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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 2 .


Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People
Susan McKay

Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 2000
408pp. Pb.: 12.99; ISBN 0-85640-666-X.



Comprising an interesting array of vignettes, McKay's book is an odyssey through the collective mind-set of Northern Irish Protestants. As the title suggests, there is unanimity of purpose over very few things; insecurity is the most prevalent feeling among the interviewees. If at times a bleak vista, this work does throw up some interesting observations, including the bizarre - though presumably true - assertion that: `It was like what I'd been told about Carrickfergus, where UVF men were married to Catholics. Or Lisburn, where several Catholics were in the UDA'. Given that the central thrust of McKay's whole thesis is that Northern Protestants are in a pretty parlous state, one wonders what sort of Catholic would want to join, or be associated with, such organisations.

More pertinently, McKay reminds us of how ill at ease continued denunciations of political violence sit with a partitionist ideology underpinned by the threat and use of extreme violence. Thus, in Ballymoney, the murders by loyalists of the three Quinn children in 1998 and of constable Greg Taylor in 1997, were not followed by displays of widespread revulsion from the town's Protestants'. Instead, the victims were in some way culpable; that the Quinn family was `not a good family, you know' was the observation of one of the respondents. Similarly, Taylor's short separation from his wife is juxtaposed with the `respectability' of the families of his killers. This not only displays a confusing attitude toward moral issues, but, strangely, was probably uttered by the type of person who is at the forefront of the campaign to retain the RUC's name.

That said, some of McKay's `observations' are not only unoriginal but also not exclusive to Ulster Protestants. `Lundyism', which is the traducing of those Protestants who stray from the fold, is a trait shared with northern Catholics. Irrespective of whether or not he was killed by republicans, is there any evidence to suggest that large numbers of northern nationalists were exercised greatly by the horrific murder of former IRA volunteer Eamon Collins? No - and precisely for the same reasons that `Lundies' are shunned by Northern Protestants.

Paradoxically, the strength of McKay's work is also her greatest weakness. In canvassing such a wide range of opinion, `Northern Protestants' tends to meander rather than elucidate. Fionnuala O'Connor's tour-de-force on Northern Catholics, `In Search of a State', was clearly structured into a number of themes; McKay's concentration on geographic areas does not enable her to develop her hypotheses fully.

Less forgiveable is her decision to begin and end the book with the horrific sectarian murders in 1997 of Bernadette Martin and James Morgan. Thus the first and last impression that the reader has of Northern Protestants is that of vile, sectarian murderers. Worse still, is the attempt, in the epilogue, to use these murders as a way of comparing Northern Protestants to the Serbs and `whites' in the southern states of the USA. Surely, all societies contain many people - whether it is the misanthropic nail-bomber in London or the drugs baron in Dublin - who, in a given circumstance, will trangress the boundaries of what those societies deem to be acceptable conduct? In this respect, McKay's book does not really enlighten the reader about the complexities of ethnic conflict. The tendency of those involved in such conflicts to decorate hypocrisy and ideological zeal with ferocious acts of violence is something of which the reader does not need reminding.

Andy White, The Queen's University of Belfast


Andy White, The Queen's University of Belfast



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