The Act of Union: 200 years on

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Winter 2000), News, The Act of Union, Volume 8

There could be no more suitable venue for a seminar on the Act of Union than the Irish House of Lords chamber rendered redundant by the votes of its members in 1800. Preserved intact when the Bank of Ireland bought the parliament building in 1802 (and proceeded to gut the Commons), the Lords chamber is a survival unique in Europe. Only one participant could (or was prepared to) claim an ancestral presence at the Union debates, but the British Irish Association and Institute for British-Irish Studies were able on Saturday 27 May 2000 to pack the house with the great and the good (and assorted academics) for a day of discussion of the Union and its legacy.
Former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald launched the symposium the previous evening with a warning against oversimplified historical assumptions about the 1800 act, and a call for the history of British-Irish relations and Irish independence to be analysed over the longue durée. His advice was largely followed. Foreign Minister Brian Cowen opened the day’s proceedings with a measured address which touched on the ambiguities in Catholic attitudes towards the act in the nineteenth century and the familiarity of modern Irish politicians with Castlereagh’s persuasive tactics, but which was primarily concerned with the constitutional future of Northern Ireland. The significance of the Union and its symbolic accretions was obvious to all on the very day the Ulster Unionist Council was meeting in Belfast to decide the future of the Good Friday Agreement; Cowen’s message was that Irish nationalism had committed itself to the principles of consent, partnership and equality inherent in the agreement.
The historians’ contributions also highlighted the ambiguities surrounding the passage of the act. Oliver Rafferty (Maynooth) traced the response of the Catholic clergy towards the Union proposal from neutrality or even opposition in early 1799 to tactical support by the end of the year. The cause was a combination of carrot and stick—an unofficial promise of Catholic emancipation counterbalanced with scaremongering that the Catholic interest would suffer in the absence of any overt demonstration of loyalty to the state. Nevertheless, Catholic bishops remained divided over such questions as state payment and the veto of episcopal appointments, and there is little evidence for enthusiasm for the Union.
Tom Bartlett (UCD) sought to put the Union into a wider imperial context. Although sceptical of the view that the pre-1800 constitutional arrangements had a significantly negative impact on Irish economic development, Bartlett suggested that full admission to colonial trade in 1780 sharpened the debate about Ireland’s political place in the British imperial system. The loss of the American colonies took this further by exposing the Irish Parliament as an anomalous body, and by the 1790s it was widely believed at Westminster (and by some in Ireland) that a consolidating union was essential for the strength of the empire.
While this imperial rhetoric may have won some converts among Irish elites, Ian McBride (Durham) found little evidence of support for the Union among most northern Presbyterians. Ulster was at the time of the Union debates still suffering from the repercussions of the 1798 rising, a society whose deep divisions were not diminished by an overt government policy of promoting sectarian animosities. While some remained profoundly disaffected towards the state, the distancing (or survival) strategies of other former rebels did little to promote support for the Union; many seeking the cover of membership of the Orange Order found it strongly (if unofficially) against the act. There is no evidence for the later view that many Presbyterians supported the Union as a measure of parliamentary reform.
A century later there was no such hesitancy about the Union on the part of northern Protestants, as a British political culture (or variant of it) had taken deep root. Nevertheless, as Alvin Jackson (Queen’s, Belfast) reminded the seminar, the unionism that re-organised itself under the Ulster Unionist Council in 1905 remained a rather disparate alliance of parties, institutions, denominations, classes and geographical regions. That unionism remains deeply divided was the central theme of the final paper, delivered by Paul Bew (Queen’s, Belfast), hot-foot from the UUC meeting in Belfast (where he had been advising David Trimble) with the news that 53 per cent of the party had voted to support the decision to re-enter the executive. That debate had been fiercely contested and adrenaline-charged, and its atmosphere was carried over into Professor Bew’s multifaceted paper. The Union had suffered, he argued, from a long-term deficit in its intellectual justification, a deficit that could only be redressed by the emergence of a new civic unionism. This in turn required a historical re-evaluation that highlighted the Burkean, inclusivist, intentions of the Union’s authors (Trimble was revealed to be an admirer of Castlereagh), as well as a greater nationalist respect for UK symbols within Northern Ireland, and the re-emergence of Westminster sponsorship for liberal unionism, reprising the role played by the ‘metropolitan Gladstone’ before his conversion to Home Rule. The seminar closed with a wide-ranging and sometimes heated debate on the questions raised, leaving no doubt that the Union remains a live issue, 200 years after its inauguration.

Peter Gray

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