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Beyond Defiance

Adam Fusco

A People Under Siege: The Unionists of Northern Ireland, from Partition to Brexit and Beyond, by Aaron Edwards, Merrion Press, 360 pp, €19.99, ISBN: 978-1785372995
The Ghost Limb: Alternative Protestants and the Spirit of 1798, by Claire Mitchell, Beyond the Pale Books, 256 pp, £15, ISBN: 978-1914318191

As the social and political ground shifts in Northern Ireland, two recent books explore the possibility of new politics and identities for Northern Protestants. Proceeding from a shared distaste with contemporary unionism and the disremembering of a radical and independent Northern Protestant intellectual heritage, Aaron Edwards and Claire Mitchell reconstruct and imagine progressive politics and identities for this group through explorations of its progressive pasts.

In A People Under Siege, Aaron Edwards builds on two strands of reflection on Ulster unionism. First, histories which have chronicled the independent and progressive actors within post-partition unionism, and second, philosophical reflections on unionism and what unionism could be.

Edwards follows on from classics including Bew, Gibbons and Patterson’s Northern Ireland 1921-2001: Political Forces and Social Classes and Walker’s A History of the Ulster Unionist Party: Protest, Pragmatism and Pessimism. In Northern Ireland 1921-2001 Bew, Gibbons and Patterson argue that during the era of Stormont rule 1921-1972 there existed two registers of unionism, a dominant populist register and a minority liberal strain. Graham Walker further detailed the latter featuring personalities like Brian Maginess MP and considering Northern Ireland labour politics within and without the Unionist Party. Edwards himself has also previously contributed to this historical recovery in his A History of the Northern Ireland Labour Party: Democratic Socialism and Sectarianism. In A People Under Siege Edwards continues, building on works by Sarah Nelson, Tony Novosel, Graham Spencer, Peter Shirlow, and James W McAuley, crystallising his own work on loyalism, particularly on the UVF and the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP).

In the historical dimensions of his new book, Edwards details the deep tension that exists between the independent character of Ulster Protestants, particularly in its working class, and the almost perpetual political pressure in post-partition unionism for this group to be communally responsible for Northern Ireland’s constitutional position. Following Bew, Gibbons, and Patterson as well as Walker, Edwards demonstrates how the latter influence has routinely prevailed. However, those who pursued the former course hold particular significance for Edwards’s second purpose, to offer the beginnings of a reconstruction of contemporary unionism.

Such independent characters were not always liberal and progressive. Sometimes they were equally or more sectarian than the actors within mainstream unionism who both sincerely articulated sectarianism and utilised it instrumentally as a tool of political statecraft. There is a strand of loyalism and unionism running from John William Nixon at the time of partition, to Ian Paisley at the onset of the Troubles, to contemporary actors such as Jamie Bryson, which is both independent and populist. Edwards details these actors, but for his constructive purposes gives particular focus to more liminal and progressive characters. These include independent Unionists such as Tommy Henderson and Commonwealth Labour leader Harry Midgely, who pursued social democratic politics in a broadly communal manner for Northern Protestants. Or the members of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, the Troubles-era Newtownabbey Labour Party, and the PUP from the Peace Process era who sought electoral success among the Northern Protestant working class and sometimes beyond. Edwards demonstrates that unionism has not always been monolithic and detects a continuing progressive constituency among unionist-voting Northern Protestants.

Edwards’s selection of persons could be said to consist of substantive, as opposed to procedural, unionists. This is to say that their argument for the union is based on liberal or left-wing ideas on social and economic issues. By contrast, a procedural unionism grounds the argument for the Union in appropriate and desirable structures of governance and processes of democracy which sit behind how laws and policy are made.

It seems that Edwards’s hope is for a rational, non-sectarian and socially progressive unionism, preferably articulated in a working class voice. This is a largely substantive unionism that is also primarily instrumental. That is, it is a unionism that argues for the union in terms of the social benefits it delivers. A parallel with the history of unionism in Scotland is illuminating here. Historian Colin Kidd and political scientist Michael Keating have detailed how Scottish unionism traditionally was also nationalist, paradoxical as this may seem. This was because for many Scottish unionists the value of the union lay in how it benefitted the Scottish nation. The union worked because it delivered social and economic benefits for Scotland. Historian Tom Devine contends this was first through empire and second through the British welfare state. But post-Thatcher these benefits increasingly became fewer, if not far between, making it unsurprising that support for independence has recently risen dramatically since the commitment to the union was broadly an instrumental one to begin with. Or to put this another way, there has been no real rise in Scottish nationalism. This has always been strong. But there has been a significant decline in Scots also identifying with the union.

The issue for substantive and instrumental unionisms is what happens when the union fails to deliver social and economic benefits, particularly over a notable period? Norman Porter in his unfortunately forgotten Rethinking Unionism: An Alternative Vision for Northern Ireland acutely observed that this unionism is a hostage to fortune, as what it in fact makes is the case for is progressive values and policies rather than the union itself. Thus, as has been borne out in the case of Scotland, if a different constitutional settlement seems to better embody such values and policies, with it goes the argument for the union.

Northern Ireland of course is not Scotland, and has a great number of relevant contextual and historical differences, recently and comprehensively detailed in Graham Walker and James Greer’s The Ties that Bind: Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Union. There is an ethnic adherence, as Porter termed it, to the union in quarters of Northern Protestantism that is almost inured against any kind of argument. But while in the past ethnic adherence to the union almost sufficed for the security of Northern Ireland’s constitutional position, now as allegiances and demographics have changed, this is surely not enough. Ethnic and substantive arguments it seems, then, only hold a certain amount of appeal and plausibility.

But does a procedural unionism fare any better? The unionism of the PUP that Edwards explores combined substantive and procedural elements. The latter involved a wealth of thinking from actors including David Ervine, Gusty Spence and Billy Mitchell, which was crucial to the Good Friday Agreement. This was significant in securing peace and bequeathed Northern Ireland internal democratic processes for its own governance. In terms of the wider union, these structures were envisaged by the PUP and other pro-agreement unionists as securing the union, as if Northern Ireland worked this made the argument for the constitutional status quo. But to provide a reconstruction of unionism with developed procedural elements, this can only take unionism so far. Attempts at reconstruction might do better to look back instead to constitutional debates within unionism in the 1970s and ’80s where the ideas of Northern Ireland independence and British integration were discussed. Edwards, to his credit, notes these debates, which contained a wealth of procedural thought.

Independence gained some minority interest as an idea in Ulster unionism in the 1970s, initially following the proroguing of Stormont in 1972. Its first prominent articulators were Ulster Vanguard, led by former Stormont minister Bill Craig. Loyalists with connections to Vanguard, particularly the UDA, also became increasingly attracted by the idea of independence in the period of the Sunningdale Executive and the Ulster Workers’ Council strike. The principal concern articulated by pro-independence unionists was of a democratic deficit in Northern Ireland, which existed beyond the political injustice of direct rule and was in fact present even under devolution. This was that unionists, and Northern Ireland more generally, were a minority element in the UK constitution, perpetually vulnerable to the discretion of the British government and to betrayal.

Integrationist unionism interestingly reached similar conclusions. Articulated by comparatively more liberal members of the Ulster Unionist Party, including Bob McCartney and Cecil Walker, this unionist strand wished to see the democratic deficit of direct rule ended and Northern Ireland’s governance being brought into line with that of the rest of the UK. This strand of unionism gained traction following the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, when groups proliferated including McCartney’s Campaign for Equal Citizenship, the esoteric Marxist-Unionist British and Irish Communist Organisation, and the campaigns to organise the British Labour and Conservative parties in Northern Ireland. Central to the arguments of these organisations was again the undemocratic condition of Northern Ireland. Particularly as British political parties only organised in England, Scotland and Wales, these organisations argued that Northern Ireland and its citizens lacked the democratic right to vote governments into or out of office.

From the vantage point of the present, neither independence nor integration are plausible or desirable. Conditions have changed significantly, if these options were ever attractive. Devolution is now the norm UK-wide. As one-time advocate of independence and future first minister of Northern Ireland David Trimble argued, by the 1990s integrationist and devolutionist unionism were reconciled with devolution as a standard of UK governance. Independence, by contrast, was always viewed as a radical constitutional option, dogged by questions including its economic viability. The democratic and procedural analysis of both positions, however, remain relevant today. How the Brexit saga has unfolded in Northern Ireland provides an echo of this. With Johnson and the Conservative government’s implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the idea of betrayal and living as a minority at the mercy of the British government is again invoked in unionism. But this procedural grievance is one that is also shared across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland, albeit not on the Protocol, but on Brexit itself and the version of Brexit that was uncompromisingly pursued by the British government.

The project of reconstructing unionism should next ask the question if the union itself can be democratically reconstructed, so that Northern Ireland is not subject to this condition. Substantive unionism can of course support the union and offer an outlet for unionists who are liberal and progressive in their politics. Similarly, making Northern Ireland work also provides another argument for the union, though arguably this is as much of a boon for advocates of Irish unity, as being faced with the responsibility for Northern Ireland’s dysfunction surely does not make the case for Irish unity easier in the twenty-six counties. Reforming the democratic structures of the UK though is a very hard sell in present circumstances. With a Conservative government in power since 2010 and its preferred model of political economy seeming to be structurally entrenched in the British state, impervious to any change in government, making the case to democratically reform the UK is a monumental challenge. It may be possible though if the Brexit stress-test of union eventually recedes with the departure of the current Conservative government, perhaps coupled with a loss in appetite for Scottish independence. In these circumstances it may just be possible to develop a democratic case for the union with plausibility.

A distaste with the quality of democracy, or outright lack thereof, in the UK is one of the departure points in The Ghost Limb. More generally, the book explores what Claire Mitchell describes as a present but unnamed and unexplored Ulster Protestant heritage, which holds potential particularly for those who do not identify with the ritual and politics of mainstream unionism and loyalism. Mitchell ties both themes together in a present-day exploration of the classical republican promise of 1798, attempting to overcome what the historian Guy Beiner describes as the ‘disremembering’ of the rebellion, and specifically Northern Protestants’ leading role within it.

Mitchell ponders the intellectual heritage of the United Irishmen and women, and asks if its radical principles and spirit can be rediscovered by Northern Protestants, who have both been socialised out of or wilfully forgotten this past. For Mitchell the rediscovery in question is of republicanism in its classical sense. This is a politics of liberty, civic equality and virtue. Or more generally, the Enlightenment promise of radical democratic citizenship, which was intellectually anti-sectarian in its Irish guise. Mitchell also infuses her republicanism with contemporary political commitments, including feminism, anti-colonialism, environmentalism and socialism. Historically, republicanism seldom promoted these ends and traditionally was hostile to them, though they increasingly figure in contemporary reconstructions, as Adam Coleman detailed recently in this journal (‘The Conditions of Liberty’, Autumn 2023).

By decoupling a Protestant identity from being unionist or loyalist, Mitchell also considers if classic republican politics should again point in the constitutional direction envisaged by the Northern Protestant United Irishmen. At one level this exploration, if not advocacy, of Irish unity has an instrumental quality. It is the most plausible way to pursue civic republican and progressive goals in the politics between Britain and Ireland. But not entirely.

The Ghost Limb begins almost in the tone of a piece of art writing, as if it were the narration to a gallery installation, complemented by its aestheticised cover and overall presentation. As it moves into its main sections though it takes the form of a series of walks, actual and figurative, with interlocutors who have questioned the assumed Protestant-unionist-loyalist package in different ways. Running throughout is the refrain of ‘dreamtime’. Mitchell does not purport to give a comprehensive history of 1798 in the book or a rigorous social science exploration of contemporary dissenting or independent Northern Protestants, but instead offers unbounded discussions with partners to see where their social and political imaginations might go, trained by 1798 and other elements of an alternative Northern Protestant past. It is an almost socialised version of the walks and dreams pursued by Rousseau in his Reveries.

Through her encounters with diverse and often fascinating figures on her walks one thing that grounds Mitchell’s discussions is what she calls the sense of ‘negation’ that comes with identifying with the political centre as a Northern Protestant in Northern Ireland. For Mitchell not to be unionist or nationalist but ‘other’ is a rejection of political labels, but something that is nevertheless itself devoid of heritage and identity. This matters to Mitchell and through explorations of the town and landscapes of counties Antrim and Down she adds content to the ghost limb. This is from a confluence of identities from the progressivism – of the progressive elements of – 1798, Protestant Gaelicism, Ulster Scots, and even the British welfare state. The politics of United Irish founders William Drennan, James ‘Jemmy’ Hope, Henry Joy and in particular Mary Ann McCracken are drawn upon to overcome the negation. This amounts, it seems, for Mitchell to a substantive sense of Protestant Irishness. It is Northern, it is in an Ulster accent, but is also socially and culturally linked with the rest of the island. Politics then, for Mitchell, both rationally and emotively points to Irish unity.

Mitchell is clear that these are personal reflections. Her book invites pluralism and represents only one branch of Northern Protestant dreaming and reconstruction. But the radical Protestant tradition of 1798 and beyond can be as much a resource for those – Northern Protestant or not – who identify with the project of ‘other’ in Northern Ireland, or indeed unionists as Mitchell interestingly uncovers of some. Other branches, however, are equally deserving of exploration, particularly in light of debates concerning constitutional change. In Inventing the Myth: Political Passions and the Ulster Protestant Imagination, historian Connal Parr explores the independent and radical spirit of Northern Protestantism in the literary and theatrical domains of the twentieth century. Explorations such as this serve as departure points for contemporary reconstructions that could well end up pointing in different political directions.

A sober note is nonetheless needed. As the ground is shifting numbers of Northern Protestants are now defecting from unionism, primarily to the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, or are simply not becoming unionists in the first place. There are contingent reasons for this, but it is more generally reflective of an inability in unionism to reimagine and reconstruct itself, as it has historically struggled. This might mean ‘other’ politics really is the most appropriate site to address the democratic condition of Northern Ireland, though it is notable how comparatively liberal the Ulster Unionist Party, under the leadership of Doug Beattie, now appears in relation to its past self and the contemporary mainstream unionism of the DUP and unionist right beyond it.

In her Northern Protestants, An Unsettled People and On Shifting Ground, Susan McKay provides perhaps the most comprehensive, and one feels accurate, account of Northern Protestants in their diversity from radical to conservative and in-between. The cover of On Shifting Ground is of the Apprentice Boys of Derry effigy of Robert Lundy, the symbol and watchword of communal betrayal in unionist and loyalist political culture. Lundy looms large in unionism. Those who attempt to reimagine and reconstruct unionism are ‘Lundied’, with their attempts characterised as potential Trojan horses of Irish unity. Vigilance against betrayal, however, could be productive if it was turned outwards. Not to traitors within, but to the potential betrayals of the British government and a democratic constitutional politics which reimagines the union, and unionists and Northern Ireland’s place within it, as secure against this. Then a more liberal unionism might be able to take hold. Or more realistically perhaps an ‘others’ politics, which could explore social, economic and constitutional futures for Northern Ireland somewhat freed from the weight of communal expectation.

Works Cited
Guy Beiner, Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster (Oxford University Press, 2018).
Paul Bew, Peter Gibbons and Henry Patterson, Northern Ireland 1921-2001: Political Forces and Social Classes (Serif, 2002).
Adam Coleman, ‘The Conditions of Liberty’, Dublin Review of Books (Autumn. 2023) Online at:  https://drb.ie/articles/the-conditions-of-liberty/
Tom Devine, Independence or Union: Scotland’s Past and Scotland’s Present (Penguin, 2016).
Aaron Edwards, A History of the Northern Ireland Labour Party: Democratic Socialism and Sectarianism (Manchester University Press, 2009).
Aaron Edwards, ‘The Progressive Unionist Party of Northern Ireland: A left-wing voice in an ethnically divided society’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 12(4), 2010, pp 590-614.
Aaron Edwards, UVF: Behind the Mask (Merrion Press, 2017).
Michael Keating, The Independence of Scotland: Self-Government & the Shifting Politics of the Union (Oxford University Press, 2009).
Colin Kidd, Union and Unionisms: Political Thought in Scotland, 1500-2000 (Cambridge University Press, 2008).
James W McAuley, Ulster’s Last Stand: Reconstructing Unionism after the Peace Process (Irish Academic Press, 2010).
James W McAuley, Very British Rebels. The Culture and Politics of Ulster Loyalism (Bloomsbury, 2015).
Susan McKay, Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People (Blackstaff Press, 2000).
Susan McKay, Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground (Blackstaff Press, 2021).
Sarah Nelson, Ulster’s Uncertain Defenders: Loyalist and the Northern Ireland Conflict (Appletree Press, 1984).
Tony Novosel, Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity: The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism (Pluto, 2013).
Connal Parr, Inventing the Myth: Political Passions and the Ulster Protestant Imagination (Oxford University Press, 2017).
Norman Porter, Rethinking Unionism: An Alternative Vision for Northern Ireland (Blackstaff Press, 1996).
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Reveries of a Solitary Walker (Oxford World Classics, 2011).
Peter Shirlow, The End of Ulster Loyalism? (Manchester University Press, 2012).
Graham Spencer, The State of Loyalism in Northern Ireland (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
Graham Walker, A History of the Ulster Unionist Party: Protest, Pragmatism and Pessimism (Manchester University Press, 2004).
Graham Walker & James Greer, Ties that Bind? Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Union (Irish Academic Press, 2023).


Adam Fusco teaches at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of York.




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