Unionism in Modern Ireland: new perspectives on politics and culture Richard English and Graham Walker (eds.) (Gill and Macmillan, £12.99) ISB: 0-7171-2465-7 Rethinking Unionism: an alternative vision for Ireland Norman Porter (Blackstaff, £10.

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Spring 1997), Reviews, The Act of Union, Volume 5

When I was a student in London in the late 1940s I was much impressed by Harold Laski’s love of Seeley’s dictum which he worked into nearly every lecture—‘History without politics has no fruit. Politics without history has no root’. So to read twenty years later the Irish revisionist historians was not so much a surprise as pure intellectual pleasure. The old debate about partition had been lifted onto a higher level. Even those who took the view that scholarly (or scholarly looking) history should, or must inevitably, serve the purposes of nation-building and that the nation in question must be coincident with clear maritime boundaries had to brush up their act and spend more time in the archives.
Now something similar is happening with unionism, and there is something to be said for a late start. The standard of debate is then higher. Not, of course, by unionist politicians, a sorry lot who do their people no favours in how they present their case to the outside world, but by historians and political scientists who show some understanding, of their cause, or the cause of their fears. If hitherto unionism has lacked, with few exceptions (A.T.Q. Stewart obviously and honourably), the kind of justificatory history and literature so abundant in the nationalist tradition, yet in the last few years a remarkable recrudescence of justifications of unionism (always ‘up to a point’, of course) have appeared, not seen since the 1900s and Dicey’s England’s Case Against Home Rule.
The editors of Unionism in Modern Ireland say they wish ‘to build on foundations already laid in the field by figures such as Steve Bruce, Alvin Jackson, Arthur Aughey, Paul Bew, Henry Patterson, Jennifer Todd and Peter Gibbon.” Alas, the title of this book promises more than it offers. All anthologies are uneven, just as the true and good intent of this anthology (like the famous curate’s egg, ‘good in parts’) is to show that unionism is not all of a piece. However eight of the thirteen contributors are at Queen’s, Belfast and I sniff that some of the others began adult life there. House products have some advantages (apart from chalking up research funding points): good for offering ‘exciting, fresh and wide-ranging work by young scholars at an early stage in their career’. But not all the young are either fresh or exciting. Some are born old and dull.
To kick off, there is a brilliant historical essay on ‘Ulster and the British Problem’ by Ian McBride, teasing out several different strands of unionist identity, showing how complicated they are (no less than Irish identity) and that the very ‘British’ identity to which they all wish to identify is an essentially contestable concept. But there is a study of football and politics, by Scott Harvie, ‘17 November l993—a night to remember?’ that charts the background to the outrage in the nationalist and Irish press at the crowd behaviour at that Ireland-Northern Ireland match. I had forgotten about that, so read all his preliminaries, listing the terrorist incidents that happened to precede previous internationals, as if there were causal connections and bloody doom was about to strike, but all that happened was foul sectarian abuse. It strikes me as amazing that nothing worse happened and that such games have been able to take place at all. For the sake of political science, I formally accuse Dr Harvie of lack of comparative method (a heinous charge). Has he even watched a Rangers-Celtic fixture, a Manchester United-Chelsea game, or heard the unanimous and considered views of West Ham supporters when a Black visitor scores? His ear is not good. He talks of a 1988 European Championship game where English fans indulged in ‘sectarian abuse’ against Ireland. Highly unlikely. My fellow English yobs wouldn’t know a Prod from a Taig. Their forte is strictly racist and nationalist abuse. That is one of the things that drives Loyalists mad when they visit or work on the mainland. Most English cannot tell an Northern from a Southern accent. Irish ears are far more acute, for obvious historical and prudential reasons.
A study of attitudes to ‘the Crown’ from Thomas Hennessey is important, and one on Armistice Days and Remembrance Sundays in Dublin, ‘A Twinge of Memory’ by Jane Leonard, is poignant and interesting. But it is odd and misleading that the new or revived Ulster literary movement, consciously cross-denominational and secular, finds no place (the Longleys will be cross)—only Patrick Maume’s laboured disinterment, ‘The Ulsterman of Letters: the Unionism of Frank Frankfort Moore, Shan Bullock and St John Ervine’. No study of the Orange Order, or even of the UDA. The book is simply not a planned whole, just a gathering of what colleagues, friends and former students happened to be working on, or had worked over. Richard English makes a brave editorial attempt to pull it together at the end—‘The same people with different relatives? Modern scholarship, unionists and the Irish nation’—very much worth reading on its own.
The editors say that ‘‘surprisingly some of the strongest arguments in favour of cultural pluralism and citizens’ rights’ have come from David Ervine and Gary McMichael. True, but if there had been a study of the UDA they would not have forgotten that Glenn Barr was with William Craig’s Vanguard Unionists in 1975 when they struck a deal with the SDLP in the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention for ‘power sharing for the emergency’ (that is, they used to joke, ‘until the Thursday before the Second Coming on a Friday’), wrecked by the jealousy of Paisley and Harry West. A decade later the New Ulster Research Group (which I called ‘the spiritual arm of the UDA’) were talking to Gerry Fitt, Paddy Devlin and any ‘Stickies’ they could find about a power-sharing Workers’ Republic of the North. They too had an aspiration to have ‘an armelite in one hand and a ballot box in the other’.
Norman Porter’s book also discusses the nature of pluralism. Never before has the hermeneutic theory of understanding and the phenomenology of Jurgen Habermas been applied to the Northern Ireland problem. The people who should read this book and be convinced by it will, unhappily, find it almost incomprehensible. I had to work hard, but was richly rewarded. Just as there are poets who write only for poets, musicians for musicians, so he is writing for all historians and political scientists who would write about Northern Ireland in the problem-solving mode. He takes some kind of unionism for granted as an expression of culture and history, and he is a unionist in a moderate, minimal but irreducible political sense. He argues profoundly that human identity is always complex, never simple (except for passing moments, crises or ceremonies), and that for both communities in Northern Ireland a distinct identity is not dependant on a sovereign state, nor does its peculiar richness depend for preservation on perpetual antagonism. Identities in these islands are especially complex. Scots have been Scottish without a state for almost three-hundred years, but are still very Scottish (in somewhat different ways). If they want a parliament or even a state, the best argument is democratic (because a clear majority want it, and mean no harm to others), not because of ethnicity or because identity is held (as in nationalist doctrine everywhere) to depend upon having a state.
Porter sees the tragedy of a sense of Britishness that is incomprehensible to mainland Brits. But to think of Northern Ireland as ‘a place apart’, is not to chasten nationalist historiography but to encourage parochialism. He prefers Edna Longley’s metaphor of the north as ‘a cultural corridor’ open at both ends to a flow of Irish and British traffic. Those who feel that their very identity is being threatened by any concessions to those whose antagonism has done so much to shape their identity, he argues, have too negative and rigid a construct of that identity. He argues for a civic unionism, that sees the practices of civic republicanism as important as the formal constitutional framework. He argues for a ‘rethinking of Unionist orthodoxy…to hold out against despair, constrained visions and stalemate…to insist, in the rich language of civic republicanism, that politics matters’.
He might well pounce, as I now do, on an ambiguity or confusion in Richard English’s otherwise shrewd concluding essay in the Queen’s anthology. English quotes from ‘Revisionism Revised’, an essay by Kerby Miller: ‘For statesmanship to be constructive…the equal validity of the cultures, traditions and interests of all parties must be acknowledged’. But he says it is difficult to sustain an argument that traditional nationalist and unionist reading of the history of Northern Ireland are simultaneously valid, given that each depends on a denial of the truth of the other. Indeed, but ‘statesmanship’ was Miller’s word and concept, not true history. This is where history and politics have different perspectives, and hermeneutics can comprehend the gap. If there is to be political conciliation, the statesman has to act as if both traditions are equally valid—legitimate might be the better word. I got into trouble in South Africa once for incautiously saying, or appearing to say, that the Afrikaaner and the ANC cases should be treated as equally just. But, in the end, the traditions were so treated—the only way out or forward. Norman Porter more subtly suggests that ‘parity of esteem’ can only be reached through ‘due recognition’. Knowledge of the other tradition, including the tendentious histories, is a necessary condition for moral good will or trust enough for peace.

Bernard Crick

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