Trying to explain what might be the motivation of Loyalist protesters in Belfast seemed a pointless task; talking about the years of alienation, the emergence of an under class, the hopelessness in communities, all was to no avail. The lady looked at me and said, ‘They were always like that up there’.
Having lived decades longer than me, perhaps she felt that her conclusion was reasonable and I was mistaken.
The supposed liberalism of many middle class people in the Republic often disappears completely when it comes to thoughts on Northern Protestants. A friend who had lived abroad, who had travelled the world and who had a postgraduate education once spotted I was reading Ruth Dudley Edwards’ book on the Orange Order ‘The Faithful Tribe’. Seeing the book, my friend commented, “There is nothing good that can be said about those people”. If such comments had been made about any other group, the same person would have launched into a heated lecture on tolerance and diversity.
Perhaps the Orange Order has been its own worst enemy, perhaps it suffers from falling into the politically incorrect categories of being white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant and male, but the reaction it elicits in some quarters suggests a very illiberal liberalism.
Objections to the flags and symbols of the Loyalist community are rarely balanced by an acknowledgement that there are Nationalist flags and symbols that many Northern Protestants find alienating.
I remember being on an Irish ferry and seeing an Irish Tricolour flying from the stern and thinking for the first time that the flag was something other than the badge of those who bombed and murdered members of my community, something other than a declaration that one was in an area from which Protestants had been driven.
When one feels a sense of frustration at news reports of Loyalist protests, intimidation and street violence and it seems impossible to get inside their mindset, perhaps the question might be turned around: how readily would the southern liberals give up the Tricolour? It’s everywhere, even at shopping centres; what reaction would there be if a suggestion came that to facilitate a more inclusive Ireland, the flag should be removed and only flown on particular days?
Maybe the lady of ninety years was correct, maybe they were always like that up there, maybe the mindset derives from a deep Calvinist sense of ‘election’ and decades of listening to demagogues, but simply restating views brings no progress, no reconciliation of the angry and the alienated.