Neglecting our history leads to a dangerous place for everyone

ballyclare mural carsonA RECENT wall mural in County Antrim has spoken volumes about our community’s understanding of history.

 The mural, featuring Sir Edward Carson, uses three words to describe the most prominent leader of unionism.

 The words are “Politician”, “Barrister” and “Ulsterman”.

For those of a certain age range, the song title by Meatloaf is appropriate: “Two out of three ain’t bad”.

Because the last designation of Carson as an Ulsterman is decidedly not correct.

Sir Edward Carson was born in Dublin. When he first came north to Ulster his thick Dublin brogue was noticeable and initially is said to have caused some suspicion.

He would have described himself as an Irishman first and foremost. He saw the strength of Ulster Unionism in preventing Home Rule for Ireland as a whole. It is fair to say he emerged disillusioned after the outcome of the Fourth Home Rule Bill – the Government of Ireland (1920) Act – paved the way for partition of Ireland.

The nuances of those positions and outlooks are lost for generations of Ulstermen and women who know little and understand less of the complexities of their own history.

It is not surprising that a mistake like that on the mural should crop up.

And it is not solely the fault of the mural painter. It is symptomatic of a community which is dangerously ignorant of its history.

This is not a recent phenomenon.

Education underachievement in Protestant working class communities has been recognised and documented for years.

Protestant adults often lament that they learned more about the Tudors than they did about their own history.

In maintained schools there is a focus and discussion on Irish history which is largely missing in the state sector.

The roots of this situation may well lie in the educational system which was established when Northern Ireland was created, and the Orange Institution has to bear some of the responsibility for what transpired.

Lord Londonderry, as education minister, proposed that the education system should be a unified one. This suggestion had two main opponents, the Roman Catholic Church and the Orange Order.

Together they ensured that there would be a separate education system. One wanted to ensure that they continued to control their own schools. The other did not want everyone to be educated together.

In the tense period of the 1920s this can perhaps be understood.

But the outcome was that children from Protestant backgrounds were taught more about English history than who they were and what traditions they belonged to. As the state system developed it followed a path which increasingly ensured that Irish history was not a priority. Maybe it was all about trying to appear more British than anyone else. If so, maybe they won the battle. But the war has, it is fair to say, now come close to being lost.

It is very clear that a crisis point is being reached in the state sector. Lack of knowledge about the past is undermining any sense of confidence within what we might describe as the Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist community.

This is combined with a disengagement of young people from the political system, a fall in church attendance among the young and, indeed, factors such as the age profile of the Orange Institution. The old certainties on which unionism had its building blocks, are shrinking.

Sadly, there are still probably some people who don’t get it: who do not understand that without a sense of the past, people are not confident in their present and unsure of what their future is all about.

While it may be fantastic that such large numbers turn out on the Twelfth, this one day a year phenomenon means very little, as republicans fully realise. What really matters is the cultural struggle which is taking place on all the other days of the year.

In a study on history, identity and the school curriculum in Northern Ireland (2005), authors K C Baron and A W McCully argue that perceptions need to be challenged in relation to history in schools: “…in order to address history’s role in ongoing community conflict, educators may need to challenge more directly the beliefs and assumptions held by students of varied backgrounds, as well as provide a clearer alternative to the partisan histories encountered elsewhere.”

The Key Stage Three curriculum in Northern Ireland pronounces that history develops pupils as individuals by “helping pupils to understand the past so that they can begin to make sense of the world they live in today and learn to investigate where the present values and attitudes come from.”

The situation appears to be, however, that teaching of history is limited in the context of the chronological history of Ireland and post-partition Northern Ireland.

Similarly time spent on focusing on identity is very much dependant on the individual school and teachers. Some are very good. Others avoid any issues which might cause debate on cultural identity.

Often unionist identity is not acknowledged in any meaningful way, nor any effort made to understand the historical perspective. Instead, aspects such as the Troubles are studied by older pupils without context of the centuries of history which shaped them.

While some politicians might feel ‘the hand of history on their shoulders’, no one seemed to want to open the classroom door and have the lessons of the past examined.

The unionist community has, as a consequence, been let down by the system, including, it should be said, their own representatives in that system.

Perhaps where things started to go wrong in the 1920s was not the insistence by the Orange Order and others of a separate schools system based on religion, but on the lack of insistence of a common history curriculum for all schools which would examine the same history.

In Ulster schools today a shared history curriculum which would focus on the history that has shaped us would be beneficial; it would counter ‘community history’ of the street, which can be imbalanced and inaccurate and it would challenge perceptions. It also has the potential to build confidence.

Sadly for many in the unionist community there is no strategic sense of how important that issue is. Middle class unionist children will continue to do well at Grammar schools and then many will make the journey to English or Scottish universities. The majority will not return. They will get jobs and marry.

But there will often be a different story in Protestant working class communities. Universities will not be queuing up to offer places to those who are underachieving. Already lacking in confidence, they will then face the relentless diet of nationalist perceptions of who they are and how they are a collective negative in society.

History has many nuances. Some unionists find it hard to understand, for example, that Presbyterians from Ulster played such a role in the War of Independence in America. One person told me how they were ‘traitors who should have been hanged’ – using a modern perspective which casually ignores the complexity of history. In a country which provided 17 of the Presidents of the United States, such a view is a bit skewed, to be more than kind.

The reason people do not understand the complexity of history in this part of the world is that most of them never appear to have heard it mentioned in the classroom.

The end result is that within the state system and the unionist community, the major manifestations of history have been around the Twelfth, and these have not even been fully understood or articulately explained in most cases.

The end result of all of this is the sort of mural which appeared in Ballyclare recently. A small mistake perhaps in defining Carson as an Ulsterman. But like the iceberg, only the tip of a much deeper and wider problem. And a problem which no one seems to want to address.

This article originally appeared in the Orange Standard newspaper
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