After 25 years of peace, the Protestant community in Northern Ireland seeks to redefine an identity forged through conflict.
Photographs and Text by Stephen Jess
March 16th, 2022
I was born in East Belfast in 1970, just as ‘the Troubles’ kicked off. In the Northern Ireland I grew up in, you knew what you were - in my case, Protestant and British.
Growing up my Protestant identity was defined by the political and cultural tradition known as Unionism. Unionism assumes Protestant majority rule, loyalty to the British Crown, and an equal place within the United Kingdom.
But today those assumptions no longer exist. Census data to be published this summer is expected to show a majority Catholic population in Northern Ireland, upcoming elections are expected to return a nationalist majority to the Stormont government, and the chaos of Brexit has fundamentally changed Northern Ireland's relationship within the UK.
Twenty five years after leaving for New York, I return to find Unionism in crisis and failing the Protestant community it claims to represent.
“Northern Ireland isn't a thing which is easily summarised,” says Mal Johnston, “It's convenient to position people in a very binary way - Protestant versus Catholic, but that's not what Northern Ireland is. People talk about divided communities as if they're complete strangers to each other. Yet people from all manner of backgrounds blend together in work, play, shopping, sport every single day.”
“Anybody looking in would get an impression that’s maybe ten or 15 years out of date because that's still the way politics and government are set up. Politically, we're years behind where we actually are in society.”
Mal Johnson, Northern Irish
Political Unionism has always been rooted in ultra-conservative religious beliefs, which make the Unionist political parties some of the UK’s most far-right.
“They’re fundamentalist Christians who mix politics with religion. It's crazy. Like, they're really mad people.” Says Stephanie Holmes.
The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 established a devolved government - The Northern Ireland Assembly, in which Unionists and Nationalists would share power. 25 years later, it's clear this has only served to reinforce political polarization.
“The government in Stormont is dysfunctional. It doesn't work. The two parties at the top hate each other. One doesn't want the country to exist and the other thinks that they represent the people when they represent nobody.”
Chris Simpson, Northern Irish
Many Assembly decisions require cross-community support - not just majority support, but the support of a certain percentage of nationalists and unionists.
“We have this mechanism where we either all agree or no one agrees. But if we don't agree, nothing happens. It's absolutely fucking ludicrous.” says John Hagan
Northern Ireland seems politically stuck, and there is a growing sense that reform is needed. The Good Friday Agreement delivered a ceasefire but it hasn't delivered good government.
I think a lot of the problem is that there is an expectation that Northern Ireland is a part of the Union and that is our God given right.
Zoe McCullough, Unionist
“I would much prefer a majority government here,” says Steven Pollock. “I wouldn’t care if it was Sinn Féin because they can be held accountable. If they do a bad job, then they don't get voted in the next time around. And that's it, simple. It removes the orange and green.”
Sinn Féin was formed as the political wing of the IRA during the early 1970s. They are the largest nationalist party, and widely expected to be the largest overall party in the upcoming election in 2022.
“They realized that the peace process would get them more than blowing the shit out of us,” says John Hagan, “And the Protestants didn’t know what to do. We only know how to react. We don't know how to come up with strategies.”
“It's like a football match. We've always turned up on the field. We've always won. Whether we played well or didn't play. And now the Republicans are actually playing a better game. We're sitting back, Jesus, they really are scoring goals. But we're still winning, aren't we? Are we? Maybe we're not.”
John Hagan, Ulster Protestant
Throughout the early 2000s the ceasefire held and the Assembly stumbled along. And then Brexit happened.
Despite assurances from the British Government that there would be no customs border in the Irish Sea, Northern Ireland is now constitutionally in the United Kingdom but economically aligned with Ireland in the EU.
Within the EU, I felt that comfort of being Northern Irish, Irish, British and European - all of those. And now I kind of feel that I'm not really quite sure, and somebody's making me choose.
Ruth Allum, Northern Irish
Many Unionists feel betrayed - both by the UK government and their own political leaders who signed up to the sea border. They see it as a treasonous act of sabotage, undermining Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.
“‘Boris Betrayal’ they called it because they sold us out,” says Chris Simpson. “You had the Irish Prime Minister holding a newspaper showing a bombed border crossing saying “We can never go back to that”. They're saying that you can't have a land border, but yet you can have a sea border? People are left looking around and being like, well, how come we've got the border now?”
No one is happy about Brexit. There is frustration at inept politicians unable to deal with the consequences of their own decisions. “You get what you vote for and they voted for Brexit,” says Heather Wilson.
“The problems with the protocol have been blown out of all proportion. Our economy is a basket case and this could be a silver bullet for Northern Ireland. The people who are out there protesting against the protocol, they aren't business owners” says Neil McNickle
“The big issue for the Unionist parties is that sovereignty matters more than jobs to them and always has.”
Neil McNickle, Northern Irish
But for many, the whole Brexit saga has simply reinforced what many Protestants in Northern Ireland always knew, and are now forced to reckon with - the rest of the United Kingdom doesn't care about Northern Ireland.
“I don't think there's a huge amount of understanding,” says David Lowry. “When I moved to Manchester, I remember a friend's flatmate asking “who are the goodies and who are the baddies?”
People around here would have no love for the British government. They don't have loyalty to the British government. They are loyal to the Royal family and being a part of the Union, and the history behind that.”
Steven Pollock, Loyalist
The Protestant identity of my youth was an identity shaped by conflict, and 25 years after the Good Friday Agreement brought a ceasefire, that identity has fractured.
Fed up with politics that doesn't work for them, many in the Protestant community are moving away from traditional Unionism and looking at Northern Ireland’s future from a cultural and socio-economic perspective.
“People are realizing that the kind of standard five-second argument we were all raised to make doesn't quite work anymore,” says James Greer.
I don't see why you can't be British and Irish. In fact, I think it's a great advantage that you can choose to be British and Irish and Northern Irish. You know what? There's no loss in any of that. It's all positive.
Stephen Hill, Northern Irish
“To be honest, I think the problem we have is an identity issue.” says John Hagan.
Many Protestants are looking further back in their history, before partition 100 years ago, and trying to reconcile their Britishness and their Irishness.
Just because 26 counties decided to leave Britain, why does that mean I can’t be Irish? I’m Irish and British just as a Glaswegian might be Scottish and British.
Andy Lindsay, Northern Irish, Irish and British
A new identity is emerging. In a recent poll over one-third of people in Northern Ireland identified themselves as ‘Northern Irish’. “It's a recognition that we're different here. There's a distinct Northern Ireland” says James Greer.
“I think most people's opinions are fluid,” says Heather Wilson. “They just don't really open up and say it so easily.”
In my kind of wishy-washy unionism, I would embrace 'Northern Irish' as a positive, because it includes an Irishness in there. It can be a gateway to Irishness or a gateway to Britishness.
James Greer, Unionist
“The idea of a sliding scale is a lot closer to what people in Northern Ireland are these days,” suggests Mal Johnston. “You have sliding scale - faith or none, sliding scale - border or not, sliding scale - social conservative or Liberal. I think people can be kind of a mishmash of those.”
“This is something I never would have thought I'd say,” says Ruth Allum, “I'm open to being whatever is the best future for my children.”
“I would describe myself as Northern Irish and I don't really care what anybody else thinks of that. That's what feels right for me. And I think regardless of the constitutional situation, I'll always consider myself to be Northern Irish.”
Heather Wilson, Northern Irish
The Northern Ireland Peace Process stands as a roadmap for reconciliation of conflict elsewhere in the world. While it led to peace, it did not repair relationships between the pro-British Protestant and pro-Irish Catholic communities.
It was built with the hope that generational change would transform historically insular identities, gradually improving relations across the sectarian divide.
DISSONANT VOICES is a photographic project that will continue to follow people from within the Protestant community over the next year exploring this evolution in Protestant identity.
It will tell the story of a community redefining its identity on the path to post-conflict reconciliation and permanent peace.
The Peace Process is working. This project presents an opportunity to document that as it happens.