Minister Heather Humphreys
Remarks at Launch of “Protestant and Irish: the minority’s search for place in independent Ireland” at the Royal Irish Academy – 6th March 2019
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a privilege to here with you today for the launch of this important and impressive book.
I would like to congratulate the 18 contributing authors for their great work, not alone for the depth of their research, but also for the clarity and class of their writing.
I would also like to commend the editors, Ian d’Alton and Ida Milne, on their wonderful achievement.
The huge contribution of the Protestant community to the political, economic, sporting and cultural development of independent Ireland is a historical fact, and this publication tells that story in an accessible and appealing way.
The early decades of independence were certainly turbulent – and sometimes precarious – for Irish Protestants, and it is true that many chose to keep themselves to themselves.
But as the nation grew, so did the sense that Irish Protestants were an intrinsic and very valuable part of the national fabric, especially in the business community.
This afforded Protestants a feeling of participation, and it allowed this community to develop its Irish identity in a confident and mature way.
Some may have been surprised when this Monaghan Presbyterian woman was appointed to Cabinet with responsibility for heading up the State’s 2016 Commemorations, a role which I was particularly honoured to carry out.
I was in no doubt of the challenge of the task ahead, but the Expert Advisory Group, led by Dr Maurice Manning, gave me great advice and support.
From the beginning, I was determined to promote commemorations that were respectful, inclusive and authentic, examining all narratives and opinions, many of which had been misunderstood and misinterpreted.
In taking this approach, we travelled a journey together as a nation that gave us a deeper understanding of the different perspectives in our shared history.
In many ways, 2016 was a ‘coming of age’ for our nation, and I was quite overwhelmed by the openness of the Irish people to shine a light on a difficult part of our history and examine it in all of its complexities, embracing different narratives and conscious that we had a shared history but often a different memory.
I recall during an interview about the commemorations I said that I was a proud Ulster Woman and also a Proud Irish Republican.
It was something that some people were surprised to hear.
I am a proud Irish Republican in its truest sense – liberty, equality and fraternity.
The same values espoused by the United Irish men in 1798 whether they be Protestant, Catholic or Dissenter.
My approach to commemorations was very much influenced by my own experience, and an innate sensitivity that you develop when growing up on the border.
I grew up in an Ireland where Protestants lived alongside their Catholic neighbours in relative harmony, but we were always mindful that we were part of a minority tradition who in difficult times kept our heads down for fear of bringing trouble or unwanted attention to our community.
Ireland is now a very changed country to the one I grew up in.
That said, we must not shy away from confronting the historical past without fear.
The truth is that Irish Protestants experienced some real suffering over the years and, in this book, we read of the West Cork bachelor who never married because of the Ne Temere rule of the Catholic Church.
But moving on to a changed Ireland, I am very happy and proud to live in a country that respects my heritage and values the contribution of the Protestant community.
Our community has grown in confidence and is proud of the role it plays in a modern Ireland where I can confidently say that Protestants are treated with dignity and respect.
Today, thankfully, Irish Protestants feel ‘more or less uncomplicatedly Irish,’ as Roy Foster put it so neatly.
As we enter the latter half of the Decade of Centenaries, and in order to get a fuller understanding of the Protestant story, I feel it is time to establish a Protestant Cultural Centre.
And I was pleased to ensure that Project Ireland 2040 recognises the need to appropriately record and reflect Protestants’ cultural heritage.
The story of Protestants in the Irish Republic has never been properly told.
It is a story of achievement and remarkable contribution to the State ranging from Presidents of Ireland, to that of Chief Justice, to the first woman Secretary General, to a DPP to holders of countless other public offices as well as huge voluntary contribution at local level.
But it is a story of sustained and rapid decline in population due to factors such as increasing isolation, emigration and, as I just mentioned, Ne Temere.
It is also a story of dominance by the religious majority as reflected in key events such as the Mayo county librarian scandal, the Fethard on Sea boycott, as well as a constitutional and legal framework which strongly reflected an overwhelming Catholic ethos.
The Protestant Cultural Centre would seek to capture and tell the full story of the experiences of Protestants in the State at national, local and familial level.
It would tell of the successes, but also of the difficulties, challenges and losses endured.
It would aim to be balanced, authoritative and truthful.
To tell the full story, the Centre would also trace the arrival of various Protestant groups to Ireland ranging from 16th century settlers, to Ulster Scots, to Huguenots, to Palatines and more.
It would also trace their leadership in the 1798 and Young Irelander rebellions, to the role of key Protestant figures in the Celtic revival and the intellectual underpinning of Ireland as an independent State.
But back to this evening and a book that reflects this rich and complex Protestant story –
This book paints pictures of well-known historical figures, but equally it deals with the lives and histories of ordinary men and women and their concerns, ranging from clerics to revolutionaries, from business people to athletes, and from army men to artists.
And it was often difficult because it was generally assumed that being Irish automatically meant you were Catholic.
Protestants regularly had to explain that this was not the case.
But if nothing else, we were resilient.
Irish Protestants have always mastered the ability to juggle multiple cultural identities.
Just ask Douglas Hyde. Or Sam Maguire.
Brexit presents us with many challenges and we are now heading into a new situation where the benefits of an invisible border are being thrown into question.
Whatever the final outcome, one thing is certain: we are facing a prolonged period of transformation and leaders from all communities and political persuasions will need to work together to protect and build peace.
I understand why members of the Unionist community in the North might be feeling vulnerable and isolated at this crucial stage in the Brexit process.
I also understand why they want to ensure that whatever is done to avoid a hard Border will not affect the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the UK.
As a member of the Irish Government, I want to reassure Unionists that they should not feel threatened or fear a hidden agenda.
We respect your cultural identity and indeed the cultural identify of each and every citizen on our islands, and the constitutional status of that citizenship.
I want to reassure people living on both sides of the border that our only ambition has been to ensure that we can continue to live in harmony and that people can go about their normal lives and business as before.
There is a unique and deep-rooted relationship between the people of our two islands.
We are inescapably interdependent when it comes to trade, not to mention history, geography and heritage; and on the island of Ireland, we have a shared Border region, albeit across two separate jurisdictions.
Our shared region has made progress that we never imagined possible in the past 20 years and, as we enter into this new period of uncertainty, we must do everything in our ability to protect our hard-won peace.
Never has that trust, co-operation and friendship been more important and I look forward to developing stronger links and working even closer with my neighbours and friends across the Border, so that together we can ensure economic prosperity for our shared region and island, and that being Protestant and Irish can once again show leadership in difficult times.
Thank you again for the invitation to be here with you this evening.
It gives me great pleasure to officially launch “Protestant and Irish: the minority’s search for place in independent Ireland”.
Go raibh mile maith agaibh.