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Friday, September 28th was Ulster Day, the anniversary of the original Ulster Covenant. I had heard about a 'Grand Protestant Rally' to be held in the Ballymena Town Hall. It sounded interesting, so I brought along my reporter's notebook and my trusty Sony to record the addresses. Everyone who entered was given a copy of a document based on the historic Ulster Covenant. The text reads...
“ULSTER PROTESTANT COVENANT
Being convinced in our consciences that the Present erosion of our Protestant cultural identity would be disastrous to the well-being of Ulster, subversive of our civil and religious liberty and perilous to the unity of the United Kingdom, we the undersigned, Protestants of Ulster, humbly relying on the God who our forefathers in days of strife and turmoil confidently trusted, do hereby pledge ourselves to the Protestant Covenant. Throughout this time of crises. We vow to stand by one another in defending our Faith and Culture using all means necessary to defeat the enemies of our beloved Province and in sure confidence that God will defend our right to do so. Believing in the above Covenant we subscribe our names below. “
The platform was decorated with flags – a Union Jack, an old Vanguard flag, an Orange Standard, a Scottish Saltire, a Northern Ireland flag, a Drumcree flag and even, to my surprise, an Ulster National Flag. A large orange coloured banner read Grand Protestant Rally and the motto, ‘In God We Trust’.
On the platform were eight men. I recognised the loyalist lawyer, Richard Monteith; FAIR spokesman Willie Frazer; Jim Dixon, a survivor of the PIRA's sectarian bombing of a memorial service at the Enniskillen cenotaph; prominent Orange critic of the Grand Lodge, Mark Harbinson; and former DUP council candidate, Stephen Moore, who chaired the gathering. A sixth man was identified as Ray Hallam. I have no idea who the other two were. The Ballymena town hall was not full. I’d say that there were not more than 400 people present.
The chairman introduced the first speaker, Willie Frazer, from South Armagh. Mr Frazer represents a group whose members are victims or relatives of victims of the IRA. He announced his intention to picket the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in Dublin the following day. He was opposed to the GFA, but he wanted more than getting the ‘tramps’ out of government. He believed the victims’ groups in areas like South Armagh and Fermanagh give back morale to Protestants there. Ray Hallam, who had earlier opened the proceedings in prayer, then gave a none-too-brief outline of church history, with a special emphasis on the evils of the Roman Empire and later the Papacy. According to Mr Hallam, in his rambling style, the Church of Rome is behind all the evils in the world, including the Nazis and Tony Blair! Ulster, though, is the last bastion of Protestantism, so Blair and his Catholic government is trying to dismantle its institutions. Mr Hallam definitely lost his audience half-way through his tiresome tirade. They seemed relieved when he eventually sat down. I was embarrassed for him.
Mark Harbinson, who appears to be the leader of the ‘Grand Protestant Committee’ behind the rally, explained the reasons behind the Protestant Covenant. The key word in it is ‘trust’, he claimed. He was collecting names and addresses, so that they could be collated to organise a group. The Committee behind the rally are not terrorists, he said, as claimed by some newspapers. Anyone looking for terrorists could find them up in Stormont – in government!
Jim Dixon, who survived a sectarian Provo bomb attack on the Enniskillen Remembrance Day parade, received a standing ovation when he came to the podium. Mr Dixon stood as an independent candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone in the general election. Mr Dixon announced that a memorial service for the victims of terrorism and all who suffered in the troubles will take place in Guildhall Square in Londonderry on November 10th. He spoke of his pain standing outside Long Kesh when the gates were opened and evil men were set free. He demanded a Saville-type inquiry into the large number of terrorist atrocities carried out against Protestant targets. He denounced the GFA as a deception and argued for an Assembly similar to that in Wales or in Scotland. In fact, he said, “We may need to face the truth that some form of independence is necessary.”
Mr Dixon denounced any form of terrorism. The Agreement had encouraged some to take the view that terror works; that it is the only way to success. This he said is not true. He advocated looking at the Convention on Genocide, the Helsinki Agreement and the UN Charter of Human Rights. Rulers, private individuals and politicians can be punished for breaches of these, he claimed. Ulster would only be lost if we couldn't be bothered. We need to be united, to mobilise for a democratic Ulster and demand to be treated as first class citizens.
During this address, a woman in the audience apparently denounced me to the security men as I was recording the proceedings on my Sony and taking notes. I may have missed a bit. I had to hand over the batteries, as I had not sought permission to make a recording of any of the speeches. My reply was that I understood it to be a public meeting and saw no notice restricting tape recordings. I was not trying to hide anything, but openly recording the speeches for this report.
Mr Harbinson returned to the podium for the main address, which was fervent, fluent, confident and even humorous. The idea for the rally came from the frustration he felt at seeing Protestants under constant physical and verbal attack. He had voted no to the GFA, but now politicians were saying to him, ‘Don’t wreck it. We want to change it.’ The Grand Protestant Committee was set up because the present situation is no longer acceptable. Protestant church leaders must stop ‘colluding with Rome’ or resign. Their job would be better spent putting Protestant ‘bums on pew’ in their emptying churches. The choice of the term ‘Protestant’ rather than ‘loyalist’ in the title was deliberate, he said, as they were for the preservation of faith and identity.
He accused the RUC Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, of talking tough against Protestants while trying not to inflame Catholics. He claimed that many Protestants already don’t accept the RUC – never mind the new Police Service of Northern Ireland. He will never accept the PSNI. He referred to the opening of Schomberg House, the new headquarters of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, the following day. It was time, he said, for Grand Lodge to defend Protestants rather than petition the Northern Ireland Office for help. Tony Blair could show how serious he was about fighting terrorism by kicking out ‘Babs Brown and Butcher McGuinness’ from the Executive.
He proposed a ‘mass mobilisation’ of Protestants against the ‘dilution of their Faith and identity.’ To the politicians they should say, ‘Listen to us. We put you in positions of power. If you don’t…’. He went on to say, ‘Question so-called democrats. If there is a 51% vote for a united Ireland would you go for it? I, for one, won’t.’ Prods should send a powerful message to Blair and Ahern, ‘We won’t go quietly.’ For this ‘courage is required above all qualities’ and if necessary, ‘It is every democrat’s right to lift arms in defence of democracy.’ After this rousing finish, the meeting ended with the singing of O God our Help in Ages Past.
This rally shows that some Ulster Protestants have learned nothing over the past thirty years. There are good reasons for opposing the so-called ‘Good Friday Agreement’, one of which is its institutionalisation of sectarian divisions. The proper response is to narrow that gap, not to widen it. There is a lot that is valuable in Ulster’s rich Protestant heritage - especially amongst the Dissenting tradition. However, all this paranoid, anti-Popery stuff is preposterous nonsense. There are good reasons for not wanting anything to do with the Roman Catholic church, but this wild stuff goes much too far. In this post-Christian era, there is in fact an awful lot in common between the traditionalist Catholic and Protestant positions on social, moral and economic issues.
Still, though, the frustrations that Protestants in North Belfast feel are genuine and need to be addressed. If the only folk who take them seriously are Mr Harbinson’s committee, then it will gain mass support there. Those of us who seek a solution that doesn’t put down either Catholics or Protestants but offers social justice for all can’t ignore this. If we do try to, it will blow up in our faces.
The press largely ignored the rally, but one of those few journalists who did cover it, Susan McKay in the Sunday Tribune, denounced it as a ‘hate rally’. That’s a nice phrase that trips lightly off the tongue, but it’s hardly fair to the people who turned up. The main thing that struck me was not hatred but frustration and bewilderment. In a later Guardian magazine article, she tried to link it with the murder of the Sunday World journalist, Martin O’Hagan, which took place at the same time that the rally was breaking up.
A THIRD WAY FOR ULSTER
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