The Northern Ireland Question: Perspectives on Nationalism and Unionism, Patrick J Roche and Brian Barton (eds), Wordzworth Publishing, 392 pp., £15.99, ISBN: 978-1783241453
This book, according to its editors, challenges much conventional understanding on a number of important issues relating to the history of Northern Ireland and the Troubles. The introduction, however, is restricted to a survey of the main arguments in each of the eleven chapters of the book and as a result what the “conventional understanding” of Northern Ireland’s history, the Troubles and the peace process actually is is never specified. However, by implication, drawing from the argument of a number of the chapters, the conventional understanding seems to derive from the fact that the dominant framing of the region’s history and recent past is a nationalist one. This reflects a widespread pessimism which a number of other commentators have noted as a characteristic of contemporary unionism. A caveat needs to be added in that not all the contributors are unionists in either the upper or lower case sense.
Brian Barton, in his comprehensive account of the birth of the Northern Ireland state in a period of revolutionary violence and unionist reaction, and Walker, in his analysis of how devolution developed from the 1920s to the 1960s, emphasise the negative effects of conditions of state formation and decades of southern irredentist rhetoric in the generation of the siege mentality of unionism. At the core of Walker’s argument is the importance of the “step-by-step” policy adopted by Sir James Craig in the 1920s to accord the North’s inhabitants equal access to the social benefits available in the rest of the UK. The contradictory effects of this as Stormont followed British welfarism after 1945 were noted almost fifty years ago by John Harbinson in his history of the Unionist Party: “while they continued to wave the flag, the Unionist government brought in considerable social improvements. They did this by squeezing money out of various United Kingdom governments and they spread the benefits over the whole community … (but) by spreading material benefits over the whole community and at the same time excluding Catholics from any effective part in determining policies at either party or parliamentary level, the Unionist Party created serious problems for itself.” (The Ulster Unionist Party 1886-1973)
Walker, who has written a comprehensive history of the Unionist Party which is at once critical but sympathetic to the dilemmas of the party’s modernisers, like Clarence Graham and Brian Maginess, has clearly little patience for what he refers to as “sweeping denunciations of ‘fifty years of misrule’ that are routinely made about unionists”. His main charge against the unionist government was that it failed to extend “step-by-step” from social and economic policies to the areas of electoral practices and law and order. It was also guilty of “a certain arrogance that assumed that this was ‘our place to govern as we wish’”. The problem remained that posed by Harbinson: even the most positive form of constructive unionism ignored the issues of political representation and discrimination. The social democratisation of the Northern Irish state after 1945 which transformed the life chances of a generation of working class children, Catholic and Protestant, was uneasily combined with the ethnic ethos of the regime and its continuing responsiveness to Protestant ultras on issues like the flying of the Union flag and the Orange Order’s right to march.
An example of current misconceptions, not given in the book, is the BBC’s “Bitesize” lesson for the GCSE CCEA unit on the civil rights movement. It provides a list of the main aims of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association which includes “Ensure that local councils allocated their houses fairly. At this time only those who paid rates were allowed to vote in local elections. If councils did not give Catholics houses then they could not vote.” The implication is that local councils did not allocate houses to Catholics. In fact, Graham Gudgin, in his contribution on discrimination in housing and employment, points out that Richard Rose’s research in 1968, published in his Governing without Consensus, established that Catholics had a disproportionately large share of local authority housing. Rose concluded that there was “no evidence of systematic discrimination against Catholics. The greatest bias appears to favour Catholics in areas controlled by Catholic councillors.” Gudgin acknowledges that a number of local authorities in Tyrone and Fermanagh built very few houses for Catholics within their boundaries or where doing so would upset the electoral arithmetic and that this “indefensible behaviour … played no small part in its [Stormont’s] downfall”. He points out that postwar governments relied on the Housing Trust, set up in 1945, to build houses in those areas where Catholics were badly served by local authorities.
The trust built about 40 per cent of public housing in Northern Ireland between 1945 and 1963. It operated a points system and was not included in charges of sectarian bias made against the Northern Ireland state. In Brendan O’Leary’s recent depiction of Stormont as an all-encompassing system of Protestant/unionist “control” the trust is not mentioned and attention is focused instead on two cases of blatant bias by unionist councils in Omagh and Enniskillen. He quotes George Elliott, the UUP chairman of Enniskillen Housing Committee declaring that his council would build houses to let to the “right people” and that a Unionist council had no obligation to “cut a stick to beat itself”. (Treatise on Northern Ireland, Vol 2) Harbinson, in his history of the Unionist Party, provides a fuller quotation : “We are not going to build houses in the South Ward and cut a rod to beat ourselves later on. We are going to see that the right people are put into these houses and we are not making any apology for it.” The omission of the reference to the South Ward has the effect of leading the innocent reader to conclude that, in the interests of maintaining local political domination, the council did not build houses for Catholics rather than, as was the case, that it would only build them in a ward where there was already a Catholic majority. The case of Enniskillen was first investigated by Dennis Kennedy, one of the contributors to the book,who in the 1960s was a reporter for the Belfast Telegraph. Kennedy showed that the Unionist council built houses for Catholics only in the ward which returned a nationalist electoral majority. In Enniskillen many of the houses built for Catholics were built by the Housing Trust with a subsidy from the council. The main criticism of unionist councils made by Lord Cameron in his 1969 report was not that they did not build sufficient houses for Catholics but that they used housing allocation to maintain electoral advantage.
On the issue of discrimination in employment in central and local government Gudgin acknowledges the serious underrepresentation of Catholics at senior levels of the civil service and in large imbalances in the employment of Catholics in the gerrymandered areas of Fermanagh, Dungannon, Omagh and Armagh. He accepts that, as with the allocation of housing, these instances of discrimination were of individual and political importance but adds that they accounted for fewer than 400 jobs in an economically active population of around a quarter of a million. This was, he argues, far from the New Ireland Forum’s claim that under Stormont Catholics were “deprived of the means of social and economic development”. Such nationalist hyperbole won sympathetic support from neutral observers because of the anti-intellectual nature of political unionism, which resulted in a feebleness in its response to nationalist propaganda. As an example he instances the fact that the Ulster Unionist Party failed to make any submission to the Cameron Commission. However the party was not in position to make a submission as at all levels, from the cabinet to the local branches and the Orange Order, it was divided over whether to concede the demand for one man one-vote. Brian Faulkner, who resigned from the government over the decision to appoint the commission, saw it as a backdoor method of abolishing the ratepayers’ franchise, with O’Neill anticipating he could use the report to push through the reform.
Faulkner had built his profile in the 1950s by combining support for economic modernisation with defence of the political and ethnic status quo. In 1958 he spoke to the party’s executive about a Nationalist Party resolution at Stormont, backed by the Northern Ireland Labour Party, “recognising that Northern Ireland is the only part of these islands which denies universal adult suffrage in local government elections”. At a time when the party was losing Protestant working class votes to the NILP on issues of unemployment and recent redundancies, one of the Belfast delegates pointed out that the majority of members of his association were not ratepayers and asked how he was expected to explain to them that they should not have the vote. Faulkner’s response encapsulated the dominant logic of Ulster Unionist rule: “The trouble was in telling people that they should not have the vote – it is a very difficult question to answer. It is important that it should be impressed upon them that the real reason behind it is Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh.” (Patterson & Kaufmann, Unionism and Orangeism in Northern Ireland since 1945) The largest group disadvantaged by the ratepayers’ franchise was working class Protestants. The imposition of this class injustice on those who were the backbone of the unionist movement was seen as justifiable as the alternative was nationalist control of the province’s second city and a sweep of rural and urban councils along the border. This was the electoral logic of the classic unionist bloc. The strategy of O’Neillism and late Faulknerism was intent on forging a modernising bloc breaking with border unionism and the unionist right and winning over sections of the Catholic middle class. It was the conflict over this strategic choice which convulsed unionism and radicalised nationalism in the late 1960s.
Roche and Charles in their chapter on Irish republicans and the civil rights movement argue that the core objective was not equal rights for all but the delegitimisation and destabilisation of the state itself. Desmond Greaves, a historian and the Communist Party of Great Britain’s Irish expert, along with his disciples Anthony Coughlan and Roy Johnston, are credited with a seminal role in identifying the civil rights agenda as the most effective leverage against Stormont and, through Cathal Goulding, of shifting IRA strategy towards social and economic agitation and away from militarism. The hinge of change for Greaves was Section 75 of the Government of Ireland Act which asserted the ultimate sovereign authority of Westminster over Northern Ireland. This sovereignty claim needed to be used to impose reform through a Bill of Rights which would outlaw discrimination. The objective was a reformed Stormont where nationalists could exploit divisions within unionism to forge an alliance with liberal and progressive sections of the Protestant population and ultimately bring about unification. Greaves and his communist allies in Belfast, although critical of the Northern Ireland Labour Party’s alleged timidity on civil rights, saw the winning of Protestant working class support as essential and opposed the marches by the student militants of Peoples Democracy as risking a possible sectarian conflagration.
It is true that a defective understanding of unionism on the part of nationalists and republicans and ultra-left militancy played a part in generating the crisis of 1968/69. But so did the Unionist Party’s longstanding identification of any demand for reform with subversion, which had led Terence O’Neill to fight the threat from the NILP during the 1965 Stormont election by playing up the anti-partitionist sympathies of Harold Wilson. There was a significant current of non-nationalist support for civil rights, embodied most substantially in the NILP. As early as 1950 the new secretary of the party, Sam Napier, had issued a statement criticising “the religious discrimination, suppression of civil liberties, electoral abuses and the generally repressive policy of the Ulster Unionist Party”. (Belfast Telegraph, December 11th, 1950). One of those who addressed the first civil rights march from Coalisland to Dungannon in Tyrone was the NILP councillor Jack Hassard. Another prominent NILP supporter of civil rights was the QC and literary figure Martin McBirney. McBirney contested three Stormont elections for the party and was one-time party chairman. As a barrister he defended civil rights activists, but this counted for little when he, having become a magistrate, was shot dead by the IRA as he sat down to breakfast. Given the space which the book devotes to the issues of discrimination and civil rights it is a pity that this tradition of Protestant Labourist support for civil rights, the literary wing of which was recently powerfully depicted by Connal Parr, is not covered.
Ironically, there would be broad concurrence between Roche and Charles’s thesis and the narrative of the civil rights movement proposed by the current leadership of Sinn Féin. That party’s national chairman, Declan Kearney, told BBC Northern Ireland’s The View in February 2018 that it was the strategic decisions of the leaders of the IRA and Sinn Féin which inspired the formation of the civil rights movement. This was denounced as “delusional” by Bernadette McAliskey, who pointed out that the civil rights movement was about equality while the Provisionals were about “Brits out” and Irish unity by force. (Stephen Walker, “Sinn Fein delusional” BBC NI, February 8th, 2018) There is a touch of the “At night all cats are grey” syndrome in an analysis of republicanism in the 1960s which does not distinguish between republican revisionists like Roy Johnston and Cathal Goulding proposing involvement in the civil rights movement as a means of building alliances with sections of the Protestant working class and someone like the Belfast veteran Jimmy Steele, who in an incendiary speech at the reinterment of Barnes and McCormack in July 1969, attacked the leadership of the movement for being “more conversant with the writings of Chairman Mao than those of our dead patriots” and believing “that the struggle for civil rights was a process by which the Six-County state could be reformed”. (“Jimmy Steele: The Life of a Belfast Republican”, An Phoblacht/ Republican News, August 29th, 1985)
Steele and other IRA veterans would form the core of the Provisionals, whose campaign is dealt with in Roche’s chapter on terrorism and Irish nationalism. Roche is concerned that the “moral culpability of the leadership and activists of the IRA and the callous barbarity of their multiple crimes must not be permitted to be buried in oblivion”. However, the core of the chapter is not an indictment of the Provisionals but rather focuses on their campaign’s ideological legitimation in a deep-rooted sense of historic grievance and the “one-nation myth” of Irish nationalism. While the Provisionals benefited from the covert support of some supporters of constitutional nationalism north and south, there were others, from Jack Lynch and Des O’Malley to Paddy Cooney and John Bruton, who were bitter opponents of the IRA and who are ignored in this reductionist perspective.
William Matchett, a former RUC Special Branch officer, provides a chapter based on his book Secret Victory: The Intelligence War that beat the IRA. This is an insider’s history of how the RUC learnt from the mistakes made in the early years of the Troubles, adapted to the changes in the IRA’s tactics, penetrated the organisation and used the intelligence to thwart many of its operations. Matchett claims that by the end of the 1980s “intelligence-led policing prevented 80 per cent of all terrorist attacks” and quotes the former PIRA hunger striker Gerard Hodgins: “The British penetrated the Provos at every level and put their agents and spies in place to ruin us within.”
Thomas Leahy, in a doctoral thesis and book, has criticised the claim that the intelligence war defeated the IRA, arguing that it ignores the level of IRA attacks in 1992, 1993 and 1994 and that the activity coming from South Armagh was overlooked in previous analysis. The journalist Ed Moloney was not impressed by Leahy’s thesis, perhaps in part because his book, A Secret History of the IRA, dealt in detail with the IRA campaign in the early 1990s which Leahy claims had been overlooked.(“An observation on the thesis about IRA informers and the peace process”, The Broken Elbow, March 18th, 2020) Moloney has provided his own, acerbic review of Matchett’s book but does not demur from its principal argument: “I do not disagree with his claim that by the end the intelligence war had been almost entirely lost by the IRA and that Special Branch, MI5 and Military Intelligence had thoroughly infiltrated the organisation.” (“An RUC Special Branch view of the Peace Process”, The Broken Elbow, May 21st, 2017)
Matchett contends that the achievements of the intelligence war were squandered by the Major and Blair governments and a peace process which conceded the IRA’s main demands, destroyed the RUC and has led to rewriting of history which has foregrounded the “Dirty War” interpretation of the Troubles by emphasising state violations of human rights and collusion between state forces and loyalists. However, the peace process was more than appeasement. The core demand of the Provisionals for a British declaration of intent to withdraw was not forthcoming. Republicans also failed to push the British into becoming “persuaders” for a United Ireland.
The IRA did not succeed but it altered profoundly the way Northern Ireland was governed and the way its past was to be officially addressed. Cillian McGrattan in his analysis of nationalism and dealing with the past argues that the peace process has reflected the prioritising of bringing violent republicans into democratic politics and that this has resulted in a legacy process structurally biased against unionist views of the past. This was reflected in proposals of the Consultative Group on the Past in Northern Ireland headed by Archbishop Robin Eames and Denis Bradley, which subordinated the understanding of the past to the demands of the present, summed up in their proposal of a £12,000 award to all victims even if their relatives had been killed carrying out paramilitary attacks. According to McGrattan political expediency is given ideological legitimacy by transitional justice academics who promote a state-centric, structuralist understanding of past violence. The major problem for legitimising Provisional violence are the statistics on who did most of the killings, with state agents responsible for around 10 per cent. The Queen’s University academic Kieran McEvoy is quoted using cases of collusion between members of the security forces and loyalist terrorists to suggest that the state’s responsibility for deaths could be significantly higher. Yet, if state-sponsored collusion was so significant why were loyalists only able to kill thirty-five members of the IRA and Sinn Féin between 1969 and 1994? Proponents of collusion shift easily from claims about systemic practices to more qualified assertions, what McGrattan terms “the smoke-and-mirrors methodology of the collusion claim”. He concludes that the structuralist model has been successful in delegitimising, even discursively effacing, the unionist memory of the Troubles with its stress on the division between lawful force and terrorism.
Arthur Aughey notes the effect of Brexit in generating political and constitutional uncertainty. It has angered and animated Irish nationalism and Aughey diagnoses its current conditions by a metaphor from the world of jazz ‑ the Lyttleton syndrome. Humphrey Lyttleton, on being asked where he thought jazz was going, replied “if we knew where it was going we would be there already”. The syndrome occurs when it is assumed that history can only move in one direction, in this case that Brexit has opened up the road to unity in relatively short order. In a situation where unionism was and remains divided over Brexit, and where many unionists were shocked by Boris Johnson’s acceptance of a border in the Irish Sea, Aughey takes a dialectical view of the much commented upon pessimism of unionism. It contains accretions of an historical understanding that while unionists have been “betrayed” at other crucial conjunctures by British governments the Union remains: “the certainty of betrayal orders the world … provides a defensive barrier against subversion. Positively, it can encourage a strength of purpose based on the consolation of survival.”
The economic argument has been at the core of the case for the Union since the Home Rule period . But, as Esmond Birnie points out, while this argument remains, its strength has declined given the weakness of Northern Ireland’s private sector, the low productivity of its labour force and its consequent high dependence on the public sector. This is only sustainable by a fiscal transfer from the UK Exchequer which is much higher than transfers to Scotland, Wales and the north of England. The £10 billion a year subvention means that, however superior the economic performance of the Republic, it is still not in a position to afford Northern Ireland. Prior to the Brexit referendum, polls had shown a relatively secure majority for the Union, adding together active support from unionists and acceptance of the status quo by a section of Catholics and “Others”. Aughey suggests that this may have encouraged complacency in the DUP in its support for Leave. Whatever its motivation, the end result is a widespread belief within unionism that it has been sacrificed to the larger interest of the British state. Of course fear of being betrayed by British governments is not new, as Barton shows; it determined much of unionist strategy in the 1920-22 period. Unionist fears rapidly diminished after 1922 but then much of their fate remained in their own hands. Now they face the possibility of a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea with some depicting the future of Northern Ireland as being a semi-detached EU dominion paid for by the British taxpayer.
As part of Dáil preparations for possible constitutional change, the Fianna Fáil senator Mark Daly commissioned a report on unionist concerns and fears of a United Ireland. It included extracts from a series of focus groups carried out with Independent Orangemen, loyalist flute band members, former members of the UDR and ex-paramilitaries. Seven main concerns were identified, of which two were material, “loss of land” and “health-care, welfare and the economy”, while the others included loss of identity, nationalist triumphalism and retribution against former members of the security forces. (Rebecca Black, “Main fears of Unionists under a United Ireland”, Belfast Telegraph, July 18th, 2019) Whilst in part this demonstrated recent unionist concern about the “rewriting of history” and “lawfare” against ex-members of the security forces it also reflects longer-term memories of Protestant experience in post-independence Ireland.
These are the subject of Robin Bury’s chapter on the history of southern Protestants, from what he calls the mini-pogrom in the Bandon Valley in April 1922, through the widespread attacks on southern Protestants punished for the deaths of Catholics in the 1935 sectarian riots in Belfast, to the Fethard-on-Sea boycott in 1957. Compulsory Irish was, and here Bury quotes Tom Garvin, “an ideological weapon for nationalist and fundamentalist Catholics, feared by Protestants”. Today’s Ireland is a liberal, multicultural democracy but its relationship to the UK and Northern Unionists is disfigured by a “narrow and singular narrative about Irish history”. Brexit unleashed a wave of Anglophobia and the emergence of Sinn Féin, its new leader an unapologetic defender of the IRA, as the largest party in the state, has shaken even the most amnesiac layers of the Alliance Party.
Viewing Northern Ireland as a place apart, insulating itself from the region, and in some cases a sympathy for Irish nationalism, had been the default position of the British political and administrative class since the 1920s, temporarily put aside in the 1940s when Irish neutrality boosted Northern Ireland’s status in Westminster and Whitehall.
Despite this history of distancing, Fintan O’Toole could still write of the October 2019 meeting between Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar in the Wirral that “a huge act of mental separation has occurred … Johnson decided that Northern Ireland can be detached from the British train and placed on a whole other track”. Nationalist Ireland responded to the deal with a mixture of schadenfreude and glee at the dumping of the unionists.
Despite this, in the same month as O’Toole’s article, according to a YouGov poll, asked “How would you feel if Northern Ireland left the UK?”, 41 per cent of the British public said they would be upset, 41 per cent that they were not bothered either way and 9 per cent said they would be pleased.(Sam Fitzpatrick, “Brits increasingly don’t care whether Northern Ireland remains in the UK”, YouGov poll, April 2020) Given the outraged British media coverage of the one billion pound bung to the province by Theresa May in her confidence and supply deal with the DUP in 2017, the less than “woke” image of the DUP in the rest of the UK and the fact that the province’s inhabitants are more heavily subsidised by the treasury than any of the British regions and nations unionists can take some consolation that sympathy and indifference far outweigh hostility.
Despite the approach of Northern Ireland’s centenary, this spirited, pro-Union collection has not featured on Radio Ulster’s main current affairs programme, Talkback, which has given ample coverage to any book which alleges that “collusion” went to the heart of British state policy in Northern Ireland. This is symptomatic of a problem noted by Ian McBride, that “Protestants seem to lack either the ideological resources or the cultural confidence to match the younger, more dynamic representatives of northern nationalism.” (Dealing with the Past: Historians and the Northern Ireland Conflict). The disproportionate number of Protestant sixth formers who leave Northern Ireland to study at English and Scottish universities and don’t return and the historic tendency of middle class and professional Protestants to eschew politics has contributed to a shrinking gene pool for unionist politics. The dominant “common sense” in local academic, media, NGO and administrative circles is a pro-European progressivism shorn of any material or class dimension. It is easy meat for a republicanism which has been skilled in decanting a project of ethnic dominance into an amorphous peace process linguistic melange of a “rights-based society” and an “Ireland of equals”.
There is an ironic dimension to the book: while the ideological battle against traditional nationalist shibboleths is being waged the prospective erosion of the customs and regulatory regimes of the Union is not subject to sustained analysis. Both Paddy Roche and Graham Gudgin were Brexiteers and, although contributors like Arthur Aughey and Dennis Kennedy were opponents there is no attempt to evaluate the implications of Brexit for the future of the Union. The Northern Ireland Protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement created a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea and the recent furore created by the UK Internal Market bill should not obscure the fact that, even if it was implemented, it would represent a minimalist mitigation of that reality.
The book’s focus on critiquing the nationalist and republican projects has resulted in two key absences. One is any critique of the DUP’s stewardship of the Union since it became the dominant unionist party. While much has been made of its modernisation and pragmatic move to the centre, only Sam McBride in Burned, his book on the “Cash-for-Ash” debacle, has delineated the combination of nest-lining, governmental incompetence and intellectual and ideological weakness in the face of profound political and constitutional challenges.
The other absence is the turmoil within the Conservative Party that produced the referendum and the May and Johnston premierships. In his recent critique of the case for Scottish independence, Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot, John Lloyd devotes one of the five chapters to the English and English nationalism. With the partial exception of Aughey’s chapter, there is no analysis of Brexit’s implications for the Union. Lloyd points out that leading Brexiteers like Liam Fox, William Rees-Mogg and Michael Gove are in the Thatcherite, free-market tradition. From that perspective, if a public-sector-dominated, treasury-subsidised, geographically separate region of the UK has to put up with a hybrid regulatory and customs system this might be a price worth paying for the liberation of the rest of the UK. Neo-liberalism, not English nationalism, resulted in a Northern Ireland Protocol which Gudgin has recently described as damaging to UK unity and the Good Friday Agreement. Whatever the outworkings of Brexit, all those interested in a serious intellectual defence of the Unionist position will find this an invaluable collection.
Henry Patterson is emeritus professor of Irish politics at Ulster University.