February 27, 2016

#NorthernIreland2016 Interview Series - David McDowell

David was born in Belfast in 1970 and lived there and in the Glens of Antrim. He attended Larne Grammar and Belfast Royal Academy, where, like a lot of his peers, he got into politics at the time of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. David then read History at Oxford and during the nineties was an active Young Unionist and Unionist Graduate, "an enthusiastic Trimblista". Now David teaches history and politics in Edinburgh but is less active in actual politics.

Brian John Spencer: "When did you first learn about the Easter Rising of 1916?" David McDowell:
"I was a voracious reader, precociously interested in history and politics, as a child, so I don't remember ever not knowing about it, just as I don't remember ever not knowing about the world wars. I first studied it properly in 6th form at the Academy. I remember being very struck by the 1966 analysis by Fr FX Martin. In my vaguely guilty middle-class way I had assumed that the rebels had some sort of legitimate grievance,as in 1798, but here was a priest, no less, explaining that they had nothing of the kind. My teacher, who had been in the civil rights movement but had no time for violence, showed us Pearse’s writings, and even then I was struck by the similarity with fascism. I read a bit of Yeats and was briefly attracted by the romance of it, but then grew up a bit and read Milton’s healthier stuff. 
The more I learned about the rebellion the more I disliked it. We all regret sectarianism, but our religious upbringing is a major cultural influence on us, to the extent that being a Catholic or Protestant atheist isn't just a Troubles joke. From the original concept of redemptive blood sacrifice and blasphemous use of the term ‘rising’ at Easter, to the superstitious martyrolatry after the executions, the whole thing is, to say the least, not my cup of tea. Give me the Belfast Academy rebellion of 1792 any day. 
All that said, I am not ‘offended’ by anyone else wanting to commemorate it." 

BJS: "Do the men, the act or the stated ideals in the proclamation mean anything to you?" DM:

"There is something about the leaders of 1916 which I don’t really ‘get’ in the way that I ‘get’ Wolfe Tone. Roy Foster’s recent book suggests that the wider nationalist movement had a lot of interesting people in it but it's clear from it that they didn’t ‘get’ Ulster either, and the overall image of 1916 is downright odd to mePearse, with his Gaelic mysticism, emotional Catholicism, strange poetry suggesting crushes on young lads, dwelling on Ireland's victim complex, and his idea that he represented Christ, was hardly the sort of chap an Ulster Protestant could admire. His point about an Orangeman with a gun being less ridiculous than a nationalist without one suggests both a wilful lack of understanding of Ulster and a death wish. Which, of course, some historians believe he had.  
Connolly was rather more rational and progressive - but my friends from Poland and Estonia would not recommend his Marxist economic recipes. At the time, there were plenty of working-class loyalist socialists like William Walker who argued against his claim that separatism was a prerequisite for social improvements. And independent Ireland didn't exactly take Connolly’s ideas seriously either.  
The proclamation has progressive points, but these do not detract from my overall disagreement with its separatist aims. And as for its concepts: Westminster ‘alien’, the English ‘foreign people’, the Germans ‘gallant allies’? On your bike. ‘The republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman?’ It wasn't, it didn’t, it isn't, it can't, it won't."

BJS: "When did you first learn about the Battle of the Somme?" DM:

"Again, I can’t remember ever not knowing about the two world wars. Little boys in the 1970s and early 1980s were surrounded by stories of these conflicts through comics like Warlord and Battle, and TV series which ranged from the humorous to the melodramatic. You would act out wars with wee ‘midgie’ soldiers and play ‘British and Germans’ in the playground in the way that earlier generations played ‘Cowboys and Indians’. What do they play now, I wonder? Nothing so bloodthirsty, no doubt.  
To be honest, World War Two was more attractive – less depressing static trench warfare, more cool kit like sub-machine-guns and Spitfires, and a clearly evil baddie. However, my great-grandfather – still alive, though very frail, in my boyhood – had served with the Royal Irish Rifles in the First World War, and reminders of that conflict were always there in our culture. I learned more about it at school and university, though I think that for a long time I bought into the popular view of it as a tragedy divorced from actual history, the Blackadder version of events which makes actual military historians tear their hair out.  
As an adult, my increasing contact with loyalism, political unionism, and history teaching, combined to flesh out my understanding of the First World War and the Somme in particular."

BJS: "Does this act, the men and their determination to show their loyalty to Britain mean anything to you?" DM:

"It means a great deal. They were putting their money where their mouths were, along with millions of others from Aberdeen to Adelaide. It was the great and terrible adventure which sealed in blood our membership of the greater British family. As with the Scots, Australians and Canadians, there is a risk that Ulstermen think they won the Great War single-handed. I don't sign up to that or to the ‘share this historically questionable meme with poppies and a Spitfire or you hate our troops’ mindset you see on Facebook. ‘Poppy fascism’ is depressingly redolent of the shrill emotionalism of republicans. I prefer the austere dignity of traditional remembrance. 
Becoming a teacher enhanced my understanding and appreciation of it all, especially as I researched the wartime history of my school. The 40 former pupils killed at the Somme – ten on the first day, several still in their teens – could have been my lot, the people I've taught, and one is struck by the terrible loss of young lives. There is something haunting, as one of my colleagues said recently, about those teenage faces staring out of black-and-white photos, usually unaware of what was going to happen to them.These were, of course, mostly Scots but, politics apart, the values and motivations were often similar."

BJS: "As a (British/Irish/Northern Irish*) person, is the 1916 Rising important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island?" DM:

"It is, perhaps, just about possible, as the Home Rule MP Tom Kettle hoped, that maybe the unionists and Home Rulers could have found a modus vivendi as a result of their shared experiences in the war; Gusty Spence’s father carried a mortally wounded nationalist MP from the battlefield at Messines. The Home Rulers had shown the loyalists that they weren't traitors. 
Sadly, the clumsy government response to the Easter rebellion, carried out with the full approval of most Ulster Protestants, wiped out the Home Rulers electorally, leaving the Sinn Feiners, for whom we had and often still have a strong distaste, as representatives of the rest of Ireland. If one aspires to a united Ireland (which I don’t) the rebels are surely not great people to celebrate. To be sure, the North began the troublemaking and insisted on separate treatment (because Ireland wanted separate treatment from the rest of the UK) but the rebels copper-fastened our desire for partition. Their version of Irishness, which despite the vaguely liberal bits of the Proclamation was, in practice, an amalgam of Gaelic worn as a badge of difference, mawkish Catholicism, and separatist socialism, is more or less the opposite of my identity. The fact that it became the accepted version of what Irishness meant was bad for the position of Ulster Protestant unionists on the island. It means nothing to me apart from a visceral distaste. 
Actually, that's not totally true. I used to take school parties of English and Scottish students to Kilmainham Gaol. The creepy veneration of the relics of the holy martyrs and the barely-concealed xenophobia of some of the republican guides were valuable learning tools for some of my guilty English lefty colleagues, who had previously bought into the poor wee oppressed socialist heroes narrative pumped out by our Provo pals. I suspect it's a bit more PC now but it served my evil loyalist purposes of letting republicans make themselves look bad (normally that's what prods do)."

BJS: "As a (British/Irish/Northern Irish*) person, is the Somme offensive important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island?" DM:

"As a Northern Irish person, the Somme evokes an unusually emotional response; it was our blood sacrifice, in which horror and heroism combined to make something approaching a national epic. It is more important to me than the Boyne. To walk on the battlefields and in the cemeteries of the Western Front is a melancholy privilege; there is a terrible beauty about the Ulster Tower, Thiepval Memorial, Menin Gate, and other great monuments to that conflict. 
As a British citizen, it is part of the patrimony I share with my Scottish, English, and Welsh cousins; all of us fought together in the trenches, and interest in the various battles of the Great War is not only widespread but growing. An arguably unhealthy fascination with the World Wars is part of acommon British culture which applies to people from all parts of the UK, along with alcohol abuse, not being as good at international sport as we think we are, and a preference for comedy over philosophy, and dogs over children. I have more in common with, and can bond more easily with, an Englishman who’s interested in Ypres than I can with a Provo from Belfast for whom all this is, as they say themselves, ‘foreign’. To be fair, I can’t imagine trying to bond with a Provo from Belfast. 
With my Irish hat on, I think the Somme has a greater potential to unite disparate strands of Irishness than the lunatic Pearse ever did. I have nothing but respect for those elements in the Republic, in its government, in the Irish armed forces, and, most heroic of all, the Limerick Royal British Legion, who have been working to restore the memory of the southern Irishmen who served in the British armed forces, and to rescue them from the undeserved oblivion to which the separatist narrative consigned them. 

This is bringing people together – at a Twelfth recently, I got talking to some big loyalist chap from the Shankill who spoke with real passion about how he is trying to educate young prods about how their ancestors fought alongside southern Catholics in the First World War, and how appreciative he was of all the people in the Republic and the wider nationalist community who were working in this field. There's a loyalist ballad called ‘Poppy Fields’ about WW1 which is quite apolitical and which I've sung to English, Scottish, and Southern Irish people, and they all like it. Perhaps because it's less controversial than the other stuff we’re known for. 
It may be irrational, given that this was a terrible imperialist war in which more people were killed than the rebels ever managed, but the green fields of France are a more promising meeting-place for reconciliation than the Dublin GPO."

BJS: "Will you be commemorating or celebrating either of these two events in April and July of this year respectively?" DM:

"I personally would have no problem attending 1916 commemorations organised by the present Irish administration, though as I’m no longer active in politics I don’t imagine I’d be invited to anything. I’d happily contribute to a seminar. I wouldn’t be ‘celebrating’ it, though. As an Ulster Unionist, I would attend in the same way I visit German war cemeteries with my students: in a spirit of respect for brave men who fell in regrettable wars; recognising that our own side, whilst ultimately we care most about it, was not the only one, and that it was possible for intelligent and Christian people to feel completely different about things; and glad that we descendants of British soldiers and Ulster volunteers now live in peace and friendly neighbourliness with (most of) the descendants of these old enemies. Enemies, nonetheless, is what they were, and the First Minister, in explaining why she couldn’t attend, was absolutely right to see the rebels’ followers in the PIRA of the Troubles era as enemies too. 
As for the Somme, I already have attended commemorative events for the First World War (you don’t ‘celebrate’ a thing like that). A good few years ago, my first ever visit to the Somme was with the Orange Order when they unveiled their little obelisk there. There was a march along the road to the Ulster Tower, led by a flute band and a bemused local lady mayoress; the wind carried the music into Thiepval Wood and it was as if a ghost army was marching along beside us, invisibly. It was thoroughly eerie and deeply moving. I've been to events organised by loyalists, by local communities in different parts of the UK, by the Royal British Legion, by my school, and most recently by the Scottish Government. 
For the Somme centenary, I'll be organising a commemorative talk for the pupils of my school, giving a sermon in our chapel, and arranging a display of pictures and artefacts. I'd like to get out to Thiepval for 1 July itself and have put myself down for a ticket, but if that doesn't work out I will attend something in Belfast or Edinburgh."

BJS: "Are you happy with the series of commemorative events put on by the Irish State? And what do you think of Arlene Foster's take on the events of Easter 1916 (she has refused to attend any commemorations)?" DM:

"I was sorry the Taoiseach was unhappy about Arlene’s apparently ungracious refusal to attend 1916 commemorative events. Unlike some of her party colleagues, she would not have meant any offence to him, or indeed the government andpeople of the Republic. When I knew her in Young Unionist politics she was definitely not a bigot and whilst she objected, quite rightly, to republicanism, she had nothing against southerners, as I recall. However, it might be said that – like many Ulster Protestant statements – her sentiments might benefit from a degree of tactful elaboration.

I don't doubt for a moment Fine Gael’s desire to mark the centenary in an inclusive way, and if you look at the website it is very tastefully and sensibly done. It is devoid of the anti-partitionist, Anglophobic, and sentimental nationalist mush which I’m told used to characterise southern attitudes to 1916. 

I’m not sure I would be mad keen on officers of the Irish army giving tricolours to every school in the land, but fair play to them if they want to do it. It is, after all, ‘their thing’, like the Twelfth is ‘our thing’ and I hope they enjoy themselves. We remember some pretty odd stuff ourselves, like King Billy and the massive body count of two world wars. I'm not offended by our southern cousins wanting to mark this. It was important to them and you can't pretend it didn't happen; luckily, the modern Republic shows not the slightest sign of wanting to follow the rebels’ violent path, so it's pretty harmless."

BJS: "As a person on (or from) the island are you happy with the where we are now at in terms of culture, cosmopolitanism and broad-mindedness?" DM:

"The place is very different now to when I was a wee lad and much of this is progress. You can get a pint of real ale in Belfast, which is a big thing for me. In many respects we are more like a normal British region, with all the good and bad that this entails. What people forget is that this happened because of the bloody-minded resilience of people during the Troubles, who refused to surrender to the terrorists, and to the UK state, which combated effectively the republican campaign.  
Yes, there are still some creakingly old-fashioned attitudes, and I do get embarrassed when the DUP say something silly, or loyalists allow themselves to be duped by republicans into counter-productive activity. I'd like to see something that would bring more working-class prods on board with the system. 
You can never, however, completely escape people saying and doing daft things. I am a philosophical conservative and do not believe in human perfection. Look at France and the USA,  built on the principles of enlightenment rationalism beloved of the United Irishmen, with the idea that some sort of perfect society could be built. Hardly flawless.

A good starting point would be if people could stop being ‘offended’ by everything but as this is a global cult these days I don't have much hope in that regard."

BJS: "What are your hopes for the future of this divided province and island?" DM:

"As I say, I would be delighted if more could be done to bring working-class prods on board. I have been very impressed, as I've also mentioned, by Dublin’s efforts to recognise that Ireland’s historic relationship with Britain is not a black and white story of villainy, and to recognise the Irish troops who fought in the British Army. 

The island’s division was pretty inevitable in the nature of Ireland’s historical evolution and the nature of separatist nationalism at the time; it’s not worth worrying about. We can have comfortable differences and friendships, north-south and east-west. The more unionists and nationalists realise that they need to reassure one another, the better, though not everyone is in a hurry to do this.

As for the divided province, I am encouraged by the number of Catholics self-identifying as Northern Irish. Moves towards a shared identity which enough people are happy with are positive; I'd like to see a new flag and anthem for events where we work as a province. Attached though I am to the Ulster Banner, I realise it isn't looked on with fondness by RCs. Just don't get a committee or a schoolchild to design the replacement, or we’ll end up with some ghastly thing with a smily face or a dove or some such nonsense.   
It increasingly looks as if, constitutionally, we will head alongside the Scots and Welsh towards a greater degree of devolution, where most of our internal affairs are handled regionally but we are also free to build some external relationships. We’re forced to work with each other, and to consider our common identity, as we’ll never be as British (by which too many people sadly mean English) as Finchley nor as Irish as Kilkenny, and that's ok. And that we accept that the differences between us won't go away, you know, but can be lived with. 
These are not, of course, original thoughts. As academics like Peter Shirlow and Tony Novosel have shown, in the seventies and eighties, something similar was being bandied about by, erm, the working-class loyalists of the UDA. 

I'll get my coat."

BJS: "Please share any further thoughts these questions may have stimulated." DM:

"It can of course be argued that Ulster Protestants have a cheek complaining about the Easter Rebellion, given that in the Home Rule crises they had challenged the British government and imported rifles to do so. Moreover, many unionists, myself included, proudly celebrate ancestors who ‘turned oot’ in a considerably bloodier rebellion in 1798. However, the Irish administration of 1798 was so corrupt and unjust that it could unite Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter in opposition to it. By contrast, while it had a way to go in terms of votes for women, the UK of 1916 was more progressive, and had enacted a large number of reforms which improved the material conditions of the mass of the people of Ireland (from Catholic Emancipation to the Land Acts); indeed, it was prepared to grant self-government to the island.

Moreover, rather like their ancestors who joined the United Irishmen because of government idiocy rather than out of the notion that living in Ireland gives one some kind of wholly separate identity which demands a wholly separate state, unionists mobilised against Westminster with regret. The 1916 rebels were, as the late Garrett Fitzgerald’s father recalled, partly driven by regret that so many Catholic Irishmen were prepared to accept Home Rule inside the Empire and had joined up in 1914. They were not only opposed to our interests – they despised their fellow-nationalists. Theyacquired a post facto legitimacy with Sinn Fein’s huge Southern Irish vote in 1918, but this was more down to English blunders – shooting the leaders and then trying to introduce conscription – than any admiration for the causes of the revolt. Nobody doubts their courage, but nor do we doubt the courage of the Germans. This does not mean they were on our side, or part of our heritage. The presence of a few prods in rebel ranks and the self-deluding symbolism of the tricolourproves nothing.

Of course, a republican would say that I am merely repeating imperialist ascendancy revisionist lies. Maybe so, but a hundred years on the Republic and its hideous flag still haven’t claimed the allegiance of every Irishman. Whose fault is that, eh?"
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