Northern Ireland is a happy and hospitable place apparently; but according to some, Simon Coveney and his southern ilk aren’t welcome here.

Pastor Rusty Thomas, however, is. Go figure.

The Pastor cut a distinctive figure in Lurgan at the weekend as he paraded alongside anti-Protocol protesters in his white Stetson and even spoke on the platform.

At first glance he may have looked out of place.

However he does believe “the same powers of darkness that have imposed sodomy, abortion and tyranny upon Northern Ireland are the same powers pushing the Protocol”.

Common ground

Hmm. Maybe there are some at the rally who will have found common ground with the American evangelist who founded Elijah Ministries, and with his evangelical U.S. zeal believes that feminism “brings a curse of God upon your nation”.

It’s fair to say that he could be described as somewhere further to the right of Donald Trump, and given our propensity to put a label on people, I’m wondering what one-line moniker we could give Rusty.

‘A balloon’ might be the kindest.

There’s a certain irony that in an election period in which many Unionists are playing up the fear factor of a Sinn Fein First Minister, they’re being associated with a man whose worldview should scare the wits out of us.

No wonder Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Jim Allister distanced themselves from his participation in the Lurgan rally. Though they didn’t exactly storm off in disgust.

Even if you give them a bye ball and accept their contamination was inadvertent, there were still plenty of other unsavoury elements attendant to the ongoing protests.

The drawing of a noose around the head of Doug Beattie’s photo on an election poster was disgusting enough, but then the Ulster Unionist leader was described as a “traitor” and a “Lundy” from the platform.

Again, there were attempts by political leaders to distance, but labels stick and with the avowed intention of some protesters to raise the temperature, any involvement is a flirting with disingenuity.

Anyone who read Joe Brolly’s brilliantly enthralling interview with Beattie in the Sunday Independent will form their own view about his courage and integrity, but it’s beyond fantasy to think of him as a “traitor”.

Yet here we are in 2022 in election mode where Unionists who don’t follow the hardline narrative are branded. Shades of 1920 when Protestants who showed empathy with the Catholics being driven from Harland and Wolff’s shipyard were castigated as “rotten Prods” and even in more recent years I’ve heard the insult “watery Prod”.

Orange v Green

The fact that, however much society here changes, our elections tend to revert to an Orange v Green slugfest is a relic of a time past when Northern Ireland was set up on the basis of a headcount of Protestants and Catholics.

And it suits those who would seek power, on both sides, to keep elections framed on tribal terms. Indeed, when elected our politicians have to “designate” as being one community or the other to gain power, a rule which would mean the Alliance party couldn’t become Deputy First Minister under the current rules if they managed to come second in the polls.

We shouldn’t deny realities. The issue of Unionism v Nationalism and the importance of identities of British and Irish to people are paramount for many and cannot be sidelined.

An aspiration for Irish unity shouldn’t be denigrated, neither should genuine concerns that the Protocol somehow diminishes some people’s Britishness, even though those concerns have been hijacked by those whipping up fear.

But other realities shouldn’t be ignored either.

The simple binary labelling of people as Unionist or Nationalist, British or Irish denies the fact that within each tribe there are people with a different take on what their culture and identity means to them, and there are often overlapping aspects to different cultures which allow for a greater empathy and understanding between those who see things differently.

In addition, many younger people don’t have the same hang-ups about the old loyalties that were the norm, and the demographics have changed to the point that we are a place of minorities; that is, a society of Unionists, Nationalists and declared “neither” and none of the three groups has an overall majority.

‘New communities’

Further change has seen the emergence of what we label ‘new communities’.

I was in Clones recently and was told that about 30 per cent of the population there are from new communities, including Syrians, Brazilians and many others. Throughout the island, we have black and Irish groups, black and Northern Irish organisations, and many other ethnic groups making a valuable contribution to our society which proves the value of diversity.

I recall that the Right Rev. David Bruce, when Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, revealed that one of his churches in Dublin has a congregation made up of 27 different Nationalities.

In taking the theme of ‘home’ for his year in office, when Dr. Bruce said “this island is our home” he was reflecting a place which is now multi-national, multi-cultural and multi-faith.

Not that any of this new reality is reflected in our media; and neither is the fact that those engaged in fear politics are clinging to a past that is slipping away from them.

Complexity of identity

Aside from the whole complexity of identity, the simple fact is that what most people want is a better life, where the cost of living crisis is tackled, where we can get decent treatment in our health service without having to wait months or years and where our children get a good education and grow up side by side with others of difference.

We’re closer to running society on those issues than we imagine, rather than fighting about British or Irish Nationalism.

Orwell wrote about the difference between patriotism and nationalism. Whereas patriotism is a lover of country, a devotion to a place and its way of life, he defined nationalism as a desire for power to the exclusion of others.

Perhaps an oversimplification of what he meant, but you get the point; sharing a place we love while respecting and valuing all classes and creeds without labelling people is where we need to be. Removing the borders in hearts and minds is paramount.

Yet somehow, despite the desires of a majority that wants to move forward to a better era, we’ve attracted the likes of Pastor Rusty Thomas to join the hype of men in collarettes who think their way of life should rule the roost and the rest of life must fall into line.

Not happening.