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