What is unionism for?

Ulster’s 100 not out stand

Artillery Row

On 3 May 1921, under Lloyd George as prime minister and in a majority Unionist (i.e. Conservative) parliament, the Government of Ireland Act came into effect, having received royal assent the previous December. This was the act that created Northern Ireland as part of the UK in succession to the old Kingdom of Ireland and established the devolved political institutions that governed it until 1972.

In the hundred years since, the partition of Ireland, and therefore the partition of the old United Kingdom spanning the entirety of the British Isles, has never ceased to be an issue of controversy. Though as you will perhaps tell from the ordering of these things – including the very British partition that happened too – others have been better at stoking their controversies than unionists have been.

Irish nationalists still regard partition as an illegitimate severing of an Irish nation (note well, British unionists should never think that about secession). That it is something to be righted should, in the wake of the Belfast Agreement, a majority of people in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland ever want that.

Unionists in Ulster have long looked at the creation of Northern Ireland as something to be celebrated, a considerable achievement against overwhelming odds, and plentiful backstabbing and foot-shooting

Nationalism’s (and in particular, violent Republicanism’s) eventual rhetorical acceptance of consent was a practical concession to the reality of the dispute. Having denied Unionists the right to secede from secession for the better part of a century, this was not some belated conversion to unionism’s right to self-determination identical to the one Irish nationalism claims for itself. ‘No! They don’t have the right!’ as John Hume is reported to have said, and certainly thought.

By contrast Unionists in Ulster have long looked at the creation of Northern Ireland as something to be celebrated, a considerable achievement against overwhelming odds, and plentiful backstabbing and foot-shooting. But in its centenary year, many unionists find themselves in gloomy form. This is because of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the creation of Michael Gove’s trade border for goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Yet underlying this mood that the centenary has been soured there is the sense it would otherwise be an occasion only for celebration. While it is legitimate and important to commemorate the significant achievement of Northern Ireland by those who made it happen, it is also necessary for unionism to remember what wasn’t achieved. And to reflect on what this means for their cause.

Northern Ireland was an outcome of the Third Home Rule Crisis. Asquith’s Home Rule Bill – something he didn’t do when he had an enormous majority in the Commons after 1906, but only did when obliged to by John Redmond’s IPP after the Liberals had lost their majority in 1910 – precipitated serious organised opposition from unionists in Ulster.

Led by Sir Edward Carson, the opposition found canonical form in Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant. Signatories to the Covenant pledged to defend ‘for ourselves and our children, our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom.’ By Ulster Day on 28 September 1912 it had been signed by 237,000 men and its accompanying declaration by 234,000 women. What was rejected here was the idea that Ulster would be governed by a Home Rule Parliament in Dublin rather than from Westminster. The formal grounds of this rejection was that in so instituting such a parliament the equal citizenship in the United Kingdom of the people of Ulster would be denied.

The bill and the resolution of the Ulster question was interrupted by the First World War but before then the idea of special provisions of one sort or other for Ulster gained plausibility. After the conclusion of the war renewed efforts to settle the issue resulted in the establishment of a committee chaired by Walter Long which, through various iterations, recommended the partitioning Ireland into two parts, each with their own Home Rule parliament. One would be the six north eastern counties of Ulster and the other, the remaining twenty six counties of the island. This was then put into legislative form in the Government of Ireland Bill. Receiving Royal Assent in December 1920, the establishment of Home Rule (i.e. Eire staying within a wider British Isles-spanning Westminster structure) in southern Ireland had been overtaken by violent events but in May 1921 Northern Ireland came into existence and later that month the first elections took place to its new parliament.

In the creation of Northern Ireland, Ulster unionists ended up accepting three things. The first was that whole of Ireland would not remain part of the UK; the second was the exclusion of Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal from what became Northern Ireland; and the third was the creation of a Home Rule parliament for the six counties. But unlike the first two, the creation of the parliament was at the insistence of His Majesty’s Government. As the Long Committee calculated, this would allow the government to plausibly claim it had honoured its commitments to give ‘self-government’ to Ireland. But rather more importantly, it would allow a Westminster political class weary of Irish introspection – and murder – to  untangle itself from the Question it had by then been embroiled in for decades.

Carson took the view that it was this or nothing. There was no more road to run. As Ulster Unionist Council member Hugh de Fellenberg Montgomery wrote, ‘I do not like what we did a bit, but it still seems to me the only thing we could do under the very extraordinary circumstances.’ One can disagree with the evaluation of what the circumstances demanded but what is most important to note is that in accepting the establishment of a parliament for Northern Ireland the unionists had breached in practice, if not possibly in constitutional theory, a central principle of the Ulster Covenant. Namely, the equal citizenship of the United Kingdom. Henceforth the six counties did find themselves separately governed from the rest of the Kingdom. By themselves alone, for the most part, to adopt a baleful phrase.

The concession of this by unionists meant that in 1921 they found themselves in the position of having in Ulster to form a government from nothing and to do so during the febrile events of the early 1920s. The consequences of this have are to be lamented. It is worth quoting Arthur Aughey at length from his 1995 essay ‘The Idea of the Union’:

Unionism as a political idea responded by turning in upon itself. It became totally absorbed in the practice of devolved government and in the maintenance of the security of the province. This was understandable. But in doing so unionists began to confuse the politics of Stormont with the idea of unionism. They simply neglected the business of how to formulate unionist principles in a manner understandable to those outside the so-called “unionist family”.

Thanks in large part to accepting this devolution, which had not existed in the pre-partition UK, Northern Ireland took her first unknowing steps away from the rest of the country. In consequence, the “unionist family” – which pre-war had very large pan-UK aspects, not least the Unionist Party led by Balfour and then Law – became a much smaller affair.

The long experience of devolution thereafter, from the old Stormont, to ‘direct rule’ to the Belfast Agreement’s openly undemocratic compulsory power-sharing, has entrenched this inwardness down to the formal, sectarian institutionalisation in law of unionist and nationalist “communities” in the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive.

Yet within unionism there seems to be little appetite to break from this way of thinking about things. Part of this is simply that it seems too difficult. But it’s not only that it’s seems too difficult. Unionists over time have almost entirely adopted these malign habits of thought set in train by Lloyd George, whose explicit aim in devolving a home rule Assembly to Belfast was to ease the six counties into a 32 county all-Ireland embrace. That his goal probably was an ‘Ireland’ still in a wider British structure is neither here nor there. And it’s precisely nowhere because the old unionist argument against Home Rule, which nice liberals to this day still imagine would have ‘avoided’ the troubles if it had happened, was of course right. The moment nationalism was able to remove itself from the UK, it was always going to. Home Rule was no more an end in itself for them then than the Belfast Agreement is today. They don’t want stability, let alone compromise: they want victory, and on their terms only (with no means of reversing that outcome provided for either – this train goes only one way for nationalism).

It was notable that in Arlene Foster’s resignation statement last week she spoke of there being ‘people in Northern Ireland with a British identity, others are Irish, others are Northern Irish, others are a mixture of all three and some are new and emerging.’ Unionism in this sense becomes located within the experience and experiences of a particular community. To be a unionist is to primarily be a member of that community. Equal citizenship isn’t really intelligible here. In the Aughey quote above the lack of an explanation of unionism is one of neglect but we’re now at a point where it is not neglect but inability. Unionist language is refracted through the idea of a unionist community and so becomes incommunicable outside of it. Its purchase outside, is at best, about managing one of the two communities.

Or to put that another way, unionism by this dismal reckoning is not something you can argue for, it’s only something you can be. Which is a demographic nuisance in addition to being conceptually repulsive.

We can see this tendency clearly in how much of the opposition to the protocol is articulated in Northern Ireland. It is chiefly a matter of what it means and what it does to the unionist community. The unionist community has lost confidence in the process. The process can only work if it recognises there are two communities in Northern Ireland. The protocol is imbalanced in favour of the Irish nationalist community, and therefore it’s ‘wrong’ and breaks the sacred Agreement and its many invisible parts.

All of this may be true but it fails to challenge what, for unionism, the problem with the protocol should be. Which is, the protocol denies the equal citizenship of the people of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom and that denial has practical, not abstract, consequences. As Carson famously said ‘our demand is a very simple one. We ask for no privileges, but we are determined that no one shall have privileges over us. We ask for no special rights, but we claim the same rights from the same government as every other part of the United Kingdom.’

The issue here is not to challenge the reality of devolved power within Northern Ireland in particular or across the United Kingdom more generally. Devolution in Northern Ireland is a practical as well as a normative question – though its sordid record of dysfunction speaks for itself. But it is about what unionism thinks it is and what it is for. Can it – will it even try to – provide an alternative account which challenges the one of ‘competing identities’ and nationalisms. It’s intellectual and moral future should lie in pressing the distinction that, unlike Irish nationalism, unionism need not be bound up in the politics of identity. That it would be about unionism moving away from it being about ‘the unionist community’ and towards being a more public and principled expression of Northern Ireland being part of the United Kingdom. This idea is what has been lost since 1921 and it’s something in this centenary year unionists must now recover.

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