Northern Ireland Culture and Identity Featured

Is Kipling’s Ulster Recognisable today?

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Written by John Wilson Foster

How different Liz Truss’ tribute to Boris Johnson in her acceptance speech must have sounded to its audience and viewers in Great Britain from those listening in the part of the kingdom called Northern Ireland or Ulster:

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“Boris, you got Brexit done!”  Yes, he did – if you care little or nothing for those separated from you by no more than twelve miles should you live on the Mull of Galloway, a stretch of water so narrow that Ulster Presbyterians rowed across it from Antrim to Wigtownshire for Sunday worship in the 17th century.

Truss in her speech name-checked taxes, the economy, energy and the NHS – but not the peril facing the Union in general, nor the Northern Ireland Protocol in specific. And her first speech as PM did not make good the omission. I suspect – and oh, how we unionists have yearned since 1922 to have our suspicions categorically shown to be unfounded – that the Protocol will remain in a form substantial enough to retain an economic and thus cultural wedge between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and further embolden the already politically wind-assisted Irish republicans.

After all, it is not just the European Union Liz Truss will have to defy but also – and amazingly it is an even greater challenge to Britain – the Irish government, which the UK has never seriously challenged since just before Maggie Thatcher relented and signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.

Liz Truss had difficulty appointing a Northern Ireland Minister and perhaps Secretary of State. Is it because the new officials would face the daunting task of taking on Brussels? Hardly, as the PM will be doing that. It is the PM who plans to go, not to Brussels, but to Dublin to discuss the Protocol with a government that was vocal in its anti-Brexit hostility and if anything is stick-handling the EU’s hardline campaign on behalf of the Protocol

This is not only because the Republic of Ireland is the closest country to the UK but because it is only mildly interested in the effect of the Protocol on Europe and utterly preoccupied, in the phrase of W.B. Yeats, in “getting the North”. The new PM will not talk tough in Dublin: my experience since 1985 encourages me to lay a serious bet on this. Besides, Washington is Ireland’s scary henchman in the matter of its relations to Britain, and to the pressure from Dublin and Brussels will be added the pressure from the U.S.

No: the difficulty is because the Northern Ireland posting is less a poisoned chalice than a portfolio that no major political figure on the mainland is sincerely interested in. After all, the Minister is not there primarily to look after the interests of the UK in Northern Ireland (and thus those who regard themselves as British); it is not genuine service to one’s country but a polite subterfuge by which to groom the province for its departure from the UK.

The grooming began with the Agreement of 1985 and continued with the Downing Street Declaration (1993), the Framework Document (1995) and intensified with the Belfast Agreement of 1998. All registered and made official further degrees of British withdrawal from Northern Ireland.

The last article Lord Trimble, co-architect of the Agreement, wrote before his death was a heart-sick repudiation of the Protocol which he described as “a massive change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland” and a personal “political betrayal” which he took to his grave. (My co-editor William Beattie Smith and I included his last declaration in The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 2021.)  Liz Truss introduced herself proudly as the leader of “The Conservative and Unionist Party”. Surely David Trimble’s rejection of the Protocol casts doubt on the accuracy of the second epithet?

The Protocol is the latest but one stage in the easily charted mission creep engaged in by the British and Irish governments since 1985. The latest has been the imposition by Westminster of an Irish Language Act, which gladdens the heart of Sinn Fein, since it has weaponised the Irish language and Irish culture politically since 1982 when promotion of the language became a plank in the party platform. In the cold war against Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, the language accompanies the economic front opened up by the Protocol and the political front of the Belfast Agreement when that Agreement is regarded, as it is by republicans, as a beachhead for further machinations and not a terminus for peace.

This undramatic but nonetheless crucial sense of mission creep caused my mind to cast back to other days when the betrayal of Ulster unionism took more startling, graphic and potentially violent form. In 1912 the third Home Rule Bill sought legal permission to expel mainly Protestant Ulster from the UK and deliver it into the hands of the much larger Catholic Ireland at a time when Irish cultural nationalism was at its zenith and the Easter rebellion was a mere four years away in a bloody future.

Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Ulster” (1912) came into my mind and the crisis it powerfully recreates that seems at first glance thankfully in stark contrast to whatever Northern Irish (and indeed, Scottish) future Liz Truss entertains, if she thinks constitutionally at all.

Kipling’s opening “dark eleventh hour” is no longer apposite to describe Northern Ireland’s constitutional circumstance. Instead, the various sleepless factions of Irish nationalism are engaged in a war of attrition that is, however, accelerating. There will be no eleventh hour; rather, the clock will strike thirteen and take unionists by terrible surprise one afternoon, especially those who have always placed their trust in the pro-Union words so readily spoken by Westminster politicians and as readily forgotten or belied.

For here is a curious, perhaps unique thing: no amount of betrayal of unionism (which I fear is by now hardwired into English political mentalité) could cause unionists to “rethink” the Union, as one commentator recently thought a betrayal by Truss on the Protocol could trigger. Thus there is no way a programme for Irish unification could end otherwise than in tears and fears.

This is the intrinsic loneliness and tragedy of Ulster unionism. Not one commentator in Great Britain has ever, in my experience, articulated and then expressed understanding of, much less sympathy with, that loneliness, or even with the cause of Ulster unionism.  And the last commentator anywhere to come close, in my recollection, was Conor Cruise O’Brien.  

Some of us have muttered to ourselves what Enobarbus complains in Antony and Cleopatra: “The loyalty well held to fools does make/Our faith mere folly”.  But we’ve persisted in our folly, then and now.  Irish commentators still like to brag that in the “War of Independence”, Irish rebels took on the might of the British Empire and won. But Ulster unionists were also prepared to do so, to fight those to whom they were, and are, unashamedly loyal. And they were also prepared to fight the other Empire  James Joyce would not serve, that of the Roman Catholic church.

In its revisionist thinking, Irish nationalism declares partition of the island in 1922 as an original sin against a previously happily unified island. In fact, partition prevented an all-island civil war and saved northern Protestants, Jews, agnostics and atheists from the iron hegemony of the Catholic Church which stamped its authority on the new Irish Free State from day one.

In 1912, unionists were bewildered that mainland politicians would deliver them into the hands of the enemy of Britain and Ulster, that their “honour, lives, and land”, as Kipling had it, were “given for reward/To Murder done by night,/To Treason taught by day”.

But surely this is all yesterday’s embarrassing world of Kipling and Empire, and of violent solutions, long gone? Kipling! In this age of decolonisation? But in living memory, Ulster unionists withstood a thirty-year terror campaign against them. “The terror, threats, and dread/ In market, hearth and field” – 1912 and its violent aftermath came again in the 1970s in all its intimate and domestic as well as public horror. And anyone in Northern Ireland older than fifty remembers how Sinn Fein was rewarded for ending that campaign by being welcomed into government even without decommissioning the weaponry of its armed wing, the Provisional IRA. Indeed, had Sinn Fein cancelled its policy of refusing to take their Westminster seats, they would have been welcomed there too as long as they checked their guns at the door.

When did mainland politicians begin to regard and treat Northern Irish unionists with abhorrence and, indeed, to prefer Irish republicans who had brought terror to their land in 1939, the 1950s, and 1969-1998? Unionism had never enjoyed unanimous support in England and Churchill infamously threatened to blow Belfast out of the water if unionists tried to subvert the plan to cast Ulster adrift.  In 1945 he changed his tune and thanked Northern Ireland profusely for its contribution to Hitler’s defeat while the Republic to the south remained neutral.

But the early outbreak of the Troubles re-cast unionists in a very bad light. The actions of British paratroopers, not the Royal Ulster Constabulary, in Derry in 1972 darkened the picture profoundly.  Since then, no amount of even-handed historical hindsight or political reform by which unionists relinquished their dominance and by now their autonomy in the matter of their constitutional destiny has allowed them to outgrow a depiction now fifty years old.

Unionists accept that northern Catholics, many of whom are nationalists, are no longer a cowed minority but a sizeable portion of the population requiring respect; equality they already enjoy. They have gone into partnership with a party that wishes to dismantle the very entity it helps to govern and whose name, Northern Ireland, its members refuse to let pass their lips.

Unionists can still speak the words Kipling attributed to them in “Ulster”: “We asked no more than leave/To reap where we had sown,/Through good and ill to cleave/To our own flag and throne/ . . . One Law, one Land, one Throne.”  David Trimble was once asked what unionists wanted. To be left alone, he replied, feeling as all unionists feel, harried daily by republicans intent on sundering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

Kipling’s last two lines reflect the tension of the period: “If England drive us forth/We shall not fall alone.” But there will be no falling and no violent rising against the Crown. Those eventualities are with Kipling in the grave. Yet Britons in general and Liz Truss in particular would be foolish to imagine that even the gradual defenestration of Northern Ireland would have no impact on the Union, no collateral damage to other parts of the kingdom. The single island, with its uncertain monarchy and its northern region restive, would geographically, psychologically and in the end politically look frailer and more vulnerable between an incorrigibly nationalist Ireland (and EU’s cat’s paw) and a troublesome EU itself.


John Wilson Foster is the author of a dozen books on Irish literature and culture. Among his latest books are Pilgrims of the Air: The Passing of the Passenger Pigeons (2014, 2017) and The Space-Blue Chalcedony: Earth’s Crises and the Tyler Bounty (2020).

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John Wilson Foster