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The Personal is Political


Dugald McCullough


Politics in Northern Ireland is based on cultural identity, and if I try to communicate to you something about my identity I’ll say (amongst other things) that I am British and raised Protestant in Northern Ireland. I say that through my experiences of growing up in a culture that defined me that way. It was not my choice, none of us gets that choice, but each of us must play the hand that life deals us.

Growing up as a child on the Cregagh Road and attending the local Presbyterian Sunday School, as well as my early memories of the purple sash that my grandfather wore and trips to Glasgow to visit relatives, are some of the experiences that piece together my identity. The personal is political and everyone’s experience is different.

Along the way I picked up somewhere the idea that I am somehow (it was never defined) “better” than people who are raised Catholic, but “not as good as” (again undefined) people raised on the island of Britain.

I learned I was British and Protestant in Northern Ireland before I had a language to express my experience of what that might mean to me. And for me, like a lot of other people, by then it seemed too late. I never noticed it at the time when I was growing up, but other people were defining what it means to be British and raised Protestant in Northern Ireland.

As a fully-grown adult, I am responsible for defining my own identity through the way I live my life. I am no Northern Irish Protestant who has lived before. I deny none of my heritage, and I deny nothing that was done by my people, or in the name of my people, or for the cause of my people.

I do know people who prefer to deny the fact that their identity includes being a Northern Irish Protestant. Mostly they are embarrassed and confused by aspects of the culture in which they were reared, and mostly they are middle class people like myself. In my view, the identification as a Northern Irish Protestant is not one that can just be accepted uncritically, it’s a challenge.

“The personal is political” is a particularly useful phrase because it says something about the human experience - it says we each have both a personal, individual experience and, a social and political experience, and these are actually the same thing looked at different ways. Human experience is holistic, but to make sense of it we need to see that it is oppressive, and that the oppression works through both the personal and the political levels of experience. The multiple oppressive systems, which operate in our societies: sexism, classism, racism, all work on both these levels.

Each one of these oppressive systems represents a false division between groups of people, a division that is installed and reinforced both on a social level and on an individual level for each member of both groups. That is to say, oppression takes two significantly different forms of expression:

(a) At the social level, there is institutionalised oppression, the way in which the laws, customs and practices in a society operate such that a particular section of the population is treated as second class

(b) At a personal level, there is internalised oppression, which can be seen to be operating when individuals take to themselves as if true the ideas about them which are provided by the oppressive society.

In Northern Ireland we are familiar with the false division of sectarianism, which is institutionalised in the customs and practices (at one time there were laws), which reinforce the notion that Catholics are second-class. Sectarianism is also internalised by anyone who grows up in this culture whether Protestant or Catholic.

Referring to institutionalised oppression, it is obvious to anyone who thinks rationally for a while, that such laws, customs and practices need to change. However blunt an instrument, the Equality Commission is an attempt to do something in that direction, as were the civil rights reforms of twenty years ago.

As someone from the Protestant heritage, it’s inappropriate for me to say what internalised Catholic oppression sounds like, but what does this society tell Protestants about themselves? As I mentioned before, I internalised the subtle message that I was “better than” Irish people, people raised Catholic, and “not as good as” people from Britain. Also, I internalised the idea that folks raised Protestant are not really Irish and that they are to blame for the troubles.

Most historical and political analyses (especially radical and socialist ones) point to the Protestant people in the north of Ireland as colonists and interlopers who are not “true” Irish because they continue to claim (and proclaim) their British identity. Many raised Catholic people (and their supporters) promote the idea of “Ireland for the Irish” and “British out of Ireland”. It is a singular irony that the huge numbers of ethnic Irish people in North America who fund the IRA propaganda machine and arm the IRA are rarely heard to be organising to return to their own country of origin and leave North America to the Native Americans.

Actually, Protestants have a wonderful heritage; a heritage characterised by one quality above others - freethinking. We are people of the frontier, the cutting edge, courageous in the creativity and individuality of our thinking (a key characteristic of Protestant culture that probably comes from the split with the Catholic Church, when Protestants claimed an individual relationship with God).

Traditionally, if you’re a good Prod, you hate Taigs. It’s traditional for working class Protestants to know their place and be told what to think on the one hand by half-baked clergymen and, on the other by the landowners and factory owners who exploit them economically. These are the ones who down the generations have led our people to think in sectarian ways. It’s traditional. And it is a mockery of our heritage of independent thinking.

The PUP is providing new leadership in Unionism and Loyalism. We will not be sectarian; we will not be disrespectful to others. We cannot be non-sectarian; we cannot try to avoid the issue with the “We’re all the same really why can’t we ignore our differences” approach, like the Alliance Party. But we are anti-sectarian - we celebrate who we are; we do not compromise on who we are; we stand up for what we believe in, and we do it in ways which encourage others to live up to our high standards of respect for all.

Those who are anti-sectarian are proud of their identity, and welcome pride in everyone else. We want to see Catholics / Nationalists / Republicans proud of themselves too, self confident, and welcoming diversity. True pride welcomes pride in others. True pride comes from being comfortable with your own identity and comfortable with the identity of others.

(Dugald Mc Cullough is a member of the Pottinger Branch of the Progressive Unionist Party)



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