Dangerous victims

Scripture Politics: Ulster Presbyterianism and Irish Radicalism in the late 18th Century

I R McBri

In 1798 Ireland was convulsed by an attempt at revolution. Its leaders, the United Irish movement, aimed to destroy British rule in Ireland and institute a secular democratic republic. The attempt was a bloody failure, whose crushing set a mould for Irish politics that has, in many ways, remained unbroken for the succeeding 200 years.

The rising's bicentenary, virtually ignored in Britain, was marked in Ireland - north and south - by grand commemorations. Much of this was devoted to drawing lessons for the present from the events of 200 years ago. Many media and political commentators suggested that with Northern Ireland's Good Friday peace agreement, a two centuries-old failed promise was finally being redeemed - that the United Irishmen's programme of bringing together the island's rival traditions in a "Brotherhood of Affection" was now renewed, even triumphant.

To its enthusiasts, the relevance of 1798 is above all that the United Irishmen transcended Ireland's sectarian divisions. During the past century, Irish nationalism has been overwhelmingly Catholic in inspiration and support; but in the 1790s many Ulster Protestants were revolutionaries, nationalists and republicans.

The bicentenary produced, too, a powerful outpouring of new historical writing on the rebellion. Ian McBride's Scripture Politics, the best and most detailed study yet on Ulster Presbyterian radicalism, is one of the finest products of that flood, and offers timely warnings against the romantic and idealised versions of 1798 which were offered up in the bicentenary celebrations.

The Ulster Protestant radicalism of the 1790s, McBride argues, remained imbued with religious elements. Its alliance with Catholic nationalists was fragile, and might well have swiftly broken down if the revolt had succeeded. There is certainly much in the United Irishmen's legacy that is worth celebrating. Their ideas were hopeful, inclusive and progressive, but they could not heal Ireland's political and religious divisions.

McBride poses the crucial question of whatever happened to Protestant radicalism. How did the descendants of Presbyterian revolutionaries become such an apparently reactionary, bigoted bunch? An answer, suggested in John Brewer's book, was that Northern Irish Protestants increasingly became captives of a ferocious anti-Catholicism. Yet there are difficulties with Brewer's analysis, despite his admirable attempt to contribute towards peace and reconciliation.

There are too many errors, for instance, in his handling of Irish history. Brewer does attempt, in some detail, to define anti-Catholicism and to map out its manifestations, identifying a "covenantal", a "Pharisaic" and "secular" mode. But his definitions raise as many problems as they solve. By some of his measures, I would evidently count as an "anti-Catholic", since I don't believe in the Catholic church, an unattractively hierarchical, indeed authoritarian body. I dislike its official teachings on divorce, contraception and abortion, on integrated schooling and the status of women. The church's historical record, until recently, has been a largely depressing one of intolerance and persecution.

If people are to be defined as "anti-Catholic" because they have theological disagreements with Catholicism, or criticisms of the church's history, then any non-Catholic must fit the bill - and so do most Catholics I know. The key distinction, surely, is that we are not silly enough to think that any of these failings is uniquely Catholic, or to believe that they justify discrimination or abuse. And we are critical of an institutional structure, not of a faith as such or of its adherents. We despise the deranged conspiracy theories which, as Brewer documents, are believed by some Ulster Protestants: that the Vatican runs the IRA, that the Jesuits started the second world war, and that nunneries are hotbeds of unspeakable but rather exciting vice. We don't want, moreover, the Catholic church to disappear, but to become - or rather, continue becoming - more liberal. And we recognise the crucial difference between making such criticisms in the New Statesman, or indeed the Catholic Herald, and doing so from a soapbox at Drumcree.

The evident danger, overall, is that Brewer has defined anti-Catholicism so broadly as to blur the focus on authentic bigotry. He doesn't distinguish clearly enough between those in Ulster who disagree with the doctrine of transubstantiation and think the Pope is Antichrist, and those who murder Catholics in pubs. He fails, too, adequately to reflect the internal strains and contradictions of Ulster anti-Catholicism.

Take, for instance, the pivotal and emblematic figure of Ian Paisley. Paisley is, by any definition, an anti-Catholic bigot. Without ever directly sanctioning sectarian violence, he has contributed more than any other individual to the atmosphere in which it flourished. Yet Paisley also claims that as an MP and MEP, he has worked as hard for his Catholic constituents as for his Protestant ones; and surprisingly, this seems to be mostly true. Brewer's account helps little in untangling the paradoxes here. More broadly, when Ulster loyalists express bitter anti-Catholic prejudice, while in the same breath claim to be defending civil and religious liberties, Brewer sees this as simply an act of bad faith. But something more complex is going on - hypocrisy, yes, but hypocrisy with an intricate, nuanced history.

Brewer underestimates the persisting power of the Ulster Protestant, and especially Presbyterian, cult of victimhood and martyrdom. The victim complex is just as powerful a charter for intolerance as is any supremacist ideology, and many Ulster Protestants still have a heavy dose of it. Loyalists, with intense but selective historical recall, tend to believe their community to have always been the victim, never the persecutor. This produces a dangerous kind of historical tunnel vision, and a ready-made excuse for that community's own misdeeds. One can see that same syndrome at work in recent times among Serbs and Afrikaners, and on the other side of the Northern Ireland conflict, too.

Stephen Howe's most recent book is "Afrocentrism" (Verso, £20)

This article first appeared in the 08 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Stuff the millennium