‘Surreal’ moment as Irish Presbyterian leader ‘insisted to diplomats that he wasn’t Irish’

At a lunch with the British Ambassador to Dublin and senior NIO official Chirs McCabe, the Presbyterian church’s two most senior figures expressed views which were described as “surreal”.

Tuesday, 29th December 2020, 11:09 am
The Rev Dr Samuel Hutchinson

A note by Mr McCabe of the November 1996 encounter with Presbyterian Moderator the Rev Dr Harry Allen and the Rev Sam Hutchinson, Clerk of the General Assembly who would become Moderator the following year, was addressed to the ambassador, and said: “On identity, the views expressed tended towards the surreal. Both men were absolutely clear that they, and their Northern flock, are first and foremost British.

“Dr Allen was prepared to admit that his Britishness was tinged (or was it tainted?) by a bit of Irishness, but Mr Hutchinson was adamant that he was not Irish in any respect – other than, perhaps, having had the misfortune to be born on the island of Ireland.

“When pressed hard on this by you he said the only sub-genus of Britishness he would admit to was ‘Ulster-Scots’.

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“In expressing these opinions neither man seemed to see the contradictions with their positions as the most senior members of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland!”

However, in another encounter two years later the Rev Allen was referred to more favourably. Peter Bell, a veteran NIO official who at that time was the British Joint Secretary in the joint British-Irish Secretariat at Maryfield, set out details of what was said at a lunch with Presbyterian clergy on November 1, 1996.

Mr Bell said that “Mr Allen and his colleagues confirmed my suspicion that articulate Presbyterian clergymen put the unionist case, in the sense of articulating what their congregations really think, far more effectively than most, if not all their elected representatives, and cannot be written off so easily. The ‘John Dunlop syndrome’, in fact.”

Another official said of a meeting with subsequent Methodist clerics: “The Methodists emphasised throughout that they were an all-Ireland church, and whether from policy or conviction, came across as markedly less unionist in orientation than the Presbyterians on their last visit to Maryfield.”

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