THE LOST TRIBES OF UNION­ISM

The po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in North­ern Ire­land leaves many union­ists un­rep­re­sented and Brexit is serv­ing only to heighten this sense of dis­con­nect. PADDY HOEY con­sid­ers where it might lead

The New European - - Expertise -

Are­mark­able thing hap­pened on tele­vi­sion in North­ern Ire­land re­cently which would have been un­think­able a gen­er­a­tion ago. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Ul­ster Farm­ing Union and the busi­ness com­mu­ni­ties – his­tor­i­cally seen as the heart of the union­ist es­tab­lish­ment – strongly crit­i­cised the Demo­cratic Union­ist Party (DUP) MP Sir Jef­frey Don­ald­son over his party’s stance on Brexit on the BBC’S flag­ship lo­cal pol­i­tics show The View.

These rep­re­sen­ta­tives were voic­ing their sup­port of Theresa May’s With­drawal Agree­ment, see­ing it as a means of bring­ing clar­ity to an is­sue that threat­ens dire fi­nan­cial con­se­quences for an econ­omy that has been re­built on cross-bor­der trade and ex­port­ing to Europe.

That an agree­ment which is­sues a chal­lenge to Bri­tish sovereignty was be­ing ac­cepted by these rep­re­sen­ta­tives could be read as a seis­mic mo­ment in union­ism – char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally, the DUP’S Sammy Wil­son de­nounced them as pup­pets of the North­ern Ire­land Of­fice.

In Re­mainer Bri­tain, with its largely metropoli­tan lib­eral views, me­di­ated by Twit­ter and so­cial me­dia, the DUP have come to en­cap­su­late the tawdry, il­lib­eral right wing that has cor­rupted pol­i­tics in re­cent years.

With a mem­ber­ship that widely op­poses gay mar­riage, lead­ers who sup­ported Asher’s, the Belfast bak­ery that re­fused to dec­o­rate a cake in sup­port of mar­riage equal­ity, and who were also on record as be­ing openly hos­tile to im­mi­gra­tion, the DUP has be­come an easy bête noire.

How­ever, as ever with North­ern Ir­ish pol­i­tics, spe­cific con­text is ev­ery­thing. With­out a work­ing knowl­edge of the

re­li­gious and of­ten sub­tle class di­vi­sions, it would be easy to see the DUP as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of all of Ul­ster union­ism. That could not be fur­ther from the truth.

“There never has been a sin­gle un­am­bigu­ous union­ist iden­tity, but what unites the bin man to the banker is a be­lief that con­sti­tu­tional in­ter­ests are best pro­tected in the United King­dom,” says Alex Kane, a jour­nal­ist and for­mer direc­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the

Ul­ster Union­ist Party.

It would there­fore be un­wise to see North­ern Ir­ish union­ism as a co­he­sive ide­o­log­i­cal iden­tity struc­ture, es­pe­cially as Brexit chal­lenges busi­ness and con­sti­tu­tional ar­range­ments.

The DUP, formed in 1971 by Rev Ian Pais­ley Snr to rep­re­sent the twin in­ter­ests of Ul­ster loy­al­ism and his re­li­giously fun­da­men­tal­ist Free Pres­by­te­rian Church, was the un­ruly coun­ter­bal­ance to the ‘big house’ union­ism of the Ul­ster Union­ist Party which had con­trolled the North­ern Ire­land par­lia­ment, the in­sti­tu­tions of the state and whole sec­tors of the busi­ness com­mu­nity for much of the 20th cen­tury.

While Pais­ley and his acolytes were pic­tured in para­mil­i­tary-style berets at coun­ter­cul­tural ral­lies of the 1980s, at Ul­ster Union­ists main­tained their place as the dom­i­nant po­lit­i­cal force in the prov­ince.

They were, per­haps, no less sec­tar­ian, and were the ar­chi­tects of a sys­tem of na­tional and lo­cal gov­ern­ment that was openly dis­crim­i­na­tory.

How­ever, they were forced to be­come more open to re­form as the de­mo­graphic di­vide be­tween Catholics and Protes­tants nar­rowed over the last 30 years. In the same pe­riod, the party also be­came more lib­eral and less dom­i­nated by the re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal fun­da­men­tal­ism of the DUP.

As the DUP as­cended to power af­ter the sign­ing of the Good Fri­day Agree­ment, aided by an as­sem­bly which sanc­tioned and en­cour­aged a sec­tar­ian elec­toral carve-up be­tween it and Sinn Féin, the Ul­ster Union­ists’ power and in­flu­ence waned to its now his­tor­i­cally low ebb.

This was partly be­cause more lib­eral union­ists in­creas­ingly de­serted the North­ern Ire­land po­lit­i­cal and elec­toral scene dur­ing the Trou­bles.

One of the lost tribes of North­ern Ire­land are the so-called ‘Golf Club Protes­tants’, those fi­nan­cially wellenough off to ig­nore pol­i­tics, and for whom there may not be a party that truly rep­re­sents their views.

More than 40% of Protes­tant union­ists, at each end of the eco­nomic strata – ei­ther ex­tremely poor or very wealthy – rarely use their vote, for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when peo­ple talked of North­ern Ire­land’s ‘brain drain’, the eu­phemism largely re­lated to, if not ex­clu­sively, young Protes­tant union­ists who left the prov­ince for univer­sity never to re­turn, alien­ated by the sec­tar­ian in­su­lar­ity and vi­o­lence of the Trou­bles.

Kane says: “This has been go­ing on for 30-odd years, per­haps two gen­er­a­tions now. These were peo­ple who were happy enough be­ing in the union, but it wasn’t in the flesh and blood of their be­ing.

“They were lib­eral – they had no hangups about ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity or peo­ple who

Photo: Ed­u­ca­tion Im­ages/uig via Getty Im­ages

HIS­TORY: A loy­al­ist mu­ral in Belfast’s Lower Shankill Road cel­e­brat­ing vic­tory at the Bat­tle of the Boyne

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