Saturday, 22 January 2011

Lesley Macaulay and 'cultural identity'

Lesley Macaulay contested the last general election for the Conservatives and Unionists and is a prospective Ulster Unionist candidate in East Londonderry for the Assembly elections in May.  However it is not her politics that I want to explore but rather her views on cultural identity.

Some years ago she contributed an article on cultural identity to the autumn 1998 edition of Lion and Lamb, the magazine of ECONI (Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland), now the Centre for Contemporary Christianity.


To make a personal comment on the nature of cultural identity is never easy. To do so in the aftermath of the Omagh bombing is particularly difficult. That atrocity has once again raised questions about the role that ideology and political allegiance plays in our lives, and of the importance we give to our culture and history.

The label of 'Ulster Protestant' has never sat comfortably on my shoulders. Maybe its because I grew up in an area where Protestants were the minority, and my childhood friend of many years belonged to a famous republican activist family.

Not wearing the 'Ulster Protestant' label has always surprised, confused and alarmed my family, who all seem to wear the label with pride. Many a time I have seen my family look at me, wondering where they went wrong in my upbringing!

So why do I feel that I don't fit in, and what does typical Ulster Protestant Culture mean to me? In short it's the following:
The Orange Order
Country Gospel
The Red Hand of Ulster
Cabaret singers at weddings
Neat gardens and clean cars
You have to be 'Saved/Born Again' (Protestant style) before getting to heaven
Portstewart on a Sunday night
The harvest festival

Of course this is not what Protestantism represents in total, but is it not how we appear to people from other cultures, to Catholics in Northern Ireland? I can honestly say that I not do like to be labelled as a Protestant. The sad fact is that I am not proud of my culture. I feel it has let me down, and today of all days I believe this even more strongly.

I saw signs of our shallow cultural activities at a recent cross community event in my village. Both sides of the community were asked to organise entertainment. The Catholics organised a harpist, Irish dancing and folk singing. The Protestants organised a pianist and two soloists. The songs and music did not represent their culture, they were English in origin!

But I am not Catholic either. So where do I fit in, and what cultural identity do I persuade my young children to adopt? To allow them to experience Irish Culture, I take them to Irish dancing lessons. It's obvious that I am the token Protestant parent, because I have to ask questions about the difference between a jig and a reel, and a feis and a fleadh! I didn't even know how to spell these words! Here too it can be hard to fit in.

I have so many questions on the subject, but no answers. Therefore I have to look at my role model. To me it seems that Jesus also struggled with the same dilemma. Was he a Jew or wasn't he? On various occasions he crossed mainstream barriers and went into places where 'his sort' didn't go. He socialised with the other side, and challenged the people of his culture in their old traditional ways, ways that often took pride in rejecting people who didn't belong. Is it so important to fit in? Being a child of God is all the identity that I need.

Lesley Macaulay - member of the ECONI Steering group. She lives with her husband Tony and two daughters in Magherafelt, where they belong to the local Methodist Church. She is a consultant in Rural Development, Personal Development and Fund Raising.

This article by Lesley Macaulay touches on a number of things I have written about in the series on Culture Matters and some that I have yet to address.  Therefore I will let the article speak for itself and make just a few observations.
  1. In this article Lesley Macaulay displayed a very shallow understanding of the cultural wealth and rich tradition of the 'Ulster Protestant' community.
  2. She seemed to have an aversion to what she described as her own culture: 'I can honestly say that I not do like to be labelled as a Protestant. The sad fact is that I am not proud of my culture. I feel it has let me down.'
  3. A number of those associated with ECONI adopted the position of having a Christian identity and really no other.  I would certainly suggest that anyone with an interest in this should read the book Castrating Culture: A Christian Perspective on Ethnic Identity from the Margins by Dewi Hughes, who was a theological advisor to Tear Fund.  As a Christian I believe that it is absolutely necessary to be born again and become a 'child of God' but the fact that I have a Christian identity does not mean that I have to abandon other identities, including my cultural identity.  Identity is multi-layered.


  1. With regards to your firstv point, Ms Macaulay says (and is surely right in saying so?)

    Of course this is not what Protestantism represents in total, but is it not how we appear to people from other cultures, to Catholics in Northern Ireland?

    "Culture", as you have said yourself in your last sentence is multi-layered, I would also say it belongs to the individual and not any "community".

    Unfortunately in Northern Ireland, the "community" too often informs us what our "culture" should be and woe betide anyone questions what has been bequeathed to themselves by family, friends, colleagues and indeed political representatives.

    Lesley Macauley's piece from 13(?!) years ago certainly is muddled and naive in the context of someone wishing to attain political office in a divided society in 2011. I think though it's honest in its questioning of her own beliefs and tradition. That kind of honesty and questioning of the group norms is also surely the mark of the traditional individualist and independent instinct of many of the Protestant faith within Ulster?

  2. I think the most important line that Lesley wrote in this Nelson should be highlighted,

    "Being a child of God is all the identity that I need."

    This article only shows Lesley's ability to empathise with all communities. She doesn't label herself Protestant not because she is "adversed" to her culture but because in general unionists seem to be afraid of it. You said yourself a few weeks ago it was ok for a school to put on plays for hunger strikers however if a school were to out on a show about the Battle of the Boyne it would be more likely to meet objections because it would be seen as sectarian.

    Lesley is not afraid of her culture, she merely points to the issue that protestants are less open about displaying heritage for the fear of offending people. She is far from shallow, indeed the list she wrote does apply to my own thinking, what exactly there did she say that is not Ulster Protestant?

    The most important thing to be taken from this article is that fact what she wrote was honest, and it's very hard to find that in anyone aspiring to politics today. Are you going to persecute an honest women who wrote this 13 years ago?

    As far as i see Lesley Macaulay today is a very independent and strong minded woman who is striving to do the best for her community in East Londonderry. She knows where she has come from, and she knows where she wants to go. I'm sure if you asked her today, more than a decade on the same questions, she would be able to give you very honest and different answer to how proud she is of being a unionist.

    I suppose it would be norm in the DUP to automatically assume Unionist is Protestant. Well i'll be voting for Lesley because she wants to move on from division and share our cultural heritage with all sides of the community.

  3. O'Neill - I did not suggest that the author of the article was anything less than honest. In fact I believe she was being entirely honest.

    However it is muddled and naive, and not just in the context that you suggest.

    The article illustrates a number of points that I have been trying to make about culture and indeed some that intend to make in the series on Culture Matters. Moreover it only one of a number of short extracts that I intend to use from various sources, including Marilyn Hyndman's Further Afield: Journeys from a Protestant Past and Susan McKay's Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People.

  4. Nelson,

    when you say it is: "absolutely necessary to be born again" are you saying that those Christians who haven't gone through a 'new birth' ceremony (could you tell me what this means?) aren't actually Christians?

    For instance, if someone is a Christian all their life does God not actually recognise/exclude them until the act of 'new birth'?

    Ultimately if this new birth doesn't happen in a person's lifetime for whatever reason do they not go to heaven?

  5. In John chapter 3 we read that Jesus met with Nicodemus and said to him, 'Ye must be born again.' The imperative of the 'new birth' is clearly stated in the Bible and it is through the new birth that a person becomes a Christian.

    If a person repents of his or her sin and trusts in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Saviour then they are 'born again' as 'new creatures' in Christ Jesus.

    By nature we are 'born in sin and shapen in iniquity' and we are 'dead in sin' but the new birth brings new life and indeed abundant life in Jesus Christ.

    'Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.' 2 Corinthians 5:17

    Moreover Jesus said, 'Except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.'


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