Geoff Bell’s The Twilight of Unionism shows how the basis for Unionist politics has declined remorselessly since the 1960s, finds Chris Bambery
Geoff Bell in The Twilight of Unionism has done a very good job in outlining why, firstly, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and, secondly, the fallout from the 2016 UK Brexit referendum, has accelerated the undermining of Unionism and Loyalism within Northern Ireland. By Unionism, I mean those who defend the Union of Northern Ireland and Britain by electoral means in the main, and by Loyalism I mean those associated with paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force, who carried out largescale killings of Catholics during the Troubles.
As he makes clear, that process was underway long before, but both of these kicked the can much, much further down the road. The Good Friday Agreement set up the Northern Ireland Assembly and a power-sharing executive. These are currently not functioning after the Democratic Unionist Party blocked the Assembly from meeting to prevent Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill becoming First Minister, after her party won the largest share of the vote in May’s elections. The limited devolved power was, in the minds of its architects, to be shared by the Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).
The former was the descendent of the Unionist Party which had run Northern Ireland as a sectarian one-party state, from its creation in 1921 to the end of its parliament in 1972, when the British simply scrapped it. By 1998 they were still the biggest Unionist party and were prepared to sign up to the Agreement, as they believed they would always provide the First Minister. In 1998, the SDLP under John Hume was a party of moderate nationalists who wanted a united Ireland, but not any time soon, and were still larger than Sinn Féin. On the nationalist side, the SDLP was overtaken by Sinn Féin as early as 2002.
Things began to change on the Unionist side between 2003 and 2005, when the Democratic Unionist Party overtook and eclipsed the Unionist Party. It had not signed up to the Good Friday Agreement, denouncing it as a sell out to Irish Republicans. Its leader, Ian Paisley, a firebrand fundamentalist preacher, was viewed in official circles in Britain as an enfant terrible who should be kept out in the cold. With the First Ministry within his grasp, Paisley now did a U-turn and accepted the terms of the Agreement.
His and the DUP’s success came from the way they could portray the Unionists as middle class and out of touch with Protestant communities, who felt that their own sense of superiority within Northern Ireland was being undermined – more of that later. So in 2007, Ian Paisley became First Minister with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness as his deputy. Unexpectedly the two got on together and were nicknamed the Chuckle Brothers. But that and the presence of ex-IRA commander McGuinness fuelled the gnawing insecurity of both Unionists and Loyalists. Marches by the Orange Order were rerouted so they did not go through Nationalist areas. Sinn Féin took command of Belfast city council and more.
In 1921, Northern Ireland was created on the basis it would have a permanent Unionist majority based on a sectarian headcount. Often referred to as Ulster, it in fact excluded three historic Ulster counties, because they contained too many nationalist voters. The new state was a political and economic slum where wages for all were lower than Britain and unemployment higher, but sectarian discrimination meant Protestant workers largely saw themselves as twopence halfpenny looking down on twopence; Catholics were excluded from skilled work and last in the queue for housing.
There were moments, particularly in 1932, when Protestant and Catholic workers did fight back together, but the Labour Party and the trade-union officials identified with the six-county state, as ever, and would not challenge the partition settlement of 1921-1922, nor the way sectarianism was structural to that state. The Unionists via the Orange Order had a mass cross-party alliance, led by the landlords and industrialists, which could work to reassert sectarian divisions.
Geoff Bell concisely outlines how the Northern Ireland state was created and how it functioned. So also does he explain the birth of the Troubles, and of the Provisional IRA, when in 1968 and 1969 a civil-rights movement challenged sectarianism and was beaten off the street by an armed, sectarian police force. Unable to contain a virtual insurrection in Derry in August 1969, it requested British troops be sent to maintain order. The Labour Government in London agreed.
Even before those events, the Loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) had emerged and, in 1966, murdered two Catholics, randomly selected with no political links. Loyalists would follow this example from 1971 onwards. Unable to defeat the IRA, they hoped by mass killings of Catholic civilians they could drive a wedge between the Republicans and the nationalist population. It was a strategy which failed, at terrible cost.
The creation of the UVF was a reaction to a Unionist leadership which understood it needed to modernise the Northern Ireland economy by attracting American, British and European investment. It had to show at least cosmetic change, and so it was that the Prime Minister met his counterpart in the Irish Republic and visited a Catholic school to watch hurling. This was seen as a sell out by the bulk of the Orange Order, who saw before them a slippery slope to a united Ireland. Ian Paisley built a political party and a career by opposing the Unionist ‘top table’ and deploying all the old sectarian slogans and tunes. From the start that involved playing fast and loose with Loyalist paramilitaries.
What Geoff Bell demonstrates so well is that the rise of the DUP came against a growing sense of insecurity among Unionists and Loyalists. Fast forward to the Good Friday Agreement, and by a narrow majority Unionists and Loyalists voted to approve it in the subsequent referendum following its agreement. But for many their heart was not in it, while the DUP backed a ‘No’ vote. A sense they had been betrayed began to gnaw away at them.
Fast forward again to the Brexit referendum of 2016; as in Scotland, Northern Ireland voted to Remain. The DUP campaigned to Leave and lost. English issues and English votes determined the result. What Geoff Bell demonstrates is how the DUP’s determination to ‘get Brexit done’ led to a further erosion of its support and a growing sense of betrayal among Unionists and Loyalists. DUP leaders welcomed the support they supposedly received from subsequent Tory ministers and Prime Ministers, such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Priti Patel and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
The Good Friday Agreement – an international treaty Britain had signed, and which was guaranteed by the USA and European Union – ruled out a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. Business in Northern Ireland did not want one and supported remaining within the EU single market. On the other hand the DUP and Loyalist paramilitaries (who still remain in existence, unlike the IRA) opposed any border in the Irish Sea with Britain. It was a circle that could not be squared.
When in 2017 Theresa May failed to gain a majority in the UK general election, she did a deal with the DUP. Never must their future have seemed brighter. But of course, the Tories were at war internally over Brexit, and the DUP would discover that when Brexiteers said ‘get Brexit done’, they were referring to England and frankly could not give a damn about Northern Ireland, or Scotland. As with most people in England, they saw it as it as an alien place where dragons lived.
So the DUP did find themselves betrayed. Boris Johnson flew in to address their conference stressing that the union would always remain in place, and that there would be no border between Northern Ireland and Britain. Not for the first time he lied and signed up with the EU to a border in the Irish Sea. It’s still there.
Much of the traditionally Unionist middle class now began to switch support to the Alliance Party, which claims to take no position on whether Northern Ireland is part of the UK or not. In some ways it’s not a very radical step, but in others it is. It’s a recognition that the writing is on the wall for the union. The DUP also came under attack from Unionist hardliners who had split away and the Loyalist groupings.
The once powerful Unionist monolith had begun to fragment at the outset of the Troubles. Now it was in chaos and remains so. In the south, Sinn Féin was leading repeatedly in the polls. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, if both Irish assemblies agreed, an all-Irish referendum has to take place. There is no guarantee Northern Ireland would vote to retain partition, far from it.
Decline of Unionism
There are three issues I would raise with the book. First, Bell does not explain the economic decline which undermined Northern Ireland from its birth. Back in 1921, the new six-county state seemed guaranteed of a future economically with its shipyards, engineering and linen mills. From the start these industries were, in reality, in decline, a decline which has been remorseless. That would mean, post-World War II, the effective disappearance of the six-county industrialists, who with their aristocratic brothers had provided the leadership of the Unionist Party.
The old skilled Protestant working class scarcely exists today. That leaves low paid, unskilled communities who feel betrayed and let down by both Britain and Unionism. Geoff Bell describes that aspect well. The sense of betrayal does not mean these workers look for succour in class politics. Instead Loyalist paramilitary culture has stepped into that space.
Economic decline and the rise of a Catholic middle class has also meant that young, middle-class Protestants have chosen to study in Scotland and England rather than at Belfast’s Queens University (now seen as dominated by nationalists), and have in large part never returned.
The second point which is not addressed is that when I first went to Dublin in the mid-1970s, it was clearly poorer than Belfast. Unionist politicians could still paint the Republic as a poverty-wracked, priest-ridden state, and there was a degree of truth to that. There is plenty still wrong with the Republic, but despite the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, it is obviously better off than its northern neighbour and has provided the money for cross-border, fast rail and motorway links. Its population has voted in referendums for abortion and same-sex marriage – the first country to do so. The old image of the Republic no longer fits. This all feeds into the insecurity of the Unionists and Loyalists.
The third point is that I am puzzled by the lack of discussion of how Scotland impacts on Unionists and Loyalists in Northern Ireland, not for chauvinistic reasons, but because, firstly, supporters of Irish unity and Scottish independence have a widespread belief that one will follow the other. Secondly, Unionists and Loyalists have put an effort in stressing a separate Ulster Scots identity, partly to separate themselves from the rest of the Irish population, but also as a way to compensate for the erosion of their British identity, which Geoff does outline well. The possibility in 2014 that Scotland might vote to leave the Union, and the 50% or so support for independence since, is a body blow to that.
When I was a child, Scotland was very much a Presbyterian nation (the swings in Edinburgh were chained up on a Saturday night), and its role in Britain’s wars and empire was central to its identity then. There was a strong connection between Scotland and the Six Counties, particularly through the Orange Lodge and its marches on both sides of the channel.
Today, that’s largely gone. The Orange Lodge in Scotland is greatly weakened and has rebranded itself in opposition to independence. Glasgow Rangers, the Scottish side when I was young, is now seen as an anachronism, though it must be said a majority of its supporters backed independence in 2014, not living up to their stereotype.
This all contributes to Unionist and Loyalist isolation. Another change came when Nicola Sturgeon met Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill immediately after the last Northern Ireland Assembly elections, and the DUP’s blocking her becoming First Minister. The Scottish National Party had stood well away from Northern Ireland and Irish Republicanism in particular before then. Now Unionists and Loyalists see enemies on all sides.
These criticisms aside, this is a clear and concise explanation of how Northern Ireland got to where it is today and how support for Unionism continues to fragment. That is no easy task. Geoff Bell succeeds.
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