THE IDEA OF THE UNION: GREAT BRITAIN AND NORTHERN IRELAND

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2022), Reviews, Volume 30

JOHN WILSON FOSTER and WILLIAM BEATTIE SMITH (eds)
Belcouver Press
£12.99
ISBN 9780993560729

Reviewed by Martin Mansergh

Martin Mansergh is a former government adviser and peace negotiator.

One pervasive myth about Northern Ireland across the divide is that the nationalist case is persuasively presented while the unionist case goes by default. While this flatters nationalists, it appeals to unionists by making them the underdog.

There is little familiarity with how unionists successfully made their case over the past century. Against Home Rule: the case for the Union (1912), introduced by Bonar Law and Carson, had contributions from senior British Conservatives. Stormont published leaflets and pamphlets in response to the anti-partition campaign. In 1956, Ulster and the Irish Republic by William A. Carson, former registrar-general, had an introduction by the hostile wartime US minister in Dublin, David Gray, in which he sympathised with ‘withdrawing the right of neutrality in world crises of small, powerless nations occupying strategic territories essential to the survival of their neighbours’. Mainly, Ulster unionism relied on mass mobilisation, Covenanters, the Orange Order and the UVF to fend off attempted coercion, British or Irish.

The idea of the Union is a new edition of a volume pre-dating the Good Friday Agreement. The foreword by former Labour MP Kate Hoey states that its purpose is to make people understand the threat to the Union and ‘why all of us who care about the future of Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom need to do more to face the challenges’. This might deter potential readers. The dominant tone is a call to political combat, with little quality control over the arguments, though some later chapters contain serious and thoughtful contributions, such as Arthur Aughey’s critique of the reductionist politics of the border poll. Instead of preaching to the converted, W.J. O’Neill suggests reaching out to those who will need to be persuaded, if the Union is to be maintained.

Much of the book is a litany of gripes about (British) betrayals and about beneficiaries of UK residence who are not supportive enough, as well as almost unrelenting denigration of the Republic. Where are positive chapters on industrial development in the north; its contribution to two world wars; the impact of the welfare state and the NHS; the reformed Northern Ireland freed of electoral, job or housing discrimination; on peace-making, whereby unionists, unlike southern parties, share power with Sinn Féin; on farming and tourism in NI; and on contributions to sports and the arts, disregarding the jersey worn?

Arguments for the Union have changed over time. Originally it was claimed that Éire protectionism would devastate industry and employment around Belfast. Today it is argued that the Protocol will damage not the economy or employment but the Union. Arthur Green, NI public servant and contributor to this volume (now dead), at an Irish Association meeting in 1983 described the Irish, along with the Latvians and Lithuanians (independent again since 1989), as ‘hopeless nationalities’. Conversing afterwards, a senior British diplomat in Dublin broadly agreed, arrogantly dismissed any equality between Britain and Ireland, and accused the Irish of clinging to an outdated nationalism which Europe had left behind! O’Neill admits that David Trimble’s accusation in 2002 that the Republic was ‘a sectarian, mono-ethnic, mono-cultural state’ in contrast to the liberal multinational UK is ‘no longer sustainable’.

Hoey’s foreword aside, Daphne Trimble, a lawyer, provides the sole female contribution amongst 24 essays. Writing on Human Rights in Northern Ireland, she criticises the maximalist approach which led to the shelving of the report of the Commission mandated by the Good Friday Agreement. She points to the anomaly in international law whereby governments are accountable for observing human rights but paramilitaries are not. She argues that the fallacy of extending rights into the economic and social sphere is that scarce resources should be allocated by parliament, not the judiciary.

Graham Gudgin rejects the notion of an all-island economy, although it was championed by Sir George Quigley when chairman of the Ulster Bank. It is not just a matter of trade. There is a single island economy in energy, tourism, air transport and, to a degree, in the agri-food industry. Gudgin maintains that, thanks to steady UK income support, as predicted by Seán MacEntee in the Treaty debate, northern living standards exceed those in the Republic. He taunts Ireland’s economic performance by repeatedly calling it a tax haven. No one writing from a UK perspective, where London shelters the wealth of Russian oligarchs, Middle Eastern potentates and Asian dictators, and Crown dependencies and territories lie conveniently offshore, is in any position to cast stones at Ireland, which has been spectacularly successful in attracting US multinationals that employ thousands. Not long ago, British Chancellor George Osborne and NI Secretary of State Owen Patterson praised and wanted to copy the Irish model. Ireland has signed up to the OECD corporate tax reform plan. Paschal Donohoe chairs the Eurozone finance ministers.

The book gives history a wide berth. The experience of minorities north and south was different, not equivalent. This is partly why, pace a 2019 book title by Ida Milne and Ian d’Alton and borrowed for a sermon by Bishop Burrows last autumn, so many in the Republic from once-unionist families are proud to describe themselves as Protestant and Irish. There is life after the Union.

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