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A View North For Unionists, the question is: union, but with whom?

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

The recent loss of the power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland has been generally greeted with dismay in Dublin, Belfast, London and Washington, where there has been much lamentation that this is the second time such a failure has occurred in 25 years. But it is worth noting that this time the dismay is expressed more vociferously by the nationalist community than by the unionist. As former SDLP councilor Brian Feeney pointed out in a recent article in the Belfast Irish News: "no unionist has expressed regret or any sense of loss about the removal of devolved government." He described this as "ominous" in its implications for the struggle to restore devolved government to Belfast.

In Northern Ireland terms, it is certainly an interesting development. However, historically speaking, it is not an exceptional one, as a glance at the roots of unionism will show.

Unionism arose in Ireland in the third decade of the 19th century as the opponent of Daniel O’Connell’s campaign for the repeal of the Union. It became politically formidable with the rise of the Home Rule movement in the 1880s. That is, traditionally, unionism has been against devolved government and for integration between Ireland and Great Britain.

Irish Unionists were, for the most part, opposed to partition. A historian of unionism, Ian McBride, has observed that, "throughout the Home Rule debates, Protestant spokesmen insisted on their devotion to their country, their pride in its traditions and affection for its landscape; even after 1922 it was possible for Unionists to speak of ‘our common land.’ " ("Unionism In Modern Ireland: New Perspectives on Politics and Culture," edited by Richard English and Graham Walker.)

It is true that in Ulster, from the late 19th century onward, there did emerge a "separatist" sentiment among liberal Unionists, some of whom argued in favor of self-government in pamphlets such as "Ulster on its Own." But at the same time, they continued to insist that Ulster was "the most typically Irish of all the provinces."

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This seeming contradiction was not resolved by the Government of Ireland Act in 1920 and the imposition of partition which followed it. For most Unionists, devolved government in the North was merely the lesser of two evils. Edward Carson, for one, was outspoken in his defense of Ireland as a single unit within the United Kingdom. Indeed, Stormont presented Unionists with new problems. It was uncomfortable for them in some ways because, while it recognized that "Ulster" was politically separate from the rest of Ireland, it was also an admission that it was not like the rest of Great Britain either. After all, it was the only part of the UK which required its own parliament.

As a result, the sentiment within Unionism now shifted toward showing that Northern Ireland, while under its own government, was "as much a part of the United Kingdom as Yorkshire," in the words of a former minister of education in Stormont (not Martin McGuinness). Concurrent with this was the assertion that while a common Irish identity still had a sentimental appeal for Ulstermen and women, it was incompatible with "being at the same time British," according to Lord Brookeborough, the Northern Ireland prime minister from 1943-63.

That is, the contradiction of the Unionist position in Ireland and in the UK was, if anything, heightened by partition and the creation of Northern Ireland, which was, in effect, Home Rule for "Ulster."

Over the next 50 years, however, pro-Stormont sentiment grew within the Unionist community as they became used to the benefits of devolved government. From being wary of devolution, Unionists came to see it as a bulwark against the encroachments of Irish republicanism. So much so that the closest Northern Ireland ever came to civil war was in 1972, when the British government ordered the suspension of local government and imposed direct rule. In protest, 100,000 Protestants assembled outside the parliament buildings in East Belfast on March 27.

Under devolved government, Northern Ireland had been the poorest region of the UK. Spending on health, education and housing lagged well behind the UK average. With direct rule, that changed and funding for public services doubled in real terms, according to Colin Coulter, a lecturer in the Department of Sociology in Maynooth. Even with the cutbacks in public expenditure during the Thatcher years, Northern Ireland was still doing better in terms of public welfare transfers than it had under its own government. Not surprisingly, the sentiment within the Unionist community in favor of devolved government shrank. When James Molyneaux became Unionist Party leader in 1979, he pursued a more integrationist line, in the belief that the interests of Northern Ireland were best taken care of under direct rule.

This faith in direct rule was badly shaken in 1985, with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, a move made over the heads of Unionists. It reminded Unionists that Westminster could not be trusted to defend them and their place within the UK. This lesson was no doubt part of the reason that the current Unionist leader, David Trimble, was persuaded to take part in yet another experiment in devolution.

However, the lack of any Unionist outrage at the suspension of the experiment is a clear indication that Unionists are comfortable with direct rule for the moment. The problem is, of course, that if the British government presses ahead, as Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter Mandelson says it will, with the implementation of the other aspects of the Good Friday Agreement, including the complete restructuring of the police, Unionists will have to put up with a form of direct rule inimical to what they see as the best interests of Unionism. What then?

The problem for pro-integrationist Unionists is that, however it may be administered, Britain’s will to maintain direct rule is weak. Integration has never been an option for the British. The political establishment wants to disengage from Northern Ireland. In this context, devolved government has obvious attractions, which is why it remains the most appealing option for Westminster, whatever the setbacks.

As a result, Unionism finds itself in a most uncomfortable position. Either it must entrust its fate to a parliament that has little or no sympathy for it or enter into a political arrangement which incorporates an Irish nationalist dimension that it has long opposed as being contrary to its most fundamental principles.

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