What might Protestants bring to the Irish reunification debate?

In an edition of the Irish news this month, Claire Mitchell reflected on a question she had been asked at a panel discussion at this year’s Féile an Phobail.

The question, she felt, was ‘a game changer’.

The audience member said they felt republicans didn’t know enough about Protestants and asked the panel to elaborate on what makes Protestants ‘tick’ and how republicans can be changed by that. See Claire’s article below:

The question unlocked something. It showed a level of openness, curiosity and respect that I am convinced is the key to our future politics, whatever shape that may take.

So, what might Protestants bring to the reunification debate? Of course there is no archetypal ‘Protestant’, just a patchwork of left, right, free-wheeling and traditional. Many do not want to talk about unity at all. So I simply offer a few observations from my own experiences.

Firstly, dissent. Protestants often enjoy disagreement. While there is one Catholic Church, there are nearly 60 Protestant denominations in Northern Ireland.

There’s a tradition of free-thinking that stems back to the story of Luther pinning his theses on the established church’s door. This spirit manifests itself in the ‘No’ of the DUP. But amongst other pockets of Protestantism, dissent takes different forms. Questioning. Independence. Strong strains of social activism. Protestants may be good allies to those who want to challenge consensus positions in a reunification debate.

Democracy. Many Protestant churches are run fairly democratically. Lay people often have a role in appointing ministers. In some denominations, church ministers and selected members vote on theological positions.

Recently, this has led Presbyterianism in a conservative direction – although, naturally, many dissent from the official policies. In my parents’ Quaker congregation, there is no minister. The meeting sits in quiet contemplation, then people speak from the floor if they feel moved to do so. This democratic ethos heavily influenced dissenters in the 1790s and infused the 1798 rebellion. Hunger for democracy has resurfaced time and again amongst Protestants, in the Chartists, the Tenant Right League, the civil rights movement, in some forms of progressive loyalism. If talking about reunification is to be meaningful, it must focus on empowerment of people and grassroots democracy.

Being a northern Protestant also brings a textured sense of belonging. While many Protestants are British, I’ve had an Irish passport my entire life. But this is not a result of my DNA. My ancestors were largely Scottish and English, coming to Ireland post-Plantation to find work. Yet I live on this island. I’m Irish.

I am an Irish language learner and love Irish folklore. But I’ve never felt the need for pure Gaelic blood to opt into these ways of knowing. This is perhaps one of the most important contributions that Protestants may make to the constitutional debate. Cracking open the category of Irishness, so that it becomes more diverse. In an era of global migration, any concept of nation-building must be outward looking and inclusive.

We live in a time of rapid political, cultural, technological and ecological change. If there was a border poll in 10 years, climate collapse will already be quite advanced. The burning questions of today – health, work, energy, food, housing – may look very different. Twentieth century ideas of the nation state may not be as relevant. Some things, like biodiversity, will need island-based solutions. On other issues, we will need to be part of wider collaborations, on these islands, and with Europe and beyond.

Increasing numbers of Protestants are entering the reunification debate. It is of course important to ask what Protestants might want from political change. But I think it is interesting also to ask what Protestants might bring. Asking these questions might allow all of us to be changed a little. This work will serve us well, however the constitutional chips fall.