Arlene Foster made headlines in a recent interview by revealing that she would consider emigrating in the eventuality of a united Ireland.
There are a number of historical facts that make Protestants intuitively fearful of a united Ireland. We have two recent previews of what it would like to be a minority based on the treatment of Protestant minorities in the Republic of Ireland and the border counties of Northern Ireland since partition.
The example of the Republic of Ireland is not a heartening picture. From the very beginning, the warning signs were there. Eamon de Valera declared during the War of Independence that Protestants were, “not Irish people”. After drafting a special status position for the Catholic Church in the 1937 Irish Constitution, de Valera actively intervened to limit the role of Protestants in the new state.
In a 1930 Dail debate on the appointment of a Protestant librarian in Mayo, de Valera revealed his bigotry: “I say that if I had a vote on a local body, and there were two qualified people who had to deal with a Catholic community, and if one was a Catholic and the other a Protestant, I would unhesitatingly vote for the Catholic.”
Taking their lead from the Irish head of state, others went much further. Trinity College Dublin graduates were barred from obtaining government roles because of naked sectarianism. Boycotts of Protestant businesses were actively encouraged at local levels.
More sinister forces engaged in a pogrom of hundreds of Protestants in more rural parts. In West Cork, author and historian Robin Bury details the murder of 200 Protestants between 1920-1923.
Winston Churchill in a letter in 1923 to Michael Collins concerning these murders notes: “As far as I know, not a single person has been apprehended, much less punished, for any of these cruel deeds.”
The widespread destruction of Northern Ireland business goods in Dublin, the financing of northern IRA units at the behest of Michael Collins, and the kidnapping of 43 Northern Ireland Protestants in 1922 in Fermanagh, Tyrone and Armagh by the Irish Republic’s army did nothing to assuage fears that this new inclusive republic had one minority that was not included or welcome.
In light of this, it is no surprise that the population of Protestants in the Irish Republic markedly declined since partition by over 70% (while the Catholic minority of N Ireland has increased). This mass displacement of an ethnic minority is unprecedented in British and Irish history. Census figures reveals over 24,000 Protestants fled to Northern Ireland within 15 years of partition.
Arlene Foster grew up near Rosslea in the south east of Fermanagh. She would have witnessed the brutal ethnic cleansing there of the minority Protestant population. My family grew up beside her family outside the village. They had lived there for generations. A notable example of the ethnic cleansing was the murder of the last Protestant shop owner, Douglas Deering, in Rosslea by the IRA. Three other Protestant businesses in the village had been intimidated to close down by the late 70s. By 1977 only one remained.
Deering was a devout Christian from the Plymouth Brethren tradition. His little shop was bombed on four occasions to drive him out. When this failed to do so, IRA terrorists walked into it on May 12 1977 and gunned him down.
The systematic intimidation and ethnic cleansing of Protestants from the border communities is a historical fact. Sinn Fein applauded it. The SDLP and the Catholic Church washed their hands of it by looking the other way. There were no civil rights marches for them. There was no interest from the media, academic world or Amnesty International for their plight. No groups gather in flags to commemorate their brutal slayings. But Protestant unionists have not forgotten.
The name Sinn Fein means “We Ourselves” and they unashamedly daub their racist “Brits Out” slogan on mugs, websites, and posters. For many Ulster Protestants, too much innocent blood has been shed in the recent past to believe that the old sectarian impulses will not be unleashed if the British government relinquishes control of the island.
Jewish parents used to warn their children to keep a suitcase packed because they argued “you never know when you might have to flee”. The Protestants of Ireland retain that same sense of dread. Things may have changed on the surface but suspicion remains that trouble is never far away. “Brits Out” is the old dog-whistle for “Prods Out”. They haven’t gone away you know.
• Rev Dr Paul Ferguson is a relative of former first minister Arlene Foster. Their families grew up near Rosslea in Co Fermanagh. He is a qualified lawyer, church historian, and an ordained minister of religion working in SE Asia.