Unremembered acts of kindness


JONATHAN SWIFT once remarked that Ireland has enough religion to make its citizens hate, but not enough to make them love one another. Others have put it differently. "Out of Ireland I come;/ Great hatred, little room/ Maimed me from the start./ I carry from my mother's womb/ A fanatic's heart," wrote Yeats. Shaw claimed that if you "put two Irishmen in a room", you would "always be able to persuade one to roast the other on a spit".

That a gospel of love can so easily be used to legitimise political injustice or social enmity is the paradox which has torn the tattered canvas of Irish history into shreds. Familiar though we are with the biblical analogy of motes and beams, the practice of Christianity in Northern Ireland - as often perceived from mainland Britain - is something we are often tempted to condemn.

John D Brewer's excellent study on the sociological implications of four centuries of anti-Catholicism in Ireland does, however, remind the English of their historical responsibility. Similar sentiments have forged our constitutional settlement (the impossibility of a Catholic monarch, despite the claim of blood), our cultural mythology (burning the Guy on 5 November), and our national identity. Indeed, at the close of the 19th century, Britain proudly stood for three things: Protestantism, free trade and Empire. And God - as the old joke goes - was an Englishman. Surely acknowledgement of our own impaired vision is necessary before attempting to correct that of others.

Professor Brewer realises this, in the spirit of the mote and the beam. It is as a (Protestant) "Christian sociologist" that he writes. Not denying the existence of anti-Protestantism, Brewer suggests persuasively that it has never "permeated the social and cultural structures of Northern Ireland so systematically".

His purpose is to challenge a community's perception of itself, and thereby of their neighbours, not simply to repeat the familiar two-sided tragedy. As such, it is a partisan book - necessarily so, as it confronts ideological preconceptions on their own terms. Yet the work is infused throughout by a reticence to judge, and a firm view on the past as a prologue to future possibility rather than a window on suffered wrong.

In the nervous climate of Northern Ireland's new start in 1999, such research is refreshing. Her prophets have usually been the Paisleys, unable to see the future but "through the prism of the past" and little more than the second-hand salesmen of historical myth.

Brewer knows the same history, but reads it with an understand- ing that the perpetuation of "socio-ethnic tribalism" offers no future. He glances back the better to look forward.

The result is a glimpse at "unremembered" segments of Ulster history, in which are found alternative voices to those of violence or prejudice. Those of the leaders of the Belfast dock strike in 1907, for example, in which dockers found common cause "not as Catholics or Protestants, as Nationalists or Unionists, but as Belfast men and workers".

My Ulster grandfather, the staunchly Protestant auctioneer of the little town of Raithfriland in Co Down, gave shelter to Catholics in the bloody "troubles" of 1918-20 on the basis of similar sentiments. Later they underpinned the determination of Terence O'Neill, a family friend and former Unionist Prime Minister, to "break the chains of ancient hatreds" and embrace a pluralist politics. In 1965, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church begged "forgiveness for any attitudes and actions towards our Roman Catholic fellow countrymen which have been unworthy of our calling as followers of Jesus Christ".

The picture which emerges is of a different Northern Ireland than that of Drumcree, and a different Christianity than that of Free Presbyterianism. It offers the possibility of a new future led by the likes of Trimble and Hume. What this future does rely on, however, is little less than the transformation of identity; the transcendence of social boundaries construct- ed along the lines of 16th-century theological differences.

Four hundred years of opposition have left Unionists feeling under siege from the nationalist community within, the Republic to the south, and abandoned by the Britain they have sought to defend. The twin fears of threat and isolation, legitimised by a divine mandate, prove resilient foes. If ever there was a time for the resurgence of social and political liberalism within Ulster, it is now.

Last year was unlike any other in Northern Ireland's history - Good Friday and Omagh, the best and worst moments of a generation. The loaded gun still remains on the negotiating table and a familiar mistrust hangs over the new Assembly. But as the politicians continue to struggle through the difficult issues of decommissioning, of amnesty, of coalition, old ways of thinking need to be disarmed and mindsets decommissioned.

One thing is clear: this ideological ceasefire represents the greatest challenge for Northern Ireland into the millennium, and one in which, perhaps, the pen is more powerful than the gun.

Paddy Ashdown

The reviewer is leader of the Liberal Democrats

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas