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Home Uncategorized Defending the Union

Defending the Union

Henry Patterson
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…

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