Defenders of the Union: a survey of British and Irish unionism since 1801

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Spring 2004), Reviews, The Act of Union, Volume 12

D. George Boyce and Alan O’Day (eds)
(Routledge, £17)
ISBN 0415174228
The last decade has witnessed an increasing interest in the constitutional and political nature of the United Kingdom. More often than not this has taken the form of a critical assessment of the Union itself rather than an analysis of those who supported it. There are, of course, exceptions, not least in the field of history. The pioneering scholarship of Patrick Buckland, Paul Bew, Peter Gibbon and Henry Patterson has been supplemented in the last decade by major contributions from, amongst others, Alvin Jackson, James Loughlin, Gillian McIntosh, Andrew Gailey and Graham Walker.

But as valuable as this work is, its volume is as nothing compared to that devoted to the study of Irish nationalism. In some respects this is understandable; nationalism was, and remains, more popular, its ideology shaped a sovereign state, and it was part of an anti-imperial trend among many aspiring nation-states. In this sense unionists were, and still are, viewed as being anti-modern, harking back to an era of privilege and imperialism. It is not surprising, therefore, that unionism and, more importantly, unionists have attracted modest interest in comparison to nationalists.

It is not the job of the historian to carry out public relations for unionism (the Ulster Society has filled this role), but the professional approach to Irish history has inevitably challenged popular prejudices and assumptions. Ironically, this means revealing the hidden complexities of unionism not only to the wider public but also to unionists, many of whom are not aware of the diversity and colour of unionism’s previous incarnations. How many unionists, let alone the general public, are aware of unionist literature, or the role of scientists in the campaign against Home Rule? And how many fully understand the impression unionism creates via the media on their fellow-subjects in Britain? With some notable exceptions, mainstream unionism has been disinterested in questioning its perceived shibboleths. More revealing still has been the lack of a concerted effort to promote unionism outside the confines of Northern Ireland. Those from the unionist community who have attempted to explain their background through prose, poetry and plays have been utterly ignored by the unionist community in a way that is in stark contrast to the place of, for example, W.B. Yeats in nationalist culture. It is therefore by default that rigorous historical analysis has questioned the contemporary image of unionism, an image forged by 50 years of Stormont and another 30 of the Troubles.

Defenders of the Union is a milestone on the way towards a better understanding of unionism and unionists. The book is neatly divided into three main sections combining chronological narrative with thematic analysis: ‘Purposes, establishment and definition of the Union’, ‘Modification of the Union’, and ‘After-effects and entrenchment of the Union’. George Boyce opens the collection by addressing a theme echoed throughout the book, the misunderstanding at the heart of relations between Irish unionists and the British. Brian Jenkins examines the role of the Irish chief secretary, a surprisingly neglected topic given the power and prestige of the office. Joseph Spence and Carla King respectively examine Isaac Butt and Horace Plunkett, two men who, to differing degrees, moved away from mainstream unionism towards a pro-Home Rule stance. But, as Jackson and Gailey remind us elsewhere in the volume, modifying the definition of unionism to include patriotism does not necessarily mean an acceptance of the separatist agenda. The presentation of unionism at Westminster, in the contemporary media, and its relationship with the modern Conservative Party are addressed in chapters by Alan O’Day, Alan Parkinson and Arthur Aughey. Patrick Buckland and Gordon Gillespie cover unionism in Northern Ireland, the former with a neat summary of his original work on the inter-war Ulster Unionist government, and Gillespie with a survey of Loyalist paramilitary groups since the 1970s.

Four chapters deal with sorely neglected areas. Alan Megahey examines the role within unionism of the Protestant churches to reveal how they differed to some extent in style and motivation depending on the denomination. Norman Vance adds to Patrick Maume’s previous study of unionist literature by looking at the work of three writers, Thomas Macaulay, J.A. Froude and Emily Lawless. Like Greta Jones’s chapter on the unionism of British and Irish scientists, which focuses on their ‘specifically scientific concerns’, Vance’s chapter highlights the relevance of unionism to a broader range of people and institutions than we might at first suspect. Andrew Gailey builds upon his previous work by proposing the existence of a tradition of ‘constructive unionism’. Far from being anti-Irish, this brand of unionism was patriotic, but viewed the link with Britain as necessary if Ireland was to enjoy progressive development free from the forces of reactionary politics. Gailey’s conclusion, that constructive unionism not only consistently failed to achieve consensus within Northern Ireland but also encouraged this failure by raising Catholic expectations, is sure to excite debate.

Paul Bew’s conclusion notes that after years of British government initiatives the Union has been finally stripped of any vestige of that exclusivism which attended its birth. Today, however, unionists are more divided than ever before. It will be interesting to see what effect a greater understanding of unionism will have on such divisions. Past experience indicates a limited impact, if any at all, but Defenders of the Union surely marks a step in the right direction as Ireland comes to terms with its contested past.

Neil Fleming


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