‘The glory of being Britons’: civic unionism in nineteenth-century Belfast

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2009), Reviews, Volume 17

1‘The glory of being Britons’: civic unionism in nineteenth-century Belfast
John Bew
(Irish Academic Press, €39.95)
ISBN 9780716529743

This book challenges much received wisdom. Most accounts of nineteenth-century Ulster unionism emphasise the role of Orangeism and Evangelicalism in sustaining a pan-Protestant alliance and argue that its alleged cultural hegemony stifled alternative political currents within Ulster Protestantism. John Bew questions this interpretation.
Bew maintains that unionism in nineteenth-century Ulster reflected contemporary developments as much as older patterns. He traces a strand of élite-led civic unionism centred on Belfast. These ‘liberal’ unionists—a milieu rather than a movement, ranging from moral-force Chartists to Peelite conservatives—saw self-declared Britishness not as mere reaction against outside threats but as positive identification with British Whig constitutional traditions, the extension of prosperity through science and education (identified with Lagan Valley participation in British industrialisation) and British power as an instrument for worldwide reform. Bew’s title comes from the Belfast liberal-conservative MP Emerson Tennent, travel writer and statistician, who fought for Greek independence. Defending the Union against O’Connell, Tennent expressed pride that through the imperial parliament he participated in such world-historic reforms as abolition of the slave trade.
Bew begins with Henry Joy and Revd William Bruce, spokesmen for Belfast Volunteers who refused to follow the radicals into the United Irish movement. Historians tend to echo United Irish views of them as reactionary turncoats, but Bew notes that they invoked traditional British liberties and legitimate concerns about the course of the French Revolution as it destroyed mercantile élites and city-states with whom Belfast Whigs identified and progressed towards military despotism.
Alienated from the traditional élites who dominated the Irish parliament, Belfast Whigs showed limited concern at its loss. (In the early nineteenth century sections of the Dublin ultra-Tory and Orange élite were more willing to flirt with Repeal than Belfast liberal unionists, while Dublin Tories, such as the young Isaac Butt, failed to develop influence in Belfast.) From the 1820s the forces represented by the Northern Whig (founded in 1824 and one of the great newspapers of nineteenth-century Ireland, little used by historians but admirably mined by Bew) looked to Westminster, hailing 1820s economic reforms, the 1832 Reform Act and the reforms implemented by the Whig-run Irish executive of the late 1830s (which worked closely with Belfast liberals). Figures such as the Unitarian leader Revd Henry Montgomery and the radical land reformer Sharman Crawford (often treated as quasi-nationalists) are best understood in this context. They found O’Connell unpredictable and authoritarian; despite sympathy with the cultural nationalists of Young Ireland and occasional flirtations with federalism, like Unitarian civic élites elsewhere in Britain they generally looked to wider reform movements to escape provincial factionalism and prejudice.
Meanwhile, the Belfast neo-conservatism represented by Tennent (a product of the same milieu) consciously distanced itself from ‘mystical’ Orange diehards such as Lord Roden, compiling statistics and comparing the Union to Continental customs unions to support the conservative Whig reformism of Lord Stanley (whose foundation of the national schools appealed to the long-standing Belfast Presbyterian belief that education and the rise of a middle class to freedom and industrial enterprise were intimately connected) and Peel’s executive-driven reforms.
The Famine was widely attributed to British politics and economics, but Belfast liberal unionists blamed past abuses and inefficiencies; British economics and politics were seen as the solution, not the problem. The Northern Whig saw the technological prowess exemplified by William Dargan as a culmination of the long-standing Belfast tradition of scientific enquiry, predicted that mid-Victorian liberal ascendancy at Westminster would soon extend to Ulster, hailed the Crimean War as pitting British freedom against Russian despotism, and presented the Italian Risorgimento as the triumph of British-style constitutional monarchy. Perhaps Bew exaggerates in assimilating the mid-Victorian conservative lawyer-politicians James Whiteside and Joseph Napier to this tradition; but he argues convincingly that, despite their invocations of popular Protestantism, their practice reflected the Peelite vision of moderate reform implemented by a strong executive.
For plebeian Orange supporters of William Johnston, enfranchised in large numbers by the Second Reform Act and more exposed to the downside of economic transformation than the Belfast élites, Whiteside and Napier appeared as dangerously unconcerned as their Whig counterparts. This Orange revolt (whose populism invoked Cromwell and Mazzini), as much as Fenianism and Home Rule, ensured that the apparent liberal unionist breakthrough of 1868 proved deceptive.
This book is refreshingly free from apologetics. Bew highlights the limitations of this form of civic unionism (élitism, complacency over the prospect of speedy socio-economic transformation, wishful thinking about the nature of Catholic-nationalist opinion, failure to develop a mass following outside the Belfast area) and refuses to speculate on possible continuities with unionist politics after the watershed of the 1880s. Continuities may be of circumstances as well as consciousness: did Terence O’Neill’s technocratic project unknowingly recapitulate the hopes and shortcomings of mid-Victorian Belfast élite confidence that technology and economic development would overcome populist discontents?

Patrick Maume is an editorial assistant with the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography.

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