Churchman seeks to break Ulster 'siege': Consensus has yet to emerge in talks on Northern Ireland's future. The Rt Rev Dr John Dunlop, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, proposes a new approach. David McKittrick reports

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The Independent Online
JOHN DUNLOP projects self-confidence, tolerance, thoughtfulness and good humour: qualities not normally included in the world's image of Ulster Protestants. They have been described as a pariah community, receiving a consistently bad press from an outside world which associates them with anti-Catholicism, a lack of give and take and an obsession with the past.

The one million Protestants in Northern Ireland are normally viewed as the majority community, but Dr Dunlop puts them in a different context. 'What many people do not realise is that Unionists and Protestants are much more aware of their minority status in the whole of Ireland,' he says.

'I maintain that there is a story to be told inside the totality of Ireland, which is the story of the Protestant minority. So far it's been buried inside the other story, that of the Catholic minority inside Northern Ireland.

'I say sometimes to my political acquaintances in Dublin: 'Your primary political problem is us - not London, not Sinn Fein, but us, the Protestants. How do you deal with the minority of people on this island who do not associate themselves with your aspirations?' '

John Dunlop is a noted ecumenist, a breed disapproved of by the Rev Ian Paisley and hardline loyalists. He is firmly in the Presbyterian tradition, but is markedly less distrustful of the Catholic church, Dublin and London.

This more open attitude leads him to urge his church to move away from the siege mentality ingrained in the northern Protestant. 'We live behind spiritual, political and ecclesiastical ramparts. The siege mentality is defensive, anxiety-ridden and preoccupied with danger rather than opportunity,' he says.

'I believe there are good historical reasons why this sense of siege exists, going right back to when the 1641 rebellion almost wiped Presbyterianism out. And today there is undoubtedly in some areas a sense of explicit siege, where people are obviously continuously under threat.

'But my argument is that getting yourself locked into this does not serve your community well. It prevents you understanding the nationalist or Catholic community. Defensive policies politically or ecclesiastically are not good for the community.'

The siege mentality is not just an abstract concept, but can be seen in population movements. Dr Dunlop views as saddening and ominous the steady exodus of Protestants from some border areas and parts of Belfast. 'In the mid- 1950s north Belfast was described as the most Presbyterian part of Belfast, but now many of the Presbyterian churches there have question marks over their existence.

'It's not that Presbyterians are being driven out, it's just that the vast majority of houses which come on the market are being bought by Catholics. The Presbyterians are moving out of the city to satellite towns.

'Within my congregation, 50 per cent of the university students are studying in Britain, and I know most of them won't be coming back. When you look at all this together, what you are seeing is a community which looks to be in retreat.

'What I want to see is Presbyterianism freed from its intellectual preoccupation with being besieged so that it can make its contributions in a wider way.

'It is in everybody's interests that these bridges of understanding and friendship be built. One wants to see increasing politics of mutual understanding, elements of co-operation rather than hostility and discord and bitterness.' In many countries such words would be seen as uncontroversial generalities. But there are many in Ireland who will take his words as an attack on Unionism's political performance.

Last month when he was installed as moderator he urged his church: 'Let us patiently and carefully explain who we are'. Yet when he himself is asked the hard question - whether he is British or Irish - his answer is not a straightforward one. 'I think I suffer from the same identity crisis as nearly all Northern Ireland Presbyterians,' he replies.

'In some senses you're Irish and in some senses you're British. I can identify myself with being Irish if the Irish identity is sufficiently wide as to be inclusive of people like me. But if on the other hand the Irishness is Catholic and Gaelic, it is hard to know where I fit into that.

'My orientation tends to be east-west rather than north-south. I would read the Independent much more than I would read the Irish Times. I watch BBC 1 and BBC 2 and listen to Radio Four rather than RTE from Dublin. Even though I live in Ireland I feel I don't have an enriching and appreciative understanding of Irish culture.

'Two things are required here: first, that I move out across the frontiers to understand that and second that people in that culture move across the barriers to try and understand me . . . There is a lack of understanding.'

The Catholic church looms large in Presbyterian thinking, wielding considerable social and political power. Dr Dunlop believes the Catholic attitude towards Protestantism has changed since Vatican II, but acknowledges that many Presbyterians view Rome as a hostile institution.

He observes: 'The Protestant theological traditions tend to be shaped not only by their own internal authentic element but also in terms of where they differ from the predominant religion of Ireland, which is Catholicism. So there is a Protestant preoccupation with Catholicism which is not reciprocated.' He sees important changes in the way the Republic of Ireland views the northern state. 'I think both of the principal parties in the south have come to understand that Ireland cannot be united other than by the consent of the majority in the north.

'It can't be done any other way . . . The main sources of resistance are not in fact in London, as the IRA think they are, but inside Northern Ireland.

'London would grant Irish unity tomorrow if it were not for the resistance to it among the majority of people in Northern Ireland. But the IRA think the problem is located primarily in London. Killing Presbyterians does not advance the republican cause, it builds resistance to it.'

If the political talks are ever to succeed, all sides will need to display the sensitivity, mutual respect and willingness to coexist which John Dunlop displays.

(Photograph omitted)