“Were the DUP right all along?” Tom McTague asked in a recent essay in Unherd. This is a question I never expected to hear from the main island of our United Kingdom. The question “Were the Ulster unionists right all along?” would be only marginally less arresting in the wake of Rishi Sunak’s Windsor Framework. Yet the thrust of Brendan O’Neill’s Feb 28th essay in Spiked is that they were. Mick Hume’s downright moving depiction in his March 3rd Spiked essay of the DUP standing alone on the side of the 17 million betrayed angels who voted Leave, and seeing the core justice of the DUP defence of Northern Ireland’s place in the Union, stunned me. In a half century’s touchline observation of events in my home province and cultural forays on to the field of combat, I had heard virtually nothing from the mainland but at best fatigued impatience with, and at worst hostility towards, Northern Irish unionists, never mind the DUP.
So why this Damascene conversion to the DUP and Ulster unionism over the Windsor Framework? Why not over its near namesake the Framework Document of 1995? Or the Downing Street Declaration of 1993? Or the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985? Indeed, why not over the Protocol itself of 2020? These were all seen by unionists as united Ireland mission creep or as political grooming to that end. Certainly, they were all bricks in the wall rising between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Is the Protocol not there to placate the Republic of Ireland (and the EU) at the expense of unionism by making official the fiction that there is no international border in Ireland between the UK and the EU and making official the reality of that border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain? Still, though these constitutional milestones were all seen by unionists as relinquishing authority over a part of the UK to the Republic of Ireland, it was before the Republic became the EU’s cat’s paw during Brexit.
Before any such brickwork, mainlanders hardly thought of Northern Ireland at all in the decades after its creation in 1921-22. It was briefly spotlit with sympathy and gratitude in 1945 when Churchill thanked the province for its part in defeating the German war machine (and was scathing about Eire’s neutrality by the same token) but thereafter returned to anonymity. It later became impossible to ignore the place once British soldiers were sent in 1969 to separate riotous factions (but are now regarded by Irish republicans as murderous invaders in the current “legacy wars”). Mainlanders came to view the province, including the unionists, with animus. Unionists looked bad and some of them were bad and their bigotry seemed instigatory, though unionists know that religious bigotry in Ireland is mutually reinforcing and has been from when the English and Scots stepped on to the island between four and five centuries ago. But as the IRA terror campaign wore on, what seemed like unionist obduracy (nothing so virtuous as heroic resistance, which is what it was) became embodied in the giant and unlovely figure of Ian Paisley.
Through English eyes, Ulster unionism became synonymous with Paisleyism – evangelical Protestantism with its anti-Catholicism, its working-class loyalist base (with that grating Ulster accent and the Ulster-Scots homeliness, as the Americans would say), its Cromwellian puritanism, its later opposition to abortion and gay marriage, its endemic rejectionism. “Ulster Says No!” was the cry time and again from hard-faced men as another brick was added. Paisley’s roared pledge, “Never, never, never!” still rings in the ears.
What irony, then, to read English commentators encouraging DUP rejection of the Windsor Framework and even likening such rejection to Thatcher’s famous recalcitrance. For them, Ulster Says No! suddenly rings with a tough realism. Yet it was Ulster’s unionists, not the IRA terrorists, who attracted the greatest obloquy during the IRA war against the UK. Now Mick Hume tells us (rightly) that the DUP have been “set up as the villain of the piece” by questioning the Framework. But they have always been the villains of the piece, sometimes with justification.
In the twenty-five years since the Good Friday Agreement, and when most tempers had cooled, mainland politicians and commentators had ample time to see the spacious daylight between the, often unprepossessing, DUP and both the moderate Ulster Unionist Party, and more importantly the Northern Irish people themselves, whether they identified as nationalists or unionists. But they have been unable or unwilling to see beyond the optics on either account. Has this not been a long-standing failure of mainland journalism as well as politics?
But perhaps the distaste was inherited from the politicians’ and commentators’ great-grandparents from the thirty-odd years leading up to the very creation of Northern Ireland in 1921-22 in order to prevent an all-island civil war. A creation that acknowledged the growing cultural incompatibility between Catholic Ireland and the Protestant north. At the time of the third Home Rule Bill of 1912, Kipling’s poem “Ulster” was premised on the abandonment of the province’s cause by Great Britain. The speaker vows that if Ulster falls it will not fall alone. But unionists in fact felt very much alone then and fifty years ago, following the decades of anonymity after they achieved limited self-government, they resumed feeling so. But now the loneliness is accompanied by fear and a degree of fatalism as it wasn’t in 1912. If political feeling can be part of our personal nervous system, then it is hard on the nerves to be a Northern Irish unionist. For half a century there has been a drip-feed of bad news concerning our citizenship.
It has been a harsh political treatment encouraged by unionists themselves for the following reason: no amount of betrayal by mainland politicians could cause unionists to “rethink” the Union, as one commentator imagined could happen in the time of Truss. Or rethink unification with the Republic of Ireland. This unshakeable sense of kinship with Britain renders them vulnerable to political sleights and journalistic slights. Having no constitutional alternative can make them resemble an unwanted family hanger-on who out of need will weather all snubs. It even lends them a kind of innocence or naivety (despite their bluster) that seems to invite the very insults that smart.
The contrast between English solicitous anxiety about Scotland seceding and English indifference to Northern Ireland efforts to remain loyal bewilders Catherine McBride in her recent Briefings for Britain essay and bewilders all unionists. Even more painful is the English appeasement of Irish nationalism north and south of the island and its tacit encouragement of Irish irredentism, but that is a story for another day. Mainland politicians don’t dare insult Sinn Fein but unionists have always been fair game. Thankfully, working-class unionists (i.e. loyalists) have the sense of humour that Glaswegians and Cockneys used to have. When Harold Wilson called them “spongers” they appeared on the streets with orange sponges in their lapels. When Reggie Maudling left Belfast with his plane still at 45° and begged: “Quick, a double scotch, what a bloody awful place” they re-told it and chuckle over it to this day. It was on working-class gables that the inconceivability of unionists joining the Republic of Ireland appeared as the inconvenient arithmetic of Irish counties: “Six into Twenty-Six Won’t Go”, a slogan whose subtext below the wit is that unionists in the event of a united Ireland would not be added to Ireland but would be existentially subtracted in an instant by definition .
But the successive humiliations have hurt and so has the abiding friendlessness. The Ulster poet John Hewitt in a 1949 poem felt the friendlessness in Ireland that stemmed from the original colonisation of Ulster: “this is our country also, nowhere else;/and we shall not be outcast on the world”; surely fear and even despair cower behind the speaker’s defiance? The biblical tones are fitting; like the dissenters of Victorian England and the Christians of Paul’s time, Ulster Protestants were “everywhere spoken against”. There’s been little cultural earthwork in their support. Seamus Heaney once famously wrote: “Be advised my passport’s green,/No glass of ours was ever raised/To toast the Queen”. The odds are that the northern Protestant writers’ passports are blue, but they won’t be caught saying so for fear of estranging themselves from the Irish literary scene. I suspect that creates its own unacknowledged personal tensions and repressions. In the meantime, what a curiously orphaned creature is political unionism.
In the end it is personal. One’s self-respect is at stake. The Windsor Framework is the latest among a long series of blows to unionist self-esteem. I have thought to myself in modern English what Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra says: “Mine honesty and I begin to square./The loyalty well held to fools does make/Our faith mere folly.” But I know the English are no fools and like all intelligent unionists I know Northern Ireland exists courtesy of English taxpayers’ largesse, oblivious though many in England must be to that fact. Generosity and obliviousness: am I to be grateful or insulted? I believe unionists are grateful to England (a laughable notion to state-funded northern republicans, on the other hand), despite Wilson’s spongers insult; I know I am.
Nor are unionists wont to play the victim card and they may not welcome the tone of my essay. In any case, they have no Great Famine, no Cromwellian atrocities, no Easter Rising martyrs, no “800 years of oppression” to declare in their moral self-assessment return. Nor do they have that potent allure of the Catholic Irish which in the guise of the “native Irish” was first generated by minor English and Anglo-Irish novelists of the Romantic period and was revived by the cultural re-imagining of the Easter 1916 rebellion and has not relented since. Ulster unionists simply cannot compete with this perception of the nationalist Irish, and that perception propels the politics. To this extent the Northern Ireland question is not au fond a political problem at all, but one that takes its rise in the realms of optics, imagery, public relations, prejudice, feeling, assumption, reflex, perhaps even by now, instinct. Joe Biden’s attitude to Northern Ireland (“if you’re wearing orange, you’re not welcome in here”), the Protocol, and to his own “Irishness” is perhaps the sorriest current example of what unionists are up against. Political analysis has abandoned the problem of Northern Ireland to expediency and Pavlov.
English generosity’s verso, English obliviousness, can take subtle forms. The title of Robert Tombs’ excellent defence of Brexit, This Sovereign Isle, , inadvertently explains why the Windsor Framework can be blithely contemplated by many English politicians. His title, (chosen by his publishers) ignores the neighbouring isle in order to achieve an understandable patriotic flourish. The title is an echo of Dorothy Sayers’ 1940 poem, “The English War” – “The single island, like a tower/Ringed with an angry host”. But Robert knows we in Northern Ireland were also fighting Hitler from our industrial arsenal.
Reminding the rest of the UK of our existence is exhausting and reduces us to a grumbling appendix. The Northern Ireland question is more a problem of perception than of politics. Neil Oliver published in 2020 what he calls a paean to Britain. It is a heartfelt and eloquent essay on his sense of Britishness. “My nationality, ” he writes, “is a state of mind and I have no intention of changing either. I know who I am and what I love – and what I love is Britain, the whole place, every nook and cranny. This is my island. . . . The existence of our homelands is nothing more nor less than an act of will, and also of love. . . What is truly at stake here, at least for me, is the business of the heart.” Every Northern Irish unionist, whose heart-felt nationality, like Oliver’s, is British, would second these sentiments though emotional candour is not their currency.
“Long ago,” Oliver says, “I realised that the economic argument was not what mattered to me.” Nor to most unionists who are far less appeased by the potential economic benefits of the Protocol than alarmed by its catastrophe for the Union. Oliver approaches an affinity that embraces the Northern Irish when he writes: “I have also found it unavoidable to see the connections between the character of folk in Liverpool, Belfast and Glasgow on account of shared shipbuilding heritage.” Heaven knows, I’m grateful for Oliver’s reference to Belfast, but his paramount concern is the intimacy of England and his native Scotland. It is “the island” of which he speaks, with Belfast and (unmentioned) Northern Ireland as an afterthought.
In the light of the past fifty years, I’m not naive enough to assume that the rejections of the Windsor Framework, and expressions of support for the DUP from these significant mainland quarters, have Northern Ireland’s place in the Union in the forefront of the writers’ attention. But if it is the integrity and sovereignty of the Union that primarily worries them, that is tantamount to the same thing. When Fraser Myers claims in his February 24th essay in Spiked that the Protocol in either version “will do nothing to fulfil the Brexit promise of restoring the UK’s sovereignty“, he is not only reminding us that indeed the devil is in the detail but is also identifying what the woke brigades would call the intersectionality of the matter. The matter embraces the whole issue of Northern Ireland’s teetering UK status and the implications beyond economics, for the whole United Kingdom. Given the tentacular intricacies of the EU’s persistent designs on the UK, Kipling’s pro-Union speaker’s belief that “If England drive us forth/We shall not fall alone” seems eerily apt once more.
John Wilson Foster Co-editor, The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland (Belcouver Press, 2021), author, Irish Novels, 1890-1940 (Oxford UP, 2008). Emeritus Professor, University of British Columbia, Honorary Research Professor, Queen’s University Belfast.