GFA at 20: “I’m a Christian first, Irish second and Protestant third.”

Johnny Lowden grew up in a Protestant family in County Down, in a predominantly Catholic town. He went to a state grammar school, supports the Northern Irish football team, and is a devout Christian from an evangelical background.

He’s also an Irish Nationalist, a socialist, a feminist, and an SDLP voter.

“In short,” Johnny said, “I’m a Christian first, Irish second and Protestant third.”

When talking about Northern Ireland, it’s easy to think about the “usual” stereotypes. Catholic or Protestant. Irish or British. Unionist or Nationalist. But for some people, these labels don’t quite fit with their identity or beliefs.

“I have found that evangelical Christians often are assumed to be homophobic, misogynistic or even racist,” Johnny explained. “While it is true that right-wing politics and conservative moral opinions are the norm among most evangelicals, I myself would be considered rather liberal. Many are surprised to find that I am not opposed to marriage equality and don’t think men have any God-given authority over everyone else.”

For Johnny, growing up as a Protestant in a majority Catholic town was fundamental to shaping his worldview.

“The environment helped me to become used to Catholic/Nationalist culture, it was less alien to me than it may have been had I grown up elsewhere,” Johnny said. “[I had] daily contact with people from ‘the other side.’ . . . I am a Protestant by theological conviction and yet that is no barrier to identifying as Irish by nationality.”

A love of history motivated Johnny to learn about Ireland’s past, allowing him to place contemporary culture and politics in an historical perspective. “I came to the conclusion that Ireland’s biggest problem has been division. Ireland’s biggest division is of course the border, and I concluded that reunification would be the overdue righting of a historical wrong,” Johny explained, “But this line of thinking did not lead me to abandon Protestant culture or Protestant faith as vestiges of ‘Britishness’ but rather to see Irishness in a broad new light. Ireland is not defined by its Catholicism or a narrow sense of ‘Celtic-ness,’ it is possible to be an Irish Protestant who loves Cricket just as it was possible for Edward Carson to be a Unionist who spoke fluent Gaelic.”

Of course, however, having different beliefs or background from people in a group also comes with its own challenges. In Northern Ireland, this can mean both the community you come from, or the community that traditionally supports your beliefs.

“I think that people from both communities would be surprised to find that I am a nationalist,” Johnny said. “It seems to be just as difficult to feel accepted by either community. A Catholic friend of mine was visibly shocked to hear that I was a nationalist. . . [and] at a casual gathering of Protestant church friends I made a throwaway comment about voting for the SDLP and the silence that followed was… rather awkward.”

And even though stereotypes can often be wrong or harmful, they sometimes reflect a real trend or pressure within a community.

“I would love to be able to say that the stereotypes about my community are pure fiction, but in my experience they are often accurate. It is true that most middle-class Protestants I know seem to vote en masse for Unionist parties or Alliance,” Johnny explained. “By and large, however, it seems that the election results speak for themselves. If nothing else, the dominant political parties represent the people because the people seem to only care about ensuring the ‘other side’ doesn’t win.”

Although Johnny has found a party that he feels mostly represents his preferences, he knows that other individuals in his community don’t feel like party politics represent them.

“Out of all the parties in Northern Ireland, the SDLP are the closest to representing my politics. Although I know plenty of other Protestants, especially of my generation who feel totally unrepresented,” Johnny explained. “For example, I know a number of Christians who would vote for Alliance if not for their stance on abortion and feel obliged to vote for the DUP for that reason.”

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t places where Johnny feels he does fit in.

“While the Church of Ireland has at times been something of a bastion for Unionism, its modern complexion is more nuanced and more aware of its Irishness,” he explained. “As an island-wide [church] it is easier to fit-in as a Nationalist. In particular my home-church is a richly diverse group where people of every background gather, so my ‘square peg in a round hole’ identity is not so shocking.”

These questions of identity, community and stereotypes are particularly relevant in Northern Ireland. But they also resonate with other communities around the world that are facing similar issues.

“If I could say one thing [to the envoy US President Donald Trump might send to Northern Ireland],” Johnny said, “it might be ‘So you’re from a dysfunctional and divisive executive?… You’ll feel right at home.”

Originally published at Northern Slant.

PhD’ing in Politics and International Studies at Cambridge via Queen's University Belfast via Stanford. www.alinautrata.com

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