Orange disorder

January 17, 1997

An Ulsterman has returned after 20 years teaching politics in Australia to accuse Unionists of stalling the peace talks and promoting sectarianism.

The son of a late Ulster Unionist hardliner, who became a politics lecturer in Australia, has returned to Northern Ireland and attacked the Protestant approach to peace in a controversial book.

Norman Porter turned a doctoral thesis into Rethinking Unionism in which he dares to think the unthinkable. "The all-or-nothing thinking that judges any rearrangement of Unionist priorities unpardonable has been the bane of politics since the formation of Northern Ireland,'' he writes. The book began as something of a personal quest for Porter, who recently returned to Ulster after almost 20 years in Australia as politics lecturer at the University of Flinders in Adelaide. "My prime intention was personal, to try to make sense of this place for myself. I think I was born with a kind of curse. I am haunted by this place," he says.

The book criticises the Ulster Unionist Party's leadership, arguing that its links with the Orange Order, an organisation which began in the 19th century to counter the growing influence of Catholicism, encourage Catholics' view of the party as sectarian. Porter says the UUP should accept the 11-year-old Anglo Irish Agreement - which gives Dublin a day-to-day say in Ulster affairs - a proposition anathema to most party members. Such an acceptance, says Porter, should be in the context of a "decent, devolved government'', in a "package deal".

But the real sting comes in the book's afterword, in which Porter condemns Unionist leaders for bringing the current Stormont talks to the brink of collapse. He writes: "In the name of conducting talks about the future of Northern Ireland, we have so far witnessed Unionist leaders jockey for position, haggle endlessly over procedure, and avoid any discussion of substantive matters."

Upsetting Unionists is nothing new for Porter, a 44-year-old father of three. Last year he provoked fury among hardliners by speaking at the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in Dublin, which included Sinn Fein members. The visit, from one of only a handful of unionists at the forum, brought a threat of disciplinary action from the East Belfast Unionist Association. Association honorary secretary Jim Rodgers said: "I am horrified and can quite clearly see that he is not a Unionist."

But Porter's antecedents, and his party connections, are too strong to render him genuinely vulnerable. He is the son of the late Norman Porter, a former Independent MP at Stormont, who had a reputation as a traditional "not an inch" Unionist. His father was a partner of the young Rev Ian Paisley, although they fell out, and he later became a director of the Evangelical Protestant Society.

Rodgers, also a Belfast councillor, said: "I'm sure his late father would turn in his grave if he knew the way his son was thinking.'' The adolescent Porter rejected much his "da" stood for. The family left for Australia in the late 1960s and Porter graduated from Flinders. But while studying for a doctorate at Oxford he became interested in Ulster politics, began to visit the province and returned to live there two years ago.

He rejoined the UUP but was shocked at the level of naked sectarianism. He tells one story about a private meeting of the EBUA called to discuss a controversial decision by Queen's University to drop the playing of the National Anthem at graduation ceremonies. One party member said he had heard that one university officer was to be replaced by another on retirement. "At that point a Unionist councillor rose to his feet and said it was typical of Queen's to replace a Fenian lover with a real Fenian,'' Porter recalls.

His book attacks UUP leader David Trimble's conduct at the flashpoint Orange Order church parade at Drumcree last summer. Porter writes: "In the name of defending Orangemen's alleged right to parade where local residents object to their presence, we witnessed a united show of Union- ist defiance which constituted a serious disruption of civic life and provoked countless acts of violence and sectarian intimidation."

He went on to argue that Unionism could strengthen its precarious position if the party were made more attractive to Catholics and recognised the necessity of an Irish dimension.

Trimble responded by rejecting the idea that Unionists could compromise with nationalism as "impossible''. Porter, replied: "A solution is impossible unless unionists can somehow compromise with nationalists."

Porter rejects both what he calls cultural Unionism, the traditional what-we-have-we-hold stance of the Rev Ian Paisley, and liberal Unionism, whose figurehead is the UK Unionist leader Robert McCartney. His preference is for a new civic Unionism, which would allow Unionists to embrace their Irishness and accept diversity.

The refusal to adapt to what Porter terms "difference through openness" has led to political stalemate, undemocratic government, violence and segregated housing and schools for Catholics and Protestants.

"My motivation was to get more voices looking at how Unionism can define itself differently, but it appears to have gone down like a lump of lead," concludes Porter.

Rethinking Unionism: An Alternative Vision for Northern Ireland (Blackstaff).

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