern Ireland to a standstill for three summers with protests, riots and roadblocks over what they called the “siege of Drumcree”. The intensity was finally sapped from the protests by a wave of revulsion over the loyalist murder of the Quinn brothers, three Catholics aged eight to ten, in a petrol-bomb attack on their home in July 1998.
The officer quietly turned away the 14 marchers. He was enforcing the will of the Parades Commission, a body set up in the wake of the 1998 stand-off. Power recited his reply – that the Portadown Orangemen do not recognise the Parades Commission, which they believe is biased. Then, after a brief prayer they thanked the officer and returned to their cars back up the hill.
The Orangemen adhere to a familiar picture of Northern Ireland’s Protestants: that of an obdurate, intransigent, tribe locked in a siege of its own making. They are best known as the bearers of centuries-old grudges and hard theologies little known outside the province.
Yet Reverend Gary Galway, the rector of Drumcree church, tells me a different story. He seems to view the protesting Orangemen with a detached bemusement: “I wish the people in the church had the same commitment.”
He says there has been a rapprochement in Portadown. Immigration, unheard of a generation ago, has changed the binary nature of this society. A tall, genial man, who left a professional career to join the Anglican Church of Ireland, Galway describes another sort of religious procession down the Garvaghy Road: an Easter “crosswalk” that he led towards the town centre.
“I had people coming up and hugging me and shaking hands with me on the Garvaghy Road,” he tells me when I ask if politics in Northern Ireland is gravitating towards the extremes. “We have a fete once a year and a good third are foreign nationals. Another big number from the Garvaghy Road. I don’t think there’s been a hardening, I think there’s been a softening if anything. We’ve seen it here.”
The Church of the Ascension, the Drumcree parish church that symbolised Northern Ireland’s intractable divisions was now bringing people together – nationalist, unionist and neither.
The Northern Ireland we see in newspapers and played out in party politics conforms to the common view of an intractable ethnic conflict. But beneath the surface, Northern Ireland is being slowly transformed. Unionism has not adjusted.
In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was endorsed by voters in Northern Ireland – including a majority of unionists. The referendum on the deal, also known as the Belfast Agreement, was held a few weeks before the Orange Order was prevented from walking down the Garvaghy Road.
The peace was chiefly built by two political parties. From the Catholic side, the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), led by John Hume. The SDLP prides itself on its history as the party of civil rights and peaceful struggle. On the Protestant side, it was the moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), led by David Trimble.
These two men were lauded – sharing the Nobel peace prize. But, to the surprise of outsiders, the agreement triggered a flight to the extremes. Nobel laureates or not, support collapsed for their parties. Today, all but one of Northern Ireland’s Westminster seats are held by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which initially opposed the Agreement, and Sinn Féin, the hardline nationalists, whose MPs do not take up their seats.
Cathal McManus, a researcher at Queen’s University Belfast, says that the DUP and Sinn Féin votes have been propped up by relative “moderates” on each side voting out of opposition to “the other”. Soft nationalists vote Sinn Féin because they don’t want to let the DUP speak for them; moderate unionists are pushed to the DUP to prevent a Sinn Féin First Minister.
The political middle is now fighting for its life. The slide in the electoral
fortunes of the SDLP has forced it into a partnership with Fianna Fáil, historically Ireland’s most successful party. The SDLP hope is that becoming an all-Ireland party can help restore its fortunes.But if moderate nationalists are in trouble, the malaise of the UUP is more existential. Their plight appears to be fulfilling a decades-old prophecy: that demographic changes would eventually deliver a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland and, with it, a United Ireland. The UUP, for decades a political monopoly in Northern Ireland, could be on course for extinction.
Colin McCusker, a former mayor of Craigavon, a council area that included Portadown, was considered something of a rising star in the Ulster Unionists. He served under the leadership of Mike Nesbitt, a liberal former local television personality. McCusker returned to the private sector in disappointment last year, depressed at the DUP’s unapologetically tribal politics.
The problem for the UUP is not that there is no market for a return to moderation. It is that moderates, when they step away from the DUP, are going elsewhere.
In May, the UUP had the latest in a long sequence of grim electoral reckonings. But, this time, it was just not the fire-breathers of the DUP who took their support. At the local and European elections, the avowedly anti-sectarian and anti-Brexit Alliance Party took great strides forwards.
Part of this reflects the new dividing line in the UK: Brexit. Here, the UUP’s position is tangled. They supported Remain at the referendum in 2016. Now, they support Brexit going ahead but under a fanciful set of conditions that look difficult to negotiate.
Facing that, many liberal unionists who voted Remain have left the UUP behind. McCusker said: “Sections of the unionist vote that have said ‘we’re fed up that type of unionism’. And while they’re not overly confident with the Alliance Party they want to give unionism a wake-up call.”
Two of Northern Ireland’s seats in the European Parliament are inevitably shared by the DUP and Sinn Féin. The third, though, is up for grabs – and had been held by the UUP. This year, though, it went to the Alliance Party.
McCusker’s disenchantment with politics, however, is a familiar story – indeed, it is a familial one.
His father, Harold McCusker, was the local MP until his death in 1990, when he was succeeded by Trimble. Harold McCusker in some ways represented the prototype of the unionists now rejecting the DUP’s reactionary politics: in the late 1970s he helped prop-up the Labour government of Jim Callaghan. His left-wing leanings went against the grain of official Unionism’s conservatism.
But Harold McCusker’s political career ended in disappointment, too. Not because of his own voters or the DUP, but because – like unionists before and since – he came to realise one of the bitterest lessons of all for Northern Ireland’s Protestants; however much they want to be part of the United Kingdom, the feeling is not always reciprocated.
In 1985, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, guaranteed Dublin a say in the running of Northern Ireland. Unlike the Good Friday Agreement that would follow, the treaty was not negotiated by the communities of the province. It was, instead, concluded by the British and Irish governments, over the heads of Northern Ireland’s unionist majority.
In an emotional speech to the House of Commons after the signing of the Anglo Irish Agreement, McCusker described his sense of betrayal, saying he regretted bringing up Colin and his siblings believing they were British. “It would have been better if they had never looked at the Union flag,” he said.
Colin McCusker, like other unionists, has digested the sense of betrayal of the Anglo Irish Agreement, even if he expresses it more plainly than his father: “When an English Conservative says he’s a unionist, I don’t believe him. Deep down does he really give a toss? How could he? We’re a pain in the ass.”
Ulster’s unionists have learned not to trust. Betrayal is at the very core of their being. And now it is consuming them.
By the time of the 2005 general election, the UUP had already been eclipsed as the largest unionist party by the DUP. Just seven years after the Good Friday Agreement, Trimble himself lost his seat. At points, the UUP leader struggled to canvass in Portadown as he was pursued by a crowd – one he alleged was organised by the DUP – heckling him as a “Lundy”. Outside Northern Ireland this may seem an obscure insult, but its power derives from a peculiar historical resonance.
Robert Lundy was the prevaricating, appeasing governor of Derry at the onset of the Siege of Derry in 1688. Lundy’s place on the wrong side of history – for Irish Protestants, at least – was sealed by a group of apprentice boys who seized the keys to the city and slammed Derry’s gates shut against the approaching forces of the former king, the Catholic James II. To say the rest is history would be profoundly inaccurate. As ATQ Stewart, the late historian, wrote: “The factor which distinguishes the siege of Derry from all other historic sieges in the British Isles is that it is still going on.”
He meant not just that the city remains a contested place. He meant that Protestant Ireland had retained an instinctive defensiveness for centuries, an in-built suspicion of compromise as betrayal. The siege began with the plantation of Ulster, Stewart contended, when the Protestant minority arrived on the island, and has prevailed in one form or another since.
At around this time of year, in July, an effigy of Lundy is traditionally burned in bonfires, a sort of Irish parallel to Guy Fawkes, as Protestants commemorate the defeat of James’s attempts to retake the throne. But Lundy, unlike Fawkes, is a Protestant. It is perhaps telling that Ulster’s loyalists reserve pride of place at the top of the pyre for one of their own. The bonfires have grown into towering infernos. One moderate unionist I spoke to said he stopped attending bonfires four years ago when he was horrified to see an effigy of a policeman had been added. The fires have grown so immense that they damage nearby houses but few speak out, says Colin McCusker, “because you fear being called a Lundy”.
In Portadown, I stopped at a huge bonfire close to the centre of the town. It was an immense pyramid of wooden forklift pallets – one of the builders told me, between sips of lager, that it was 70ft high. They showed no nerves as they clambered to the top. “It’s sturdy enough,” one assured me. Later that evening a flute band with thundering drums delivered Lundy to his fate. He was joined by the flag of Ireland and the yellow-spangled blue banner of the European Union.
The defensive insularity of unionism, which bleeds into declarations of betrayal, has other facets too. In recent months the flag of the Parachute Regiment has begun springing up in loyalist areas, expressing support for Soldier F, a Para veteran facing murder charges over the murder of two people on Bloody Sunday.
This is an issue where Doug Beattie, a UUP member of the dormant assembly at Stormont and the party’s justice spokesman, has particular credibility. A burly veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq and a holder of the Military Cross, he is one of the more recognisable figures in Northern Ireland politics.
Flying the flag of the regiment that killed 14 unarmed protestors in Derry in 1972, Beattie argues, is an obvious provocation to nationalists. He notes the absence of the flags of other regiments whose soldiers are under investigation for killings during the Troubles.
Beattie is adamant that there should be no amnesty.
“My position is clear. If you break the law you face the law: be you a soldier, be you a policeman, be you a member of the public, be you a terrorist, be you a politician. But all of these things are a symptom of where we are in Northern Ireland. We’ve never dealt with legacy,” he says.
“We hid it and we forgot about it and we played around with it a little bit and we didn’t deal with it. And 20 years after the Belfast Agreement…we now have another conflict on going which is a legacy conflict.”
Unionist communities, he believes, are rallying around the defence of veterans as a consequence of the asymmetric argument over Northern Ireland’s past. Sinn Féin, as a party, was a combatant in the Troubles. It would continually justify the “armed struggle” – its preferred description of the murder of some 2,000 people by the Provisional IRA.
But most unionists never identified with loyalist terror and the political wings of their leading groups, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) always had minute electoral support, Beattie argues. So, in reply to Sinn Féin’s arguments, unionists have sided with the security forces in “legacy” cases.
Darryl Hewitt, the leader of Orangemen at Drumcree, was unapologetic when I mentioned a banner in the centre of Portadown pledging support for Soldier F. “The soldiers were here doing a job,” he said. “They’re now being vilified and charged with murder but I know there doesn’t seem to be the same impetus on solving crimes committed by other parties…I certainly wouldn’t condemn that banner going up.”
Beattie said: “They don’t know how to show that frustration, so they’re wrapping themselves in a flag or a banner.” The irony of this argument, for moderates like Beattie, is that it will ultimately play into the hands of those who want a blanket amnesty, which would legitimise the fiction that republican terrorists were simply fighting a war.
Again, ATQ Stewart springs to mind: “In Ireland, if you push history out through the door, it comes smashing back in through the windows.”
The last Labour government bears much responsibility for trying to usher the past out of the door. In the few years following the Agreement in 1998, some 16 Royal Prerogatives of Mercy – pardons, in other words – were granted to republican terrorists.
Later it emerged that the government had issued about 200 comfort letters to “on the run” (OTR) republican suspects, assuring them that they were not wanted for any crimes. Those OTR letters are now being cited by the defence teams of IRA suspects, in one case relating to the murder of an IRA man that took place five years after the Agreement.
“It’s an easy route to take but they have been led down this route by the DUP, which is a party of protest,” Beattie adds.
This is not the only dead end some believe the DUP has led unionism into. Broader cultural shifts are making it harder to identify as a unionist.
The DUP is best known outside Northern Ireland for a few things. Its founder, the late Ian Paisley, was a booming, blustering presence on British TV screens for decades. More lately its biblical approach to moral questions has baffled secular Britain following their deal with the Conservative government.
The DUP’s opposition to gay marriage and to liberalising Northern Ireland’s draconian abortion laws have associated unionism with an austere social conservatism that all but vanished as a political force from the UK or Ireland. Just this week, MPs in Westminster from across the UK voted to force an extension of abortion liberalisation and same-sex marriage onto Northern Ireland, over the objections of the province’s MPs.
The permissive society was always running a bit behind in Northern Ireland: the devolved parliament at Stormont never matched Labour’s 1967 landmarks of decriminalising homosexuality and liberalising abortion. Women with unwanted pregnancies – including victims of rape – have been forced to travel “across the water” for decades.
The gay community, too, would have been condemned to life in the shadows – in a country where the shadows were darker and more dangerous than elsewhere. But in 1976, the police picked on the wrong guy. The RUC entered the home of a young man called Jeff Dudgeon and pored over his diaries for evidence of his sexual history.
His fight against the criminalisation of homosexuality reached the European Court of Human Rights. In the case of Dudgeon v The United Kingdom in 1981, the 35-year-old shipping clerk from Belfast prevailed. His battle prompted Paisley’s “Save Ulster from Sodomy” campaign.
Dudgeon later became an Ulster Unionist councillor in Belfast but lost his seat in May. “I don’t think unionists can win this one. I think we’re forever regarded as bigots and unpleasant persons,” he said.
“It’s a big problem for young Protestants, who will feel they have to abandon their origins, I suppose you could say, to appear to be right-thinking and progressive.”
The data suggests that the DUP is more conservative on these questions even than the people who vote for it. It is symptomatic of a political duopoly that lags rather than leads those they represent.
Post-sectarian attitudes are taking root. “I think people are ahead of the politicians on this,” Beattie told me.
When I was growing up in Portadown in the 1990s, Craigavon was a collection of bleak 1970s housing estates littered with burnt-out and empty houses that lay half-way to Lurgan, another market town with a larger Catholic population than Portadown. Craigavon had been created by planners who wanted to relieve Belfast’s slums by fusing Portadown and Lurgan, into a modernist city.
Residents soon self-sorted according to their identity: estates that looked utopian in architects’ drawings became sectarian ghettos. Today private housing developments have crept along the road between Portadown and Lurgan, creeping out to meet Craigavon and filling in the playing fields we used to explore as children. Those new-build housing developments – red-brick houses with shiny family cars outside – are religiously mixed in a way few areas of my youth were.
The progress of integrated education – where children are drawn deliberately from both communities – has stalled in Northern Ireland. But there has been slow movement under the radar: Catholic parents are at least twice as likely to send their children to a state primary as they were when the agreement was signed. Northern Ireland is secularising.
There are signs that space is opening up in cultural and artistic fields. East Belfast’s Newtownards Road is festooned with red, white and blue bunting and flags for the marching season. Yet over the last few years hundreds of Protestants have taken Irish language classes.
The driving force behind the language classes is Linda Ervine, a modest, quietly-spoken woman with a dry sense of humour and unimpeachable loyalist credentials. She described how she fell in love with Irish by unearthing the etymology of place names she had known all her life but not truly understood.
She marvelled at how Celtic words can be found fossilised in some English place names, like Dover or the Avon. “The language doesn’t say ‘ourselves alone’” – the English translation of Sinn Féin – “it says we have links as a group of islands, we have these links to each other and we have these familial ties.”
Ervine and Beattie, though their brands of unionism are in many ways different, both made the point that diversity is inherent in unionism – otherwise there would be nothing to unite.
“The problem with the loyalist community is that they know who they are not, not who they are. There’s a lot of rejection, there’s a lot about denial,” Ervine said. “I get the feeling of a community that’s not at ease.”
The Northern Irish, particularly younger generations, are finding that the old-labels are ill-fitting.
For the first time, half of Northern Ireland identifies as neither unionist or nationalist the closely-watched Life & Times survey revealed recently.
The ratio has been creeping up steadily in the 21 years since the Agreement. About 43 per cent of Protestants now do not identify as unionist. A slightly higher proportion of Catholics do not identify as nationalist.
Cathal McManus, the Queen’s academic, said that the big shift in Protestant attitudes only came in this year. “Is Brexit having an impact? Perhaps,” says McManus. But there are broader trends at play.“We tend to look at Northern Irish politics only within the context of Northern Ireland. It may be useful to look at what is happening more widely in Europe. You also have to take into account the rise of the Greens in the last election and this is something we have seen happening right across Europe, where younger more socially aware, more liberal young people are rallying behind the green parties as an alternative to the old guard.”
Millennials, perhaps, are more worried about the burning planet than about burning Lundys.
If the trend continues, these Neithers will decide Northern Ireland’s future. The good news for unionists is that, at the moment, the Neithers are no more fond of a united Ireland than the population at large: only about one-in-eight wants to join the Republic and most want to remain in the UK, either through direct rule or devolution.
The bad news for unionists is that what deters the Neithers from unionism may also, given time, deter them from the union. A unionism that speaks to the post-Agreement generation cannot fetishise bonfires and flags. It would have to resist the temptation to view every question through the prism of Northern Ireland’s sectarian history.
Mike Nesbitt, a UUP leader who tried to lead the party out of its conceptual and electoral siege, said the union would be safest when “people are too busy enjoying life” to worry about it. That, ultimately, is the paradox of unionism: for this doctrine built on defiance to prevail, it must vanish.
Leave Lundy be. It is time to open the gates.
All photographs Getty Images