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.
My Protestant identity was defined by political Unionism. Unionism has always been about saying ‘No’ in order to preserve the status quo. The thundering rhetoric of Rev. Ian Paisley riling up a crowd with his chants of “Never. Never. Never.” reinforced a “No Surrender” attitude. Unionism was united behind one common enemy - Irish Nationalism, and you went along with it, because that’s how it was.
Unionism assumes Protestant majority rule, loyalty to the British Crown, and an equal place within the United Kingdom. But today those assumptions that held up the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mindset of the Troubles no longer exist.
The 2022 census showed that for the first time in Northern Ireland’s 100-year history, there are more Catholics than Protestants. Elections last May saw the Unionist parties lose their First Minister position to Sinn Féin who are pushing for a ‘Border Poll’ referendum on the reunification of Ireland. And 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.
The Protestant identity of my youth has fractured. Where once this community spoke with one voice, there are now many diverse perspectives informed by different lived experiences.
There are those that knew life before ‘The Troubles’, those that lived through ‘The Troubles’, and those that have only known peace.
There are those that are victims, and those that are perpetrators.
There are those that have unyielding loyalty, and those that feel betrayed.
There are those that took the Union for granted and now have to advocate for it, and those who don’t see any value in it anymore.
There are those whose perspective is informed not by post-partition politics but by a desire for social justice and shared prosperity in a global economy.
“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.”
“Anybody looking in would get an impression that’s maybe ten or 15 years out of date because that's still the way the politics and government are set up. Politically, we're years behind where we actually are in society.”
Mal Johnston, Northern Irish.
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 Good Friday agreement either needs refreshed or updated or scrapped because it's not working. Stormont is dysfunctional. The two parties at the top hate each other. One doesn't want the country to exist, and the other thinks they represent the people when they represent nobody."
Chris Simpson, Northern Irish and British.
In order for Legislation to pass through the assembly it requires the support of the majority of Unionist and the majority of Nationalist members of the Assembly. “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 part of the Union and that is our God-given right.”
Zoe McCullough, Unionist
"Our politicians are too busy fighting each other instead of fighting for us. People are fed up with it." says Steven Pollock. "I would much prefer a majority government here. 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 in the May 2022 Assembly elections became the party with the most seats, allowing them to take the First Minister position. “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 and Loyalist
Throughout the early 2000s, the ceasefire held, and the Assembly stumbled along. And then Brexit happened. Political Unionism saw Brexit as an opportunity to get their border back. They ended up with a customs border in the Irish Sea - constitutionally still part of the United Kingdom but economically aligned with Ireland within the European Union. It was a spectacular own goal. No one is happy.
“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 and British.
Many Unionists feel betrayed - both by the UK government and their own political leaders who signed up for 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. “They're saying that you can't have a land border, but yet you can have a sea border? People are like, how come we've got the border now?”
Yet 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 ability to trade freely with both the UK and the EU presents a unique opportunity for businesses in Northern Ireland, but there is no political will to take advantage of it, despite the fact that Northern Ireland’s economy is now growing faster than the rest of the UK. “The problems with the protocol have been blown out of all proportion." says Neil McNickle, "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”.
“The big issue for the Unionist parties is that sovereignty matters more than jobs to them and always has.
Neil McNickle, Unionist and Northern Irish.
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 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.
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.
“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 and Northern Irish.
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, Irish, British and Northern Irish.
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.”
“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 idea of a sliding scale is a lot closer to what people in Northern Ireland are these days,” suggests Mal Johnston. “You have a sliding scale - faith or none, sliding scale - border or not, sliding scale - 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 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.
Northern Ireland’s Generation Z has grown up without the conflict of ‘The Troubles’. They have watched the Republic of Ireland embrace reform - legalizing abortion, and passing one of the world’s most progressive gender identity laws. Yet the political Unionist parties are still firmly rooted in ultra-conservative religious beliefs. “They’re fundamentalist Christians who mix politics with religion. They're really mad people.” says Stephanie Holmes.
Many young people see their own progressive agenda reflected in the policies of the socially liberal Nationalist parties, upending the tradition of tribal voting. “These are the people whose liberalism is probably more important than their position on the Constitution. It's moving those floating voters closer towards saying, okay, well, what about this United Ireland? What's it going to look like? Talk to me.”
“If I look over towards the Irish side, there's a whole wealth of culture there for the taking. I long to be able to relate to it because it’s so rich and beautiful. But there's a gulf between me and that, and then a gulf between me and feeling British. I am like a bastard child.”
Stephanie Holmes, Northern Irish.
The Good Friday Agreement brought the hope that generational change would transform historically insular identities, gradually improving relations across the sectarian divide. It seems to be working.
DISSONANT VOICES is a photographic essay that will continue to follow people from within the Protestant community, exploring how political and demographic changes are impacting their sense of identity.
Rather than feature political leaders, or those who claim to speak for any part of the community, these are the unheard voices of everyday people from across the Protestant community, presenting a fresh perspective of Northern Ireland.
These contemporary voices represent a diverse Protestant identity that goes beyond the marching bands, flags, and bonfires portrayed in mainstream media.
It tells the story of a community redefining an identity forged through conflict on the path to reconciliation and a permanent peace.