Friday, 29 January 2010

Unrepresentative Representatives

Two recent newspaper articles, by Mick Fealty and Alan Murray respectively, have drawn attention to the influence of the Free Presbyterian Church and the Loyal Orders on Northern Ireland politics. Below a quote from each:

"More than 50% of their [the DUP's] public representatives belong to a church that contains no more than 10-12,000 people."

"It's been estimated that around 38 to 40 of the DUP/Ulster Unionist Assemblymen are affiliated in some way to one of the so-called Loyal Orders, such as the Orange Order, the Royal Black Preceptory or the Apprentice Boys of Derry."

The Northern Ireland Assembly currently has 53 representatives from those two parties, meaning that up to 75% of them are members.

If the Loyal Orders seem to be well represented politically, then that is all the more true with regard to Ulster Scots. Every chair of the Ulster-Scots Agency has been a member, and the agency's chief executive, George Patton, is a former executive officer of the Orange Order. That is, of course, fairly well known.

Perhaps less well known is that a surprising number of the professional Ulster-Scots are members not only of the Loyal Orders but of a single Loyal Orange Lodge, the Cross of Saint Patrick LOL 688, which has around 30 "brethren" (that's "brothers" to me and you). Their number include Gordon Lucy, a treasurer of the Ulster-Scots Heritage Council, and Mark Thompson, a former chair of the Ulster-Scots Agency. The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, and former director of the Ulster-Scots Heritage Council, Nelson McCausland, was for many years the lodge chaplain. Fellow Orangeman Clifford Smyth, development officer with the Ulster-Scots Language Society and husband of Anne Smyth, the society's chair, was guest speaker at a lodge dinner held in November 2008; it transpires that the Smyths' son Alan is also a member.

Indeed, so blurred have the lines of demarcation become that at one time the Ulster-Scots Agency even listed the lodge's outreach organisation, the Fellowship of Patrick, as an "Ulster-Scots" group on its website, as well as granting it funds.

A recent lodge newsletter boasted that of the five speakers at an Ulster-Scots event held at Stormont on 28 September 2009 under the auspices of the Ulster-Scots Community Network (the new name for the Heritage Council), four were members.

The Ulster-Scots Agency and the Ulster-Scots Community Network have recently taken the symbiosis a step further by moving into the same building in Belfast's Great Victoria Street.

Another surprising fact is the number of such people who are also involved in the British-Israel World Federation. For the uninitiated: the federation brings together those who believe that the British are descended from a lost tribe of Israel and therefore have a special destiny as a "light to the world". Clifford Smyth is an active Northern Ireland member, while McCausland spoke at a recent federation conference; Gordon Lucy did the same at the organisation's Ulster get-together held in Ballymena on 12 May 2007. Mark Thompson, perhaps afraid of being mistaken for a British Israelite, has explicitly stated on his personal blog that, while some of his friends are of that persuasion, he is not.

Another link is that among the founder members of LOL 688 back in 1968 was William McGrath, leader of the British-Israelite group Tara, of which Clifford Smyth, who lodged with the McGrath family, was a prominent member. It was presumably McGrath who won Smyth over to his offshoot of Christianity, which, unlike the Mormons, seems not to have made the jump to respectability. The Blether Region is not aware how many other players, if any, were involved with Tara at the time.

Needless to say, it will be clear to most people that British-Israelite beliefs are irrational, but they are only a small part of a portfolio of irrational beliefs held by DUP members of the Assembly. Edwin Poots and Nelson McCausland are devotees of biblical creationism, Sammy Wilson rejects the science of climate change, and Iris Robinson, God bless her, once claimed that a homosexual orientation could be "cured" with the help of a "lovely" psychiatrist whom she knew. It will also be apparent that such beliefs, zany as they are, are trumped hands-down by the claim that Ulster Scots is a language separate from Scots in Scotland, since it is the only one that can be dismissed on the basis of simple observation without recourse to any professional expertise.

In short, the self-appointed representatives of Ulster Scots are a highly distinctive bunch, and, dare I say it, rather unrepresentative of the rest of us.

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