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'The Unionists of Ulster: An ideological Analysis' by Feargal Cochrane



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Text: Feargal Cochrane ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna

The following chapter has been contributed by the author Feargal Cochrane with the permission of the publisher, Cork University Press. The views expressed in this chaper do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
This chapter is from the book:

Unionist Politics and the Politics of Unionism since the Anglo-Irish Agreement
by Feargal Cochrane
Published by Cork University Press, March 1997
ISBN 1 85918 138 4 £45.00 Hardcover
ISBN 1 85918 139 2 £17.95 Paperback 426pp

Cover photograph by Pacemaker Press, Belfast
Jacket designed by Kunnert and Tierney, Cork

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This chapter is copyright Feargal Cochrane (1997) and is included on the CAIN site by permission of Cork University Press and the author. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of Cork University Press. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.


Contents
Preface
Abbreviations
PART I
1
The Anglo-Irish Agreement: Origins and Interpretations
2
The Unionists of Ulster: An Ideological Analysis
3
Decisive Visions
PART II
4
The Politics of Protest
5
A Little Local Difficulty
PART III
6
Coming in from the Cold: From Belligerance to Negotiation
7
Ulster Unionism in the 1990's: The Talking Begins
8
Unionism Before and After the Ceasefires
9
Conclusion: Facing the Future
Appendix I Text of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, 15 November 1985
Appendix II Text of the Downing Street Declaration, 15 December 1993
Select Bibliography
Index




Unionist Politics and the Politics of Unionism since the Anglo-Irish Agreement

Feargal Cochrane

CHAPTER 2

The Unionists of Ulster: An Ideological Analysis


    Who are the loyalists of Ulster?..... They are loyal to Britain yet ready to disobey her; they reject clerical tyranny yet oppose secularism; they proclaim an ideology of freedom and equality, except for Catholics; they revere law and authority, then break the law.[1]

Unionist ideology contains diverse interest groups with little in common other than a commitment to the link with Britain. While this position remains relatively cohesive during periods of constitutional crisis when they can articulate what they do not want (namely a weakening of the link with Britain), the coherence of the ideology begins to disintegrate when unionists are forced to establish a consensus for political progress. The tensions created by conflicting perceptions of their political environment and how they should tackle these external forces were exacerbated by the realisation that many unionists were committed to the Union for different reasons. While some regarded it in isolationist terms, as a guarantor of Protestant religio-cultural hegemony, others saw Northern Ireland as simply another region of Britain which should be governed in precisely the same manner as the rest of the country. These conflicting perceptions of identity inevitably spilled over into alternative political objectives, with the former group demanding the restoration of legislative devolution based on majority rule, while the latter advocated full political integration with the rest of the United Kingdom. Between these two poles lay a number of other objectives such as power-sharing, administrative devolution and various schemes for regionalism which combined both legislative and administrative features. The nett result of this multiplicity of objectives was political stagnation. The emphasis placed on unionist unity precluded any one objective - over and above that elusive goal of securing the Union - being given priority. Although the DUP were unified behind a coherent policy - majority, rule - the UUP were not prepared to accept it. There were two main reasons for this: firstly, many in the party found majority rule an unpalatable philosophy and secondly, those who were not against it on principle realised - quite correctly - that it was no longer a practical option in terms of reaching a negotiated settlement with the SDLP and the British government.

This chapter presents a critical review of recent academic literature on Ulster unionism. The various hypotheses presented are tested against the first-hand responses of leading members of the unionist political community The narrative seeks to explain the dynamics of the unionist ideology and the complex motivations which underpin unionist political behaviour.

The roots of modern unionism

The seeds of modern Ulster unionism were sown after the 1798 rebellion, when the liberal Presbyterian merchants of Ulster began a process of rapprochement with the Protestant ascendancy and became estranged from the Catholic population. Before the Act of Union in 1800, the wealthy merchant class in the north-east of Ulster resented their exclusion from political power and were envious of the landed gentry who could instigate legislation detrimental to their interests. The Act of Union, however, together with rapid industrialisation and economic change in Ulster, especially the growth of Belfast's cotton industry, contributed to a shift in Presbyterian politics as their fortunes were now inextricably bound up with the British economy. The decline in liberal sentiment after 1798, due to the failure Of the rebellion, the anti-liberal excesses of the French revolution and the realities of Catholic political mobilisation, led to a shift in Presbyterian political thought. Economic self-interest was an underlying force (though not the only force) behind these changing political attitudes, facilitating and in some cases causing a revision of traditional allegiances. It is not an unusual law of political motion, nor is it an illegitimate one, for individuals or ethnic groups to follow what they perceive to be their own self-interest. Thus the Presbyterians, who had sympathised with their Catholic neighbours while they shared some of their legal and political difficulties, gradually drew closer to the conservative Anglicans once these had begun to dissipate.

A good starting point for examining unionism's historical legacy and the extent to which environmental circumstances fashioned its ideological identity is provided by Jennifer Todd. She has commented that the unionist ideology is essentially an umbrella organisation under which two distinct groupings exist. The first, Ulster loyalism, sees itself primarily as a self-contained cultural community with a secondary political allegiance to the British state. The other strand is an Ulster British tradition which defines itself as being an integral part of Greater Britain with a secondary regional patriotism for Northern Ireland.[2] This group consider themselves to be as British as natives of London or Sunderland, with a fondness for their 'Irishness' which is akin to that felt by those on the 'mainland' for their own regional differences, such as the Cockneys in London or the Geordies on Tyneside.

This perspective was illustrated by the response of UUP councillor, Michael McGimpsey, when he was asked to explain why he was a unionist. It was put to him that his political philosophy appeared to be a secular one based largely on a pragmatic assessment of the political environment, a perception of advantage which concluded that the Union was the best political vehicle to secure the economic prosperity of Northern Ireland. His response provides a perfect illustration of the Ulster British tradition, rejecting the subliminal belief of his more radical unionist colleagues that Northern Ireland is a self-contained nation.


  • As I see it, I'm an Irish Unionist. I'm Irish, that's my race if you like. My identity is British, because that is the way I have been brought up, and I identify with Britain and there are historical bonds, psychological bonds, emotional bonds, all the rest of it you know. I'm not so much anti-united Ireland as I am pro-Union with Britain, and I would be quite prepared to take a united Ireland tomorrow, if somehow the whole of Ireland could have some form of Union grafted [on] . . . But to talk of independence in Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland is not a country, Northern Ireland is a province of Ireland and it is a province in the UK and I think that the notion of a national identity or group identity or racial identity or cultural identity here is a nonsense. We have a particular ethos OK, but it draws so heavily from the Irish and from the British that I think independence is a nonsense. [3]

Todd builds upon her previous work in an article published in 1988[4] by identifying three specific aspects of Ulster Britishness, the first being a cultural commonality and distinctive regional identity with the rest of the people in Northern Ireland. The second characteristic could be termed civic unionism, a celebration of and commitment to state structures such as Westminster, the monarchy, the health and education systems, even the physical infrastructure. The Irish-Canadian academic John Wilson Foster epitomises this strand within unionist thought in his contribution to The Idea of the Union, a publication which bills itself as 'a manifesto in favour of the constitutional link between Northern Ireland and Great Britain'.


  • The constitutional union of the four portions of the kingdom best expresses the historic and contemporary realities of my cultural and ethnic kinship, as well as safeguarding the citizenship and civil rights I wish to have the continued privilege of enjoying. My pro-Union position does not of course erase the strong sense of neighbourhood I feel with the southern Irish and with northern nationalists, nor the many contexts in which I properly regard Ireland as an unpartitioned island.[5]]

The third element of Todd's findings has been defined as a 'supremacist aspect of some unionists' British identity',[6] a glorification of the history of Empire and British military adventures (however exaggerated or sanitised), and, as identified by David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP),a tendency at times to 'want to be more British than the British themselves'.[7] John McGarry and Brendan O'Leary have stylishly summarised this aspect with the comment.


  • It includes such attributes as proclaiming the merits of being part of a great imperial power as opposed to a small independent neutral nation; assuming British culture to be the acme of civilisation and Irish culture to be the converse; asserting Protestantism to be incontestably superior to Catholicism; regarding Britain as the epicentre of liberty, democracy and justice by contrast with benighted Ireland; and taking opposition to British institutions as a sign of ineffable backwardness, amorality, immorality, or cultural immaturity.'[8]

The Ulster loyalist tradition, meanwhile, is firmly rooted in their Presbyterian ancestry, and the ideals and values which permeate radical loyalist behaviour are heavily influenced by this historical legacy. The environmental circumstances of the Presbyterian settler community left an indelible stamp on their collective psyche which has influenced their subsequent activity. Upon their arrival in Ireland, the Scottish Dissenters felt isolated and vulnerable, squeezed as they were between the orthodox Episcopalians in the Church of Ireland and the sheer numerical dominance of the Catholic Church, both of whom regarded Presbyterianism as heresy. In addition to this the settlers were in a minority even in the nine counties of Ulster, which created the feeling of physical and economic insecurity. These environmental factors were naturally exacerbated by political events such as the constitutional uncertainty which surrounded the accession to the British throne of James II, an occurrence which appeared to signal their downfall until William of Orange's victory at the Boyne. This insecurity produced a desire for independence and a siege mentality identified by Lyons when he commented that 'The settlers who struck their roots in the region, did so under conditions of maximum insecurity and this insecurity became a permanent part of their psychology.'[9] In later years, such insecurity proved to be a successful breeding ground for the Orange Order, evangelical religion and cultural isolationism within the Ulster loyalist community.

Recent academic literature tends to reinforce this observation, with McGarry and O'Leary declaring that


  • . . . there has been a persistent Ulster 'loyalist' tradition, which despite its self-description, is much less loyal to Britain than the British unionists, and more equivocal about the national identity of Ulster Protestants. They display 'settler insecurity', and their primary imagined community is themselves. Their loyalty is to the Crown, rather than Parliament, provided the Crown defends Protestant liberties in Ulster.[10]

While the authors are broadly correct in their analysis, this chapter will demonstrate that their sweeping generalisations about concepts such as loyalty to the Crown and the dynamics of Protestantism overlook important nuances within this section of the unionist community.

Many contemporary observers, such as Garret FitzGerald, perceive political Protestantism to be a dichotomy between moderates and extremists. When asked to elaborate upon his Irish Identities Dimbleby Lecture of 1982 in which he argued that unionism was not a monolithic creed, he defined the difference in terms of two rival groupings.


  • There is unionism and there is loyalism basically, the unionists are mostly in North Down I think! There, there is an upper-middle class who go into the army, go over to universities in Britain, which is unionism; but when you go beyond that into so-called loyalism, it is loyalty to Ulster not to the Union with Britain and it is mis-described as unionism which causes a lot of confusion for everybody. We can deal with unionism; loyalism is more difficult to deal with, because it is divisive within their own community.[11]

FitzGerald's comments demonstrate an inability to appreciate the complexities of unionist ideology. As shall become apparent in the rest of this chapter, such a simplistic division hides a multilayered phenomenon which almost defies categorisation. Todd has emphasised that the competing political agendas of the Ulster loyalist and Ulster British traditions have been central to unionism's development as a reactive ideology, capable of describing what it is against - for example Home Rule, the Anglo-Irish Agreement or the Frameworks Document - but incapable of articulating a positive political programme without destroying the fragile coalition of separate interest groups contained within it. In Todd's analysis, therefore, the central anomaly of unionism is the group solidarity and political strength of unionists when faced by an external enemy and their corresponding weakness during periods of relative stability, witnessed by their inability to develop a consensus over core principles and political objectives. The Rev. Martin Smyth was asked whether the unionist protest against the Anglo-lrish Agreement was hampered by the multiplicity of objectives enshrined in the differing cultural perspectives of unionists such as Ian Paisley and John Taylor. Smyth conceded the point when asked if political progress was made difficult by the fact that every time unionism tried to move forward, everybody wanted to go in different directions.


  • I do, I think that is one of the difficulties as I've said in two gatherings over the last weekend. I had asked the folk, 'if you were Jim Callaghan or if you were John Major, what would you do?' Going back to the time during the Convention [1975], when I was carrying on discussions with [John] Hume and [Paddy] Devlin after the Convention, and we were having a reasonable rapport, I'm not saying complete agreement but a reasonable rapport, and then for their own purposes, some DUP folk went mad, and that meant that Callaghan had to deal with the problem. 'Oh, do I go down this road' where, using the worst possible scenario, a third of the people . . . didn't want to be British. Then out of the two-thirds, there was a division. 'What would you do?' So you just, 'when in doubt, do nowt'. So yes, I have no difficulty in accepting that has been one of the difficulties in getting progress.[12]

Radicals and pragmatists

The role of fundamentalist evangelical religion is a key feature of radical unionism and is central to its reactive nature, the political subtext of such Bible-Protestantism being that the enemies of today have remained unaltered from the enemies identified during the eighteenth century. Liberalism such as that represented by the ecumenist movement is regarded by this tradition within unionism as a movement designed to make Ulster Protestants compromise, not just in their political habits but in their spirituality as well. This fear of liberalism and compromise can again be seen in terms of unionism's historical legacy, in that the battle between the 'Old Light' and the 'New Light' dramatised in Belfast by Henry Cooke and Henry Montgomery in the nineteenth century is still being waged today. This was brought into sharp focus in December 1982 when a Presbyterian minister in Limavady, the Rev. David Armstrong, was attacked for allowing a Catholic priest to deliver Christmas greetings to his congregation. Wesley McDowell, Limavady's Free Presbyterian minister, castigated Armstrong upon his arrival for being 'a charismatic, a compromiser, and a Romaniser'.[13] This perspective has created a political and philosophical rigidity within radical unionism (a less problematic definition than 'royalism') where politics is seen as a struggle to maintain socio-cultural hegemony and religious liberty. As external political motivations have remained constant in this analysis, the way to achieve political success is seen in terms of what worked in the past.

The following extract from a discussion between Clifford Smyth, a former DUP activist, and Dr Gordon Gray, a leading Presbyterian theologian, which took place outside a World Council of Churches conference in Geneva, illustrates the tendency for 'religion' to militate against unity within the Protestant community. It also presents an example of how radical Protestant thought is locked into its political position by an inflexibility derived from religious certainty. Pragmatism in the political sphere is rendered impossible, as this would only serve to dilute their distinctive cultural identity and, perhaps more importantly, would endanger the free exercise of their religion and thus imperil their chances of being granted eternal salvation.


  • ... : Away from the conference chamber, which I had declined to enter because of my opposition to shared worship between Roman Catholics and Protestants, I spoke to Dr Gordon Gray I'm in a sense disappointed to find you as a Presbyterian here at this ecumenical conference.


    G: Well that's your problem not mine, for I think it's a wonderful thing to be here. We are affirming the same Biblical faith as Calvin affirmed. Involvement in conferences of this kind in no way means a compromise of our Reformed tradition ...


    S: You see I wouldn't accept that, I would contend that Calvin's concern was to establish clarity in matters of religious thought, and when we come to a conference like this, there's considerable confusion and ambiguity about the basis of membership, and what really constitutes a Christian.


    G: Have you been in the conference itself'?


    S: Well I haven't been in the conference...


    G: Have you been at any other conferences for instance?


    S: No I haven't been at any comparable conferences, but what I have done is studied the issue in very considerable detail ...


    G: Studied what issue?


    S: The issue of ecumenism, in the modern world. I have maintained opposition to the ecumenical movement from [sic] a very considerable length of time, going back years, and in the early days I was taught that the ecumenical movement was really a Romeward trend, and I don't believe, if you look at the situation, that can seriously be disputed, that really ecumenism is moving back under the shadow of Rome.


    G: Well now, you're using two terms there, a Romeward trend, and under the shadow of Rome. I would ask you to justify those terms.


    S: Right, well what I mean by that is that we are moving into an age when there will be a confederation of churches, with the Pope as the head, like a kind of Queen of the Commonwealth; now that's not my statement, that's the statement of one of the bishops who is very ecumenical in his thinking... This is what they're aiming at. [14]

It would be easy to sneer at this warped logic as evidence of a classic unionist Neanderthal man, a bigot in bigot's clothing to whom the word ,compromise' would appear to be anathema. To do so would be to misunderstand the integrity and serious implications represented by this strain of unionist thought. For many radical Protestants, such religious conviction lies at the centre of their political activity, with the battle for electoral support being merely an extension of the battle for souls. It should not be surprising to learn that such concrete religious beliefs produce a concrete political ideology which is unwieldy, inflexible and unadaptable to changing circumstances. journalists Ed Moloney and Andy Pollak quote a former member of the Free Presbyterian Church as an example of how politics and religion are inextricably linked within the DUP, with the church being the engine room of the party's electoral machine.


  • They bring an evangelical fervour to electioneering because electioneering is part of the crusade, because it's spiritual warfare, part of their spiritual work. Some more pious church members do object saying it's all unspiritual and worldly, but at election time, their objections count for nothing and the whole church becomes centred round it. It's the same battle for God and Ulster, that's the key. [15]

Religion also acts as a hindrance to unionist unity, as despite the increasing secularisation of the DUP during the 1980s it still plays an important role in policy formulation. This is not so much because of the doctrinal semantics of fundamentalist Protestantism, but because of the political aspects of dogmatic theology Radical unionism, such as that exhibited above by Clifford Smyth, has a much greater number of political absolutes which are non-negotiable than have the more secularly orientated Ulster Unionist Party. The DUP have to fit developments in their political environment into their existing matrix, or world view This leads to an extrapolation of events to the degree where their political vision descends into paranoid delusion. The Machiavellian intent of antagonistic world forces headed by the Vatican, the American government and the European Union are all continually conspiring against Ulster Protestantism. Consequently, any political movement by the British government is often seen as a product of these antagonistic forces and must therefore be resisted. This penchant within the DUP for conspiracy-theory politics was illustrated by Ian Paisley during an interview conducted several years after the signing of the AIA. When asked to explain why Margaret Thatcher changed her mind so dramatically from her response to the three options of the New Ireland Forum to endorsing the Agreement barely a year later, the DUP leader recited what has become a familiar litany.


  • I believe that Enoch Powell is right in saying that Washington had a big say in bringing it about. But I think that we are getting away from the real lobby. The real lobby came from the Vatican. The real lobby came from the Church of Rome. The Church of Rome throughout the world was preaching against the unionist position for years, and using their pulpits, and their newspapers, and the vast machinery of the Roman Catholic political machine that emanates from the Vatican, as a lever against everything that Ulster Protestants stand for. I can see that influence in Europe, because the European Parliament is largely a Roman Catholic Parliament.... I go to the source, and I believe the source is the Roman Catholic Church.[16]

The Ulster Unionist Party is generally less hysterical in its political analysis and is usually capable of determining where its best interests lie, even if being unable to achieve them. Michael McGimpsey's analysis of why the AIA was signed does not allude to the web of international intrigue outlined by Paisley, but regards it purely as a matter of British domestic policy-making: 'I think clearly Thatcher decided that something radical had to be done, and that is where the Agreement came from; it might have been partly the child of the Forum, but it was primarily the result of the Brighton bombing.'[17]

In contrast to the radical unionist perspective, the Ulster British ideology (to use Todd's terminology) has a primary cultural identification with Great Britain and a secondary regional loyalty to Northern Ireland. This tradition is much less insular, viewing the British connection in terms of technological progress and the effects of the British welfare state on society's health and education. The cultural perspective of this strand of the ideology does not emphasise the mythical figures of the seventeenth century; rather its adherents see themselves bound up in and integrated into the 'British Family' through institutionalised linkages such as industrial connections, trade union organisations and British social welfare policies, which encourage them to view life from a British perspective. The historical legacy also plays an important part in the formation of the Northern Ireland British identity, as family and military connections have created a bond between Ulster and Britain, although this is increasingly becoming a one-way relationship. In addition, the emphasis on Britain's imperial history as taught in the state (de facto Protestant) school system and the importance placed on the part played by Ulstermen in Britain's imperial wars, especially at the Somme, have contributed to a cultural identification with those in the rest of the United Kingdom. This identity is reinforced by their view of the Republic of Ireland, as while they conceive of themselves as being progressive, liberal and democratic, they view the Southern Irish as being regressive, conservative and authoritarian. This strand of unionist philosophy was outlined by John Taylor when the Ulster Unionist MP for Strangford was asked whether his unionism revolved primarily around a political allegiance to Britain derived from a perception of potential economic advantage, or rather emanated from a cultural affinity with the people and institutions of the UK.


  • Oh it would be more cultural, and loyalty to the Crown, and... obviously the kind of society, a sectarian Catholic state which would apply here if we had a united Ireland, we see this in the Republic. Even Garret FitzGerald, the man who signed the Anglo-lrish Agreement, was open enough to say that the South of Ireland was a sectarian state. We couldn't live in that kind of climate here in Northern Ireland as part of the Republic. There are a large number of reasons why one is a unionist, there is the loyalty to the Crown, there is your whole historic background, the fact that one's families for hundreds of years have been connected with the British army, and, of course, there is also the economic advantages.... There are economic advantages for everyone, Catholic and Protestant, but as I say, that is not the only factor that is the guiding philosophy for being a unionist, I think I would still be a unionist even if the economy hadn't progressed in the way it did.[18]

Edward Moxon-Browne proposes an economic hypothesis to account for the divisions within unionism between radicals and pragmatists. He argues that those who see themselves as British are likely to be upper-class Protestants, with the lower social orders being more attached to a regional 'Ulster' identity. This argument is based on the premise that middle- and upper-class Protestants have benefited from the Union in terms of economic and political power, whereas the lower socio-economic groups who have not prospered to the same degree would not feel the same cultural or institutional affinity In this analysis, the unionist identity is seen as being primarily based in economic materialism. 'For the Protestant, national identity is a pragmatic issue, it is based on perceptions of advantage.'[19] Moxon-Browne uses data from the 1978 Social Attitudes Survey to illustrate the division within the unionist ideology, as the results showed that two-thirds of the Protestant community viewed themselves as British while approximately 20 per cent favoured an Ulster identity. This does not explain, however, why large sections of the working class profess to having a British identity, or why the Democratic Unionist Party has become increasingly professionalised. These young, urban, upwardly mobile middle-class Protestants are not changing their political philosophies in line with the growth of their material prosperity. Evidence of this fact was provided by the DUP chief whip, Nigel Dodds, when asked to define the central principles of unionism from his point of view. Dodds, a lawyer and graduate of Cambridge University, emphasised not so much a cultural affinity with subjects in the rest of the UK as a desire to retain the link with Britain as a means of preserving the existing cultural ethos within Northern Ireland. The subtext of this rhetoric is that unionists have a strategic political allegiance to Britain for so long as it guarantees the existing Protestant hegemony and prevents the dilution of the region's specific cultural identity through an increase in Dublin's political influence in Northern Ireland.


  • Well the general principle of unionism, I suppose, is the maintenance of the union with Britain. My view is that at the end of the day, we have got to preserve a British way of life in Northern Ireland. That means seeking at all times to preserve the Union, but if we are forced out of the Union or the Union becomes untenable, then we must preserve that by looking at some form of independence, but certainly not being absorbed by the Irish Republic. [20]

In the past, socio-economic criteria such as those forwarded by Moxon-Browne functioned as a useful shorthand for an understanding of unionist motivations. However, time has moved on and the picture has become increasingly complex. Few of the activists and supporters of the Progressive Unionist Party, for example, are tax exiles from Northern Ireland, yet they display none of the 'little-Ulsterism' which materialist explanations might expect. When asked to define the central principles of unionism from his point of view, the Shankill Road community worker and PUP activist Billy Hutchinson provided a response which could just as easily have come from a prosperous businessman from Northern Ireland's 'gold coast' in North Down.


  • For me unionism is quite simple. It's about maintaining the link with the rest of the United Kingdom and I don't think that it's any more or any less. As somebody who was brought up in a Protestant tradition and a very pro-British tradition, my links are East-West politically. I would have links with working-class communities in Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester and London. I have also been brought up in that whole British democracy thing, the Westminster model....... So for me, it's not about being a Protestant or anything else and it's not about being an Orangeman... pure and simple I think unionism is about the link with Britain and it's as simple as that.[21]

Moloney and Pollak support Moxon-Browne's class-based view up to a point, suggesting that the confessional element within the DUP (by 1981, 89 per cent of DUP councillors were also Free Presbyterians) illustrates a major difference between radical unionists and those of an Ulster British disposition. Their perception of the class difference within the unionist ideology may be more appropriately described as a conflict between materialism and anti-materialism. While many mainstream Ulster British unionists, such as those who inhabit the Ulster Unionist Party, support the Union for social and economic reasons and have a cultural affinity with the rest of the UK,


  • The DUP view of the Union is much more fundamental. They regard it principally as a mechanism through which they can best avoid absorption into a Roman Catholic Irish Republic with the resulting destruction of the Bible Protestantism that they hold so dear.[22]

Moloney and Pollak emphasise the importance of the conditional loyalty exhibited by many Northern Ireland Protestants and argue that the professed willingness to rebel against Westminster is due to a deep-rooted independent sentiment fashioned by the conditions of their entry into Ulster in the seventeenth century Their examination of the DUP tends to negate the viability of the economic hypothesis proposed by Moxon-Browne, with the influx of young urban graduates being particularly significant. These articulate and ambitious 'Duppies' came to prominence after the 1982 Assembly elections, and '. . . their emergence has produced two distinct strands in the DUP'. [23]

The old guard was largely rural and had a basic education, fundamental Protestantism and a belief in Ian Paisley, whilst the new guard, personified by Peter Robinson and Sammy Wilson, was mainly urban, well educated and less directly connected to the Free Presbyterian Church. The early 1980s witnessed the secularisation of the DUP under the careful stewardship of Peter Robinson, who, like Desmond Boal before him, had convinced Paisley that the party could not expand unless it transcended its Free Presbyterian base. Robinson made himself indispensable to Paisley through his organisational expertise, a fact recognised by the rank and file membership: 'Whatever else he is, Ian is not a great man for the details of organisation. It was Peter who was really responsible for making the DUP into what it is now.'[24] Robinson's political base is East Belfast, an urban constituency with a much smaller proportion of Free Presbyterian members than rural areas such as North Antrim. Built upon the employment centres of Harland and Wolff, and Shorts, East Belfast is predominantly composed of working-class Protestants who find the dogmatism of Free Presbyterianism less attractive than the lower middle classes and rural Protestants who populate its pews. Although their loyalism is equally virulent, it contains little of the restrictive puritanical fervour so apparent within Free Presbyterianism. The suggestion that the DUP can be separated into two groups, religious bigots and secular bigots, is itself something of a simplification. Ian Paisley Jnr contends that the significance of religion within the DUP is rather more complex.


  • I think that the DUP market, itself and has always marketed itself to certain sections of the unionist community. First of all, traditional Protestant unionism, I think, is one of the mainstays of the DUP. That doesn't necessarily mean a religious thing but it certainly means that those things which people see traditionally as being very much part of their identity, their whole ethnic mix of being a Protestant evangelical, even though they might go and play the National Lottery and go to the pub at the weekend, at the end of the day their granny or their mother was a good evangelical woman and that's something which they go back to as a touchstone of normality.[25]

Clearly, the changing social profile of the DUP has influenced the political significance of religion within the party. An example of this cultural gap was provided by Castlereagh Borough Council's decision to hold a referendum on the issue of whether the Dundonald Ice-Bowl should be allowed to open on a Sunday. The East Belfast DUP incurred the wrath of the Protestant fundamentalist group, The Lord's Day Observance Society, as under Peter Robinson's influence the council's main preoccupation was to keep the rates down through maximising the use of the amenity and reflect public wishes, rather than take a dogmatic and unpopular stand on religious grounds. This controversy was a testament to the success with which Robinson has separated the DUP from the Free Presbyterian Church in East Belfast.


  • When he looked at East Belfast and the votes he needed to win and sized up the hard core DUP in it - which basically boiled down to the Free Presbyterian Church - he hadn't a hope of winning it. So he had to broaden the base to bring in people whose loyalty was to the party not the Church and to give him credit he worked incredibly hard to do it. [26]

Robinson's professionalisation of the DUP was accompanied by an influx of young articulate graduates into the party. Emerging during the Assembly elections of 1982, these Young Turks owed their primary allegiance to Robinson rather than Paisley and represented a new faction within the party. The traditional DUP members, those left over from its predecessor the Protestant Unionist Party, were often poorly educated, had a simple unquestioning faith in fundamentalist Protestantism and regarded Ian Paisley as a deity. By the early eighties the character of the membership was changing, with new supporters attracted by a more strident approach to politics, the increased prospects of advancement through the ranks of the party and the outlet for radical socio-economic opinions. This group contained a nursery of young talent including Nigel Dodds, Jim Wells, Jim Allister, Alan Kane and Sammy Wilson, and they appealed to people on secular grounds, with the religious metaphors and evangelical sentiment of the'old guard' being less evident within their political vocabulary.

Gender imbalance in unionist politics

One consistent feature of this influx of new blood into the DUP was its gender profile. The only women of any significance who came into the foreground of the party were those connected by either blood or marriage to more famous relatives. While the DUP has a number of female elected representatives in local government, few women have gained a substantial profile within this section of radical unionist politics. Iris Robinson is the partner of the DUP deputy leader and was elected to Castlereagh Borough Council as a DUP representative, eventually, due to her own ability, becoming leader of the council. Elizabeth Seawright was elected to Belfast City Council as an independent after the assassination of her husband George Seawright, a former DUP councillor who was expelled from the party for extreme remarks he made about 'incinerating' Catholics. Perhaps the most obvious and interesting example is provided by Rhonda Paisley, daughter of the party leader. As a Belfast City councillor during the late 1980s and early 1990s, she undoubtedly had the highest media profile of any woman within the DUP. This was only in part a consequence of her family ties and probably owed more to another genetic inheritance, namely her gift for staging publicity stunts, such as letting off a rape alarm in the council chamber when a Sinn Fein councillor was trying to speak. Rhonda Paisley personified the culture clash within the DUP between old and new, and this struggle, together with the adversarial nature of the debate in local government saw her leave active political life in 1992. Paisley was a young, well-educated ambitious woman, with impeccable contacts for political advancement. Though being for many years a practising Free Presbyterian,[27] her social attitudes may have seemed too modern, her lipstick too red and her skirts too short for some of those of a more traditional bent within the party. While nationalists may have perceived her as simply another anti-Catholic bigot and a chip off the old block, a radically different perspective between her and many of her colleagues became apparent when it came to women's issues. One example of this was a row in April 1989 over the siting of two statues in Amelia Street in Belfast city centre and Paisley's support of a motion in Belfast City Council to provide grant assistance of £1 5,000. The statues depicted two prostitutes in a commemoration of Belfast's local history, as in the past the street had been a thoroughfare for that particular trade in the city. While most of the DUP on Belfast City Council saw this proposal as an outrageous tribute to immoral practices, Paisley, as a feminist and practising artist herself, regarded it as an artistic expression of a contemporary social issue. Rev. Ivan Foster (who was not a member of the council) condemned the decision, claiming that God viewed prostitution as 'wickedness', while Paisley commented that her support for the work was 'a personal one'. Inevitably, the paradoxes inherent in simultaneously advocating dogmatic politics and personal liberalism could not be sustained. In February 1992, Rhonda Paisley announced that she did not intend to defend her seat on Belfast City Council at the district council elections the following year.


  • Politics is not my future and there's no point pretending it is.... I dread council meetings and I always leave exhausted. People can push and shove me all they like but I'm not going to stay in politics any longer than I have to. I want to paint and I intend to give it my best shot now.[ 28]

Aside from socio-cultural differences between the 'new women' in the party such as Rhonda Paisley and the 'Stepford wives' (the more traditional social profile of rural matronly housewives with good cooking skills but a basic education and limited independent careerism), the very nature of politics in Northern Ireland has produced a male-dominated environment. While politics is a profession where women are underrepresented generally, due to both anti-social working conditions and deliberate exclusion by the 'clubby' elite who often control candidate selection, this is a much more pronounced phenomenon in Northern Ireland than in either the Republic or Great Britain. The reasons for this are both historical and social. The main political organisations in contemporary Northern Ireland politics either evolved out of violence or were formed in reaction to that violence. As those engaged in the violence - either directly though republicanism and loyalism or peripherally in the peaceful protest of the civil rights demonstrations or the less peaceful counterdemonstrations - were largely male, it was they who dominated the political structures. In addition, political activism in Northern Ireland during the armed conflict between 1969 and 1994 carried a much greater personal risk for those involved than is normally the case in more stable societies and this did little to encourage women to enter the political arena. Because the political debate has taken place in an atmosphere of violence and has rarely deviated from the central issue of the region's constitutional future, such 'debate' has exuded machismo and testosterone, as anyone who has attended Belfast City Council during the period could attest to. While it would be unreasonable to assume that women are any less concerned about the constitutional issue, it would be fair to suggest that the democratic deficit which has existed since the introduction of direct rule in 1972 (with power over socio-economic issues resting not with local politicians but with unelected officials and various quangos) has acted as a disincentive to female involvement in the political life of the region.


  • At the beginning of this century James Connolly described the Northern Ireland woman as 'the slave of a slave'. . . . This graphic phrase is no less fitting today ... Women in Northern Ireland tend to marry young, start their families soon afterwards and remain by strong family networks. They are not helped to examine in any critical way their domestic role in the home, or indeed their relationship to their husbands and their families: rather they are socialised into a strong maternal role directed to 'keeping the family together', 'making ends meet' and servicing political campaigns largely determined by men. [29]

In social terms Northern Ireland is a very patriarchal and conservative society where 'family values' is one concept which unites both Catholic and Protestant and the woman's role in society is seen in more traditional terms than in Great Britain. One of the few issues which unites 'the two communities' concerns legislation on moral issues such as abortion (which remains illegal in Northern Ireland despite being legal in the rest of the UK), divorce and sex education. There was, for instance, common opposition from the SDLP, UUP and DUP to the opening of the Brook Clinic in Belfast in September 1992.[30] Despite such 'official' opposition, the clinic had a considerable amount of cross-community support among women in the North and has developed a successful service in the region. 'On the opening day, the Reverend Ian Paisley arrived to preach his message of damnation, but he beat a hasty retreat after a number of women outside the entrance started dancing to the hymn "Rock of Ages" when it came blaring over his sound system.'[31]

Given this propensity for social conservatism, there is nonetheless a noticeable underrepresentation of women in unionist politics as compared with their nationalist counterparts.[32] One historical reason for this was that in the struggle to resist Home Rule in Ulster at the beginning of the century, unionism was formed as a political movement dedicated to resisting this legislation through extraparliamentary means. The formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and signing of Ulster's 'Solemn League and Covenant' were not considered activities suitable for women. Many of those who signed the covenant did so in their own blood and pledged to fight to the death over the issue. As few people thought that women should give such a pledge, a separate register was opened, in which the female population could record their support for the cause. Other organisations within unionism which provide a link between the past and the present exhibit a similar patriarchal if not patronising culture. The Orange Order is an obvious example with its pseudo-military regalia and structure, where the vast majority of the membership is male. The widespread presence of Freemasonry (a less visible and less vulgar organisation than Orangeism but perhaps a more powerful one) within the Protestant middle and upper classes is another bastion of male exclusivity within the unionist community.

Evangelical religion has also done little to encourage women to come forward into the political arena. While there are few overt examples where women candidates have been discriminated against because of their gender, the fact that one of the major unionist parties is led by the moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church has been reflected in the political culture. Ian Paisley commented during one of his early battles with a particularly troublesome female parishioner that; 'when you meet a devil wearing trousers it's bad, but a devil wearing a skirt is ten times worse'.[33] While Rhonda Paisley was able to enter the fast-track to advancement within the party, she was the exception rather than the rule. Within this culture, women are rarely seen as equals who deserve access to the same levers in society as their male counterparts, but as inherently different 'creatures' whose function in society should reflect that fact. They should be home-makers rather than house-builders, nurses rather than mechanics, whose God-given function is to look after their husbands and rear their children rather than build independent careers. Those women who subscribe to this agenda (and obviously many do not) are unlikely to build profiles within unionist politics.

Clearly something is fundamentally wrong with a society where over 50 per cent of the population is composed of women, yet which has no female MPs or MEPs and in which only 11 per cent of local government councillors are female.[34] However, while women are underrepresented generally (and particularly so within unionist politics) at the top level, their influence permeates grass-roots politics and community work to a much greater degree,


  • Disadvantaged by having no elected female politicians in either the parliaments of Westminster or Brussels, women turned instead to a wide range of activism within the more informal settings of the community and voluntary sectors. Within the 'democratic deficit' of Northern Ireland, this is where the real political activism has taken place and where some of the most talented political women can be found. Rather than pursue the more official road of electoral politics, a road from which many of them have been alienated because of its uncompromising and stagnant style of politics, they have chosen instead to become the effective agents of change in their work with women at the more grass-roots level. [35]

In view of the present level of political debate within Northern Ireland, it is clearly time for both unionist and nationalist parties to develop inclusive mechanisms which provide an outlet for women to participate in the mainstream political process. The debate has already begun. At a conference in September 1995, May Blood of the Shankill Women's Forum indicated that the old attitudes would have to change. 'This isn't good enough. We invited seven councillors from the area to explain their views on women's rights and the lack of women in politics and only one has bothered to turn up.'[36] The UUP's Chris McGimpsey, the lone councillor who did turn up, recognised the difficulties which women faced in gaining a voice in the political system in general and within unionist politics in particular. Irish Times journalist Suzanne Breen reported McGimpsey's account of the problems encountered by women in the UUP.


  • Mr McGimpsey said that his party had recently established a 'women and consumer affairs committee'. Even setting up a body with so unsatisfactory a title had been a battle. 'Initially it was just to be a consumer affairs committee with special reference to women - presumably because they buy the groceries on a Friday.' When the UUP debated women's rights at its annual conference earlier this year, it degenerated into 'men standing up and taking the piss out of women'.[37]

Evidence of the dissatisfaction at the traditional parties' response to the lack of women in mainstream politics was apparent with the formation of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition to contest the Forum elections held on 30 May 1996. This cross-party body was more a single-issue interest group than political party, taking advantage of the unique electoral arrangements of 30 May[38] to highlight the gender imbalance in Northern Ireland politics and do something to remedy the situation, while bringing a more pragmatic perspective to the hackneyed debate of the more traditional parties. In comparison to the sterile dialogue going on between unionism and nationalism, separate political structures such as the Women's Coalition may be an effective way, not just of augmenting female representation in the political process, but of redressing the male-dominated cultures prevalent within the existing political organisations in Northern Ireland.

Social diversity within the DUP

Evidence of the tensions within the DUP - between the young, urban, politically secular element, and the older, predominantly rural, overtly evangelical/Free Presbyterian contingent which had originally formed the backbone of the DUP (especially in its former manifestation as the Protestant Unionist Party) - is provided by a comparison of the alternative cultural identities expressed by Sammy Wilson and former DUP member Rev. Ivan Foster. It was suggested to Wilson that there were those within the DUP who would claim to be a Protestant first, and a unionist only for as long as this advanced Protestantism in Northern Ireland. When asked if he would accept the hypothetical situation where the monarch was removed as constitutional head of state in Britain and replaced by an elected president who was not a Protestant, Wilson replied that this would not be sufficient cause for him to withdraw his loyalty from the state.


  • Yes, I mean, I don't think my unionism depends upon whether the King or Queen is a 'Prod' or what. Probably the Protestantism that the Queen espouses might be a bit different from the Protestantism I would espouse anyway, so I'm not so sure that it makes all that much difference. No, I mean, my unionism is based much more on the historical connection that there is between this part of the island and the rest of the United Kingdom. It is based on the fact that my identity is more with the rest of the United Kingdom, whether that's culturally or religiously or whatever.... I think that one has also got to say that there is a negative reason for it as well, and the negative reason is I don't believe that any unionist would get a fair deal in the Irish Republic. I have no evidence, despite all the promises that have been made, that they are going to change their society. [39]

Wilson's rhetoric contrasts sharply with that of the Rev. Ivan Foster, whose language abounds with religious metaphors and whose primary motivation is evidently the preservation of a fundamentalist-orientated Protestant culture within Northern Ireland. This was brought sharply into focus when he denounced proposed education reforms (what later became the Education Reform [Nl] Order 1990) and specifically the emphasis upon cultural heritage studies and education for mutual understanding on the grounds that these represented an attempt by the British government to indoctrinate Protestant children. In describing Dr Brian Mawhinney (the then Education Minister for Northern Ireland) as 'a latter-day Pharaoh' who sought, with the 'stealth of the assassin' and under the 'guise of the educator', to compromise the teaching of true Protestant Christianity, Foster highlighted the strong isolationist element within the DUP.


  • It would appear that the strategy that Pharaoh adopted, because he feared the growing strength of the Israelites, and felt that it would not suit his purpose just to mount a massacre against the adults, he decided to control them through their children by killing off the all-male children that were born, and thus he could control the nation.... I have no doubt that there is an attempt being made to control the thinking, the political thinking particularly, of the Protestant people in Northern Ireland, and where better to make an attempt to do that than in the classroom. [40]

When it was suggested to Foster that these reforms sought to encourage understanding and tolerance of opposing cultures and were aimed at dispelling myths and folklore which fed the sectarian strife in Northern Ireland, his response exhibited the inherent insecurity and fear within some sections of the unionist community. Here we have a classic exposition of a defensive, reactionary ideology, battling against what it perceived to be an aggressive external community. In this analysis, the ultimate aggressor was considered to be the Catholic Church, with the Vatican controlling the European political actors, including of course the policies of the British government. The Machiavellian world which people such as Foster inhabited determined that Northern Ireland was at the top of the Vatican's agenda, and thus the subtext of political reforms introduced by the British government was to eradicate Bible-Christianity in Northern Ireland and thereby reduce the religious and political liberty of the Protestant community. The extent to which Foster's political opinion was informed by his theological critique was demonstrated by his reply to the suggestion that debunking traditional attitudes to opposing religious faiths would lead to greater social harmony. His political opposition to this education reform was the direct result of his religious belief that Catholicism was heresy and was therefore unlikely to be truthful in its interpretation of itself:


  • When you see that plan [for educational reform] translated into action, then you begin to suspect what is actually being planned. How can I ask the Roman Catholic Church to paint for me an accurate picture of itself, when, if it did that, it would cause the mass of its people immediately to reject it as no church of Jesus Christ, but a church of the Anti-Christ?[41]

Foster's attitude to political progress again demonstrates the tendency for rigidity to flow from theological certainty, making this strand of the ideology inflexible, unwieldy and incapable of changing its strategy to cope with altered political circumstances. Foster disagreed with the contention that peace could only be achieved when all sections of the community agreed to respect the beliefs and aspirations of their political opponents. His reply to the suggestion that the classroom was a suitable place to begin this process of rapprochement between the two sectarian blocs illustrates once again the negative dynamic produced by dogmatic theology. The application of these strict criteria to the political arena tends to vitiate the possibility for moderation because compromise is seen not as a diplomatic solution to an intractable problem, but rather as a way of ensuring that everyone ends up in the wrong.


  • Sir, if divisions are to be healed in this province, they are to be healed by each and every one of us coming to the truth. Each and every one of us finding out where we should be standing. Not us all taking a step in each other's direction and arriving on middle-ground, because middle-ground might be still the wrong ground. I believe what is needed in this country is a spiritual reformation, a spiritual revival, a return to Bible-Christianity, and it is all the more surprising that a man like Dr Brian Mawhinney, who I understand was brought up amongst the Plymouth Brethren, and who should therefore have some understanding of what Bible-Christianity is all about, should now be promoting an ecumenical venture of this nature which is designed to change the whole face of Ulster Protestantism, change it, never to be unchanged and brought back again to the allegiance that it once had to the Word of God. It's an attempt to destroy Ulster Protestantism forever. [42]

Any comparative analysis of Foster's rhetoric and that of his former colleague Sammy Wilson would suggest that even within the DUP respective legitimations of the Union differed greatly. It should be noted here that Foster's subsequent resignation from the DUP in protest against the slow pace of the anti-Agreement campaign provides further evidence to support the contention that the DUP's increasing urbanisation and secularisation was being reflected in its policy-making. A testimony to this change was provided by the pact with the UUP, a strategic compromise which created internal tensions between the rural Free Presbyterian grass-roots element and the urban working/middle-class contingent who regarded this arrangement as a necessary evil for political progress.

Another complicating factor within the DUP was provided by class divisions between the party's urban working-class heartlands and the increasingly middle-class composition of the leadership and, more importantly, the conflicting political agendas of the rural middle-class Free Presbyterian voters and their urban working-class secular brethren. Clifford Smyth argues that the extent to which the DUP became a working-class party is a matter for conjecture, commenting that it is impossible to prove Paul Arthur's hypothesis that 'Political Paisleyism was proletarian, but religious Paisleyism attracted lower middle-class congregations which crammed the ample car park with their Cortinas.'[43] While recognising that a distinction does exist between Paisley's church supporters and his political supporters, Smyth contends that '. . . it is a topic which defies statistical quantification and remains therefore a matter of observation'.[44] While the influx of young blood was initially encouraged by Paisley as he needed to broaden the base of the party, the long-term benefits for his own position were questionable. The professionalisation of the DUP augmented the power base of Robinson and diminished Paisley's authority within the party, hitherto insulated through his leadership of the Free Presbyterian Church. The dangers of creating the overmighty subject were to become apparent after the signing of the Anglo-lrish Agreement, as Paisley found it increasingly difficult to control the party and recognised with mounting frustration that it was often Peter Robinson who was setting the political agenda of the DUP.

The conflict within the DUP between secular and fundamentalist factions hampered the party's development as disagreements began to erupt over tactics such as civil disobedience. This was to become particularly obvious after the Hillsborough Agreement, when the inconsistency of party policy suggested that it emanated from more than one source. Although there is a deep-rooted independent sentiment in radical unionism which has grown out of the conditions of their entry into Ulster in the seventeenth century, it does not follow that Moloney and Pollak's summary of this strand of the ideology accurately reflects the reality of unionist political motivation.


  • The readiness of Protestants to rebel against Westminster, as well as the occasional manifestations of an independent Ulster sentiment, has its roots here. It is a deep strain in Northern Ireland Protestantism and Paisley has successfully tapped it. His followers' first allegiance is to Protestantism, not to the Union. Their official slogan is: 'For God and Ulster'. As Paisley has often told his supporters: 'The Alliance party is the political wing of ecumenism but the DUP is the political wing of evangelical Protestantism.'[45]

While this could certainly be said to be representative of the DUP in their former manifestation as the Protestant Unionist Party, the changes in personnel and the increasing urbanisation of the party base have complicated the picture. As Sammy Wilson's testimony concerning the basis of the Union would suggest, a degree of secularisation has taken place which has been reflected in DUP policy-making. Ironically perhaps, Ian Paisley Jnr displays attitudes more similar to the secular modernisers than to those traditionally associated with his father. Paisley Jnr, a well-educated, Belfast-born young professional, was asked about the importance of religion in the equation of allegiance. While stressing the importance of the Protestant religion in his personal life and moral code, he differentiates between private ethics and public political manifesto.


  • Obviously I'm a very passionate Protestant and I've a very strong Protestant religious view and it's not just a Protestant class view, a Protestant sociological view, it's a Protestant religious view. That's a very personal thing for me. But, I think that religion comes into Britishness and comes into unionism, for me anyway, only to the point that I believe that religious freedoms are cherished more underneath Britishness, and have more ability to flourish, adapt and to actually exist than they would have... under a single Irish nation.[46]

When asked if the hypothetical scenario whereby the British monarchy were abolished and replaced with an elected president who was not a Protestant would present grounds for leaving the Union, Paisley Jnr gave the same response as his party colleague Sammy Wilson.


  • Not at all. Not at all. Let's face it, we had a Lord Protector you know? We had our revolution, we had our quasi-Presidency . . . and that failed and the British state adopted . . . the constitutional monarchy which we have obviously in adapted form today. So I don't think it would be grounds for me to get out.[47]

When Peter Robinson was asked to outline the central principles of his cultural identity, his response suggested that there is more to the DUP than simply being the 'political wing of evangelical Protestantism'. Asked the same question as Paisley Jnr about the importance of Protestantism and the monarchy to his allegiance to the Union, Robinson commented that such a scenario 'may not in itself, automatically cause one to recoil from being within the United Kingdom, but it removes one of the pegs that holds down our unionism'.[48]

Those politicians who style themselves as representing the views of former loyalist paramilitaries and those who have traditionally been seen as a more insular, intolerant and religiously bigoted element within the unionist community appear to be more flexible on questions such as the monarchy and religion than Peter Robinson. When Gary McMichael, the leader of the Ulster Democratic Party, was asked to define the central principles of unionism from a personal perspective, he replied that 'My unionism is not based upon a protection of my Protestant identity, it's based upon the practical needs of the people of Northern Ireland - all the people.'[49] When asked specifically about his attitude to the replacement of the British monarch with an elected president who was not a Protestant, he exhibited a pragmatic, secular attitude: 'I don't believe that we maintain the Union for as long as the Union retains its Protestant character. That doesn't come into my thinking because I want to see religion taken out of politics.'[50] David Ervine took a similarly prosaic approach: 'I'd be interested in his politics rather than his religion. I'm not interested.'[51]

Attitudes to the monarchy as an essential ingredient of their political allegiance are by no means fixed within the unionist population. Apart from the above testimony, there are elements of the Protestant working class which take an ambivalent view. It should be said that in general terms a devotion to the monarchy (as opposed to the extended royal family) is still strong within urban Protestant communities. However, although the Progressive Unionist Party has a picture of the Queen hanging on the wall of their party headquarters on the Shankill Road in Belfast (it is not a recent likeness), Billy Hutchinson was able to say that '[personally], I would have to say that I'm not even sure that I'm a monarchist. I'm not loyal to any monarchy. What I'm loyal to is my class and also my political beliefs.'[52] David Ervine espouses a similar view, emphasising that his unionism was based more in present-day membership of a liberal democracy (albeit an imperfect one) than in any romantic attachment to a historical figurehead. 'My definition of unionism is very simple . . . and it is merely that I am a citizen of the United Kingdom - no more no less.'[53] He went on:


  • It would be ridiculous of me to take a magic wand and just rub the Queen and the royal family out, they are aspects of our society that many many people have a fondness for . . . Essentially I'm not an elitist and therefore don't like anybody else who is, or don't like any other system that espouses that elitism.[54 ]

It is clear that to simply define unionism as being a dichotomy between moderates and extremists, as Garret FitzGerald has done, is little more than a caricature of the ideology which does not address the nuances within it. Many of those whose extremism has in the past resulted in their engaging in political violence are in some instances more open-minded than those within the DUP who have pursued more moderate forms of political behaviour. Consider the following responses of David Ervine of the PUP and Peter Robinson of the DUP when questioned about their cultural identity. Though anxious to differentiate between his geographical situation and cultural iconography, Ervine stated that, as far as he was concerned,


  • I haven't really got a problem in terms of someone calling me Irish. But if I felt that that were being done to my detriment, then I would define exactly what it was for them and say 'look this is not the case. I firmly believe myself to be British'. We are a peculiarity in that we're both.[55]

The deputy leader of the DUP takes a much more defensive and absolutist position than Ervine, indicating that his cultural identity is a product of what he considers to be an antagonistic counterculture and malign irredentist nationalist project on the other part of the island.


  • I resent people suggesting I'm Irish. My wife would throw a tantrum if anybody called her Irish. And that's simply because of not wanting to be associated with this country whose government has been their foe for the last twenty-five odd years.[56]

The complexity of this issue was illustrated when Ian Paisley was asked a similar question. The DUP leader, whom we might expect would be the embodiment of old-style Ulster loyalist sentiment, exhibited a different perspective than that expressed by his deputy leader. 'I was born in the island of Ireland. I have Irish traits in me - we don't all have the traits of what came from Scotland, there is the Celtic factor . . . and I am an Irishman because you cannot be an Ulsterman without being an Irishman.'[57] One of the most eloquent explanations of the apparent conundrum for working-class Protestants in defining their identity within the context of being British while living within an Irish cultural inheritance was provided by Patricia Anderson of Ballybeen Community Theatre. Commenting on her participation in a seminar on the Protestant cultural identity in Northern Ireland organised by the Ulster People's College in Belfast, Ms Anderson illustrates the extent to which some people in the unionist community have come to terms with their dual identity.


  • At first it was a bit scary because I didn't want to admit I was Irish. I didn't want anything to do with being Irish, I was British. But then I learned that I am Irish and I can reclaim all my Irishness, the Irish dancing, the Irish language, everything. That's as much part of me as it is to anybody in the nationalist community. I'm very proud to be a Protestant and very proud to be British, but I'm also very proud to be able to sit here and say, 'I'm Irish too' and have as much right to be as anyone. [58]

The pundit's view: a critical assessment of the academic literature

Unionism as Ethno-nationalism

This should be taken to mean a definition of unionist political behaviour which is primarily motivated from a sense of belonging to an ethnic and/or national community within Northern Ireland, with a consequent right to exercise self-determination autonomously. Such Unionists are liable to emphasise local/regional characteristics such as religion, culture and historical experience over merely a political allegiance specifically to the Union with Great Britain or, more broadly, the liberal-democratic ideals and principles which that regime is held to represent.

Casting a sociologist's eye on the subject, Steve Bruce attempts to explain the differences between nationalist and unionist political behaviour by contending that Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland form part of a nation, while Protestant unionists are essentially an ethnic group. This assumption provides the basis for an identity crisis thesis, with Bruce arguing that, devoid of the cultural richness and diversity available to . Catholic nationalists, Protestant unionists are forced to articulate their identity in terms of religious exclusivity. In this analysis, nationalist security about their cultural identity has allowed them to secularise their ideology and decouple their Catholicism from their nationalism (for example, marxist republicanism), whereas unionists, by virtue of being a smaller and more vulnerable ethnic group, have not been able to do likewise. According to Bruce, no secure cultural identity is available to unionists outside the confines of evangelical Protestantism. As unionism in this analysis is seen as being primarily concerned with avoiding absorption into the Irish Republic and thereby becoming an even more vulnerable minority, there is a gravitational pull within the unionist community during periods of constitutional uncertainty towards the most vivid expressions of Protestantism. For Bruce, therefore, it is this inability to perceive a common identity outside the boundaries of their religious observance which explains the importance of Protestantism in unionist politics.


  • A people need a shared ideology if they are to remain a people. Although the minority in the North does draw on religious symbolism, Catholics do not need religion. Three-quarters of a united Ireland already exists within travelling distance. Nationalism is so well-established as to provide a strong source of identity. Ulster loyalists, however, need their evangelical religion because it is the only viable source of a shared identity. After all, they want to be British, but the British do not want them. They are loyal, but loyal to what? The only coherent set of ideas which explains the past, which gives them a sense of who they are, which makes them feel justifiably superior to Catholics, and which gives them the hope that they will survive, is evangelical Protestantism. [59]

There are a number of reasons why Bruce's arguments are ultimately unsatisfactory, not least of which is that he appears to suggest that the terms evangelical Protestant and unionist are synonymous. His assertion that this strand of Protestantism is the most natural constituency from which the unionist ideology is composed is highly contentious. One could ask why it is then, if this is the case, that the Ulster Unionist Party enjoys a significantly greater amount of electoral support from the Protestant community (even during times of crisis such as the post-AIA period) than does the DUP. Secondly, Bruce's equation of evangelical Protestantism with Ian Paisley and the DUP does not take account of that party's increasing secularisation. Nor does it explain why Ian Paisley, the personification of the politician motivated by religious conviction, has steadily lost control of his party, to the point that in the mid-1990s he is merely the dominant presence within it, rather than having the omnipotent influence he enjoyed in the late 1970s. If Bruce's thesis was correct, we should have seen a rapid and dramatic increase in support for the DUP after the signing of the AIA, as frightened unionists rushed to hide behind the skirts of this shared religious identity The fact that this did not occur brings us to the most important problem with Bruce's argument, namely his analysis of Protestantism and unionism. For his thesis to work, Bruce is forced to adopt reductionist criteria in his definition of these terms. Although he astutely points out that the democratic nature of Protestantism fosters political disputes, due to the absence of an ultimate moral authority other than the Bible, individually interpreted,[60] he does not explain how the heterogeneous nature of Protestantism has produced conflicting cultural identities.

Bruce has suggested that the conflict within unionism was due to a two-pronged suspicion of the Protestant middle class. On the one hand, the working-class element was wary of the elite nature of the Ulster Unionist Party leadership, and argued on populist grounds for higher wages, better housing and more welfare provisions. The second group were suspicious of the UUP's lack of evangelical piety, and they wanted to bring a greater theological aspect to unionism. However, Bruce's depiction of Protestants as an ethnic group, sharing common historical experiences, traditions, values, beliefs and symbols, creates a one-dimensional view of unionism which does not correspond with reality. It is clear that unionists do not all share a common cultural language, but are split in religious terms along denominational lines, are divided over their support for Protestant institutions such as the Orange Order and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), and, more fundamentally, are divided over whether Northern Ireland is a nation with the right to self-determination or merely another region of the United Kingdom.

Clearly there are problems with this. Bruce proposes that the central organising principle of unionism is provided by the unifying force of evangelical Protestantism. certainly this is a factor but only one of many and hardly the dominant one. Bruce pursues his own argument to self-destruction and reduces what is a complicated and multifaceted community to a caricature of itself. Fellow sociologist Colin Coulter does not overstate the case against Bruce:


  • [he] fails to grasp the genuinely diverse and complex character of unionism . . . In reality unionism does not possess a single essence, but rather exists as a single formation that accommodates a number of divergent and contradictory ideological impulses and political interests sharing little in common save for a commitment to the Union itself.[61]

John McGarry and Brendan O'Leary are less charitable. Giving him the rather unflattering 'handle' of 'sociologist of religion', these carnivores of the political science jungle charge Bruce with an 'unprofessional use of data' over his argument that Protestant resistance to a united Ireland was motivated primarily by religious reasons.[62] His psephological endeavours are equally patronised. Bruce is implicitly accused of academic bias over his use of untypical election results (a concentration on personality-driven European rather than Westminster elections) to explain DUP popularity. To sustain his thesis Professor Bruce seems intent on exaggerating the DUP's support . . . The lesson is simple: sociologists of religion, over-ambitious to apply their insights, should be more cautious with electoral data.'[63]To be fair to Bruce, his more recent work has tip-toed away from his bald assertion in 1986 that 'the Northern Ireland conflict is a religious conflict' and that it was people's adherence to 'competing religious traditions which has given the conflict its enduring and intractable quality.'[64] In his 1994 book on Protestant paramilitary attitudes, Bruce returns to the above statement to add the caveat that the connection between politics and religion in Northern Ireland is 'complex'.[65] However, impaled on a 'cleft-stick' of his own whittling, he continues to overemphasise the importance of what is in reality a minor branch in the unionist political tree.


  • The key point is the centrality of evangelicalism for the Ulster loyalist's sense of ethnic identity. It defines the group to which he belongs, it figures large in the history of that group, it legitimates the group's advantages (such as they are), and it radically distinguishes the group from its traditional enemy.[66]

My evidence would suggest that the obverse is the case. it is clear from the testimony of former loyalist paramilitaries and members of the DUP that, although religion plays an important part in their personal lives and cultural iconography, it forms a more complex component of their political calculations.

Other concepts in Bruce's recent work are even more problematic. His assertion that 'for many Protestants in Northern Ireland, Ulster loyalism has displaced the Ulster Britishness which was common prior to the present conflict'[67] does not stand up to empirical examination. In fact the reverse is true. The Social Attitudes Survey (1990) compared responses to the question of whether people in Northern Ireland felt themselves to be British, Irish, Ulster or Northern Irish over a time-span of twenty-one years. In 1968, 39 per cent of Protestants regarded themselves as British while 32 per cent opted for an Ulster identity. In 1978 the figures were 67 per cent and 20 per cent respectively In 1986, the numbers describing themselves as British stood at 65 per cent (amazingly, in spite of the introduction of the AIA the previous year) while only a mere 14 per cent described themselves as having an Ulster identity and 11 per cent opted for the more neutral 'Northern Ireland'. In 1989, those Protestants describing themselves as British had risen to 68 per cent with only 10 per cent defining themselves as 'Ulster' and 16 per cent as 'Northern Irish', a total of 26 per cent for a regional identity.[68]

An accompanying note for Bruce's conclusion that an Ulster identity is gaining ground at the expense of the British variant within Protestant politics displays an alarming methodology:


  • . . . given that the percentages can vary a great deal according to just how the question was asked, we are forced to rely rather on our intuition, and mine is that, while the number of Protestants who actually want an independent state remains small, the number who think it might be the only alternative to a united Ireland, and who are therefore reconciling themselves to it, has increased over my period of interest in Northern Ireland. [emphasis added] [69]

Apart from the obvious point that conclusions are arrived at by virtue of personal whim rather than empirical evidence, Bruce seems to confuse the cultural concept of an Ulster versus British identity with the political will to consider independence in a doomsday situation. As this chapter has illustrated, these concepts overlap, with members of the DUP and UUP who espouse a commitment to essentially British identities also being willing to consider independence as a last resort. The bar-room bravado in which such sentiments are often uttered may dissipate when the practical realities become obvious, but if it came to it, this alternative would be undertaken by most unionists with a heavy heart. Few would look positively upon it as the achievement of a cultural objective.

Unionism as Secular Rationalism

This should be understood as defining those unionists whose politics are motivated by easily quantifiable criteria, for example an identification with the institutions and declared philosophy of British parliamentary democracy, an assessment of the most beneficial economic model for Northern Ireland, or a cultural empathy with British sport, arts and media. Such unionists rarely carry around the same amount of weighty historical, religious or cultural baggage as their ethno-nationalist colleagues and generally place their regional identity within a Greater British context.

An alternative explanation to Bruce's religious reductionism has been provided by Sarah Nelson with the suggestion that the dynamic within unionism in the 1970s was class based.. 'Class tensions and resentment within the Protestant community began to be openly expressed, and the Civil Rights slogan "Fifty years of unionist misrule" was increasingly heard from the lips of working class loyalists.[70]

Clifford Smyth has pointed out that opposition to the Ulster Unionist Party could not be explained in class terms alone, as illustrated by Ernest Baird and Reg Empey, former members of the pseudo-paramilitary Vanguard Party,[71] both of whom were vigorous in their criticisms of mainstream unionism but were also prosperous businessmen.[72] In more recent times David Trimble, now the leader of the UUP and formerly a founder member of the Ulster Clubs[73] and the Vanguard Party, embodies the capacity of radical unionism to cross class barriers. When questioned, for example, about what he regarded as being the central principles of unionism, his response intimated that the Union was a strategic political allegiance (by definition conditional) of Ulster Protestants to a community with which they shared a psychological and cultural affinity.


  • I suppose one does put the Union pretty high up, but one doesn't say that the Union is an absolute end in itself. I regard unionism as being an all-class political alliance, of the Ulster British people, formed for the purpose of defending their position within the Union. But the Union is seen as the best political vehicle for the development in social, economic and political terms, of the Ulster British people.[74]

When pressed as to whether he saw the Union in terms of a political rather than a cultural allegiance, Trimble replied that, while there was a strong cultural cohesion which sustained the Union, this could not be relied upon indefinitely and thus other political structures may have to be contemplated outside the present constitutional arrangements to preserve the politico-cultural hegemony of the unionist community.


  • It's both [political and cultural]. It is cultural, I mean it's obviously cultural because the British community here do feel themselves to be cultural in all respects, in virtually all respects in that sense British, so there is a very strong cultural affinity, and there are the political and economic things as well. The only reason why I put a question-mark against the Union is because one knows that a union requires two parties, and that if the English - and I am using the word English deliberately - if the English should decide to say, 'well that is all very well, you feeling yourselves to be British, all your history and background and all the rest, that is all very well, but frankly we don't want the Union anymore and we want to end it' . . . in that case we would say that we cannot unilaterally sustain the Union, and so one has to say that there is, in the last analysis, another goal, which is to find some other political structure as a means of advancing the well-being and continuing existence of the Ulster British people.[75]

Again we can observe in Trimble's definition of unionism a defensive mentality which emanates from the realisation that the state to which he gives his allegiance, the UK, is at best ambivalent about its desire to maintain the relationship. The fear that the state to which they express a loyalty (with varying degrees of conditionality) does not accept them as wholly legitimate members of that state has encouraged a separatist culture within the unionist community.

Perhaps the ultimate example of secular rationalism is to be found within the cross-community Alliance Party, where the concerns of an ethno-Ulster nationalist culture are clearly of little relevance. Alliance is at the outer limits of the ideology and the opposite pole to those who inhabit the most extreme recesses of unionist ethno-nationalism. Recognising this fact I asked the party leader, Dr John Alderdice, if he would define Alliance as being a unionist party in the traditional sense.


  • No, I wouldn't. it certainly is a party which currently takes a pro-Union position, that is to say that we believe that the best social and economic interests of the people of Northern Ireland are served by remaining within the United Kingdom. . . . But remaining within the United Kingdom is not some article of faith for us. In other words, if it became clear that the best social and economic interests of the people of Northern Ireland would be served by another arrangement, and that was something that we felt and that the people of Northern Ireland felt, then we would [look at] the political dispensation, whether that was to a united Ireland or a region within a Europe of the Regions or whatever. That's not an issue or a problem from our point of view. But we feel that at this point it is quite clear that the best interests are served by remaining within the UK.[76]

When Alderdice was asked if he would distinguish Alliance from the other unionist parties on the basis that, while they would have, to varying degrees, a cultural identification with the Union, his party made a purely pragmatic assessment which was devoid of sentiment, he ironically used a historical analogy to clarify his position.


  • Well, pragmatism, yes, is a very important part of it but there are certain political principles involved too. I mean if you go back to Northern Ireland coming into being, you had essentially three groups of people. You had Conservatives and Unionists, who wanted the Union to be maintained and that meant no devolution, it meant a centralised form of government and so on. Then you had nationalists, who at the end of the day wanted Ireland as a whole to leave the United Kingdom and be a separate independent republic. Then you had liberals, and the liberal view was for Home Rule, the term devolution is the one that we use now. So, if there had been an Alliance Party then it would have been saying: 'we want Home Rule on a power-sharing basis within the United Kingdom' .[77]

Notwithstanding the assertions of Alderdice that his party was temperamentally neutral on the Union, many within the nationalist community in Northern Ireland would view them as 'unionists with breeding', those people whom the wife of the former Cabinet minister Alan Clark referred to, in a separate context entirely, as coming 'from above stairs'. While this may be an unfair assessment and an inaccurate caricature of the party, it would not be the first time that communal stereotyping fashioned political attitudes within Northern Ireland. In a final attempt to get to the bottom of the precise position of Alliance within the secular-rationalist strand of unionism, Alderdice was asked if his party had a particular cultural outlook on the Union as opposed to the political definition he had provided. Aside from adhering for the moment to the political institutions of the British state, did Alliance have any cultural position on the Union which would exhibit a bond not reflected in their attitudes towards the Southern Irish state?


  • That's not a Particular issue for us. We are in this state at present and therefore there's a commitment to the institutions of the state within which we are. If we were part of a united Ireland our commitment would be to the institutions of that state. We are loyal to whatever state we are a part of at that time. [78 ]

This response is important. Here we have the distinction between those on the periphery of the ideology and those at the centre. While members of the Alliance Party may define their loyalty as the exercise of real politik, a formal addendum to the political reality they happen to find themselves in, unionists who are wholly a part of the ideology see this as central. Which state they belong to is the starting point from which all else is to be understood and synthesised rather than a footnote. Unlike Alderdice, their loyalty is non-transferable, and the feeling that they are going to be delivered from one state to another state has, in extreme cases, led to violent confrontations with the state to which they claim to be loyal.

Contractarianism and Statehood

Contractarianism defines unionism as an ethnic group whose relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom is a quirk of historical development and has become a cold legalistic agreement where loyalty to the state is conditional upon adequate behaviour by the executive. Statehood is a definition of unionism which rejects the idea that its adherents are motivated by narrow criteria of nationhood such as identity, religion, colour, race and cultural symbolism; rather they are organised around a commitment to the preservation and enhancement of liberal democratic structures and values, which only states can provide and nations destroy.

David Miller's account of the dynamics of unionism is rooted in a historical perspective and remains one of the most provocative (if rather outdated) works on the ideology to date.[79] The propensity within radical Protestant politics to illustrate the conditional nature of their loyalty is central to Miller's thesis and requires detailed examination as this provides further evidence of the regressive nature of the unionist ideology. Miller prefaces Queen's Rebels by quoting Robert Bradford as presumably the personification of conditional loyalty: 'The time might come when Ulstermen would have to become Queen's rebels in order to remain citizens of any kind.'[80]

While being a convenient means of defying state authority yet remaining at least nominally loyal to that state, the phenomenon of conditional loyalty has concrete historical foundations. These stretch back to the sixteenth-century tradition of public banding, i.e. entering into 'bands' for mutual protection, which was originally a response by the gentry to a prolonged spell of weak central government. The Scottish Kirk entered into such an arrangement in an attempt to combat the anti-Presbyterian tendencies of the monarchy. Bands such as the National Covenant of 1638, organised in opposition to the new prayer book, came to be regarded as tripartite contracts between God, his people, and the King.[81] It has some relationship to the democratising nature of the Reformation, the emphasis on individualism which this engendered, and the liberalism of the time which stressed man's inherent rationality (as this would be required to determine when a covenant had been breached). Miller suggests that loyalty is reduced to a matter of private ethics, with political obligation being no more than a business arrangement. in the event, therefore, of the ruler breaking his side of the bargain, the ruled are absolved of their duty to comply with his wishes.[82] One of the earliest examples of conditional loyalty was provided in 1689, when the fortified town of Derry issued a resolution declaring that the Catholic troops of James II would not be allowed into the city. As the following statement indicates, despite blatantly defying the king's authority, they still viewed him as their legitimate sovereign.


  • That as we have resolved to stand upon our guard and defend our walls, and not to admit of any Papist whatsoever to quarter among us, so we have firmly and sincerely determined to persevere in our duty and loyalty to our sovereign Lord the King, without the least umbrage of mutiny or seditious opposition to his royal commands . . . God Save The King.[83]

This emphasis on religious distinction is of central importance to the conditional nature of radical Protestant politics, and provides evidence to support the argument that 'loyalty' to Britain is given for so long as it sanctions the existence of the 'Protestant nation'. The cultural heritage of many radical unionists is not therefore seen in terms of their position as a colony of the British Empire, or as a member of the Commonwealth. Theirs is a separatist culture, reminiscent (in their eyes) of the value system of nineteenth-century Britain, but one which in reality bears little relation to the secular Britain of today. In Miller's analysis, one of the key elements of this culture is the Protestant religion, as it serves to identify those who subscribe to the group and provides a useful regenerative function. For those who understand their culture in terms of their religion, any hint of a threat to the dominance of the latter amounts to an attack upon their cultural identity. An interesting corollary may be observed between this view and the emphasis placed by Patrick Pearse upon the Gaelic revival. Pearse argued that the cultural struggle was pre-eminent in the fight for national independence, as without the Irish language and Irish customs it would be impossible to identify a separate nation and this would reduce the need for separate political structures. In the same way, many unionists have argued that a dilution of Protestantism will reduce Northern Ireland's claim to be culturally distinct from the rest of Ireland. This is why many unionists emphasise their religion when discussing their cultural identity, and point out that loyalty is dependent upon the preservation of Protestantism in Britain, as only then can it be guaranteed in Northern Ireland. This sentiment was expressed in 1976 by George Graham, a former DUP Assemblyman, when he declared that:


  • My loyalty is to the British Throne being Protestant. I have no loyalty to any Westminster government. I have no loyalty to a government which prorogued a democratically elected government, destroyed our security forces, and left us prey to the IRA. Nor have I a loyalty to a British government going over the heads of our people, conniving and double-dealing behind our backs with a foreign government.[84]

From Miller's perspective, therefore, the conditional aspect of Ulster loyalism is the greatest paradox within the ideology. He argues that their interpretation of Britishness was not a patriotic nationalistic sentiment, nor a sense of community with the people of Great Britain. In essence it was a loyalty to the monarch and constitution for as long as they guarded the rights of the loyal Ulster people. Paul Arthur and Keith Jeffery largely concur with Miller's analysis, commenting that the powerful loyalist tradition of 'public banding' is based in a lack of confidence in Britain's determination to sustain the Union.[85] It was precisely this belief, for instance, which led William Craig, a former unionist Cabinet minister, to comment after the demise of Stormont in 1972 that the Ulster loyalists were an 'old and historic community' for whom the Union with Britain had never been an end in itself but '. . . was always a means of preserving Ulster's British tradition and the identity of her Loyalist people'.[86] Loyalty therefore to this tradition in unionism meant a primary identification with the people and territory of Northern Ireland, rather than with those within the United Kingdom as a whole. As a consequence of this isolationist perspective, some radical unionists tend to embrace the cultural identity of the Ulster Protestant in its rawest and most mythical form, namely through the Orange Order and fundamentalist religion. The folk heros within this band of radical unionism are the defenders of the faith and the preservers of the culture such as William of Orange, Rev. George Walker, and Rev. Henry Cooke. The isolationism within this strand of unionism has produced a curious mixture of insecurity and complacency, which has generally resulted in political stagnation. The eternal fear of being abandoned by Britain and delivered into the joint clutches of Dublin and Rome has been accompanied within radical unionism by the belief that the nature of the forces ranged against them have remained constant. The certainties provided by doctrinaire theology were translated into the political sphere, the result being that traditional assumptions were not questioned, changing political circumstances were not recognised, and the unionist ideology did not learn to adapt or innovate to meet the volatile political environment of twentieth-century Britain.

John Taylor, deputy leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, commented upon this weakness within unionism, arguing that the assumption of his more radical colleagues within the DUP that the Union was a one-way relationship had been detrimental to unionist political fortunes as their behaviour had alienated the other partner in the relationship. When Taylor was asked if he shared Miller's view that a social contract existed between Britain and Northern Ireland, he disagreed, preferring the more organic analogy of both communities being contained within the same family than the cold legalistic one of an arrangement between separate parties.


  • Oh, it is not a social contract, it is like a marriage certificate. Any marriage requires two partners, and if one partner opts out, the thing collapses. The United Kingdom is made up of a partnership between Great Britain and Northern Ireland - after all, that is what it even says on our passports, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is not part of Great Britain but it is part of the United Kingdom - and for that partnership to survive, it isn't simply dependent on people in Northern Ireland voting unionist or being pro-British, it also depends on those who live in Great Britain wanting to retain the partnership. So it's a two-way operation and not just one-way I think that is a great weakness in the unionist family here in Northern Ireland, that they seem to think that so long as they are strongly pro-British here, everything is well, but in fact that is a very blind approach to the real basis of the relationship. The basis of the relationship does depend on the unionists of Northern Ireland having public support in Great Britain as well.[87]

From this perspective, the tendency within radical sections of the unionist community has been not only to misread the basis of the relationship between Britain and 'Ulster', but also to fail to understand the antipathy felt towards them in the rest of the UK and to look to the past when dealing with crises of the present. The political tactics of Ian Paisley, for example, have often mirrored those of Sir Edward Carson (though with less success) in the latter's opposition to Home Rule, with the repetition of the 'Carson Trail Rallies', the establishment of the 'Third Force' mimicking the formation of the 'Ulster Volunteer Force' and, after the AIA, a repeat of Carson's 'Solemn League and Covenant' of 1912.

In essence, therefore, the unionist identity crisis is derived from their unilateral declaration of 'love' for the 'mother country' which has never been fully reciprocated. Commenting retrospectively on the period, Garret FitzGerald argued that this 'sense of being besieged', the fear of their external environment, led to a culture of political irrationality within the unionist community, which was emphasised in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.


  • The fact is that there is a reason for the unionist attitude, and it is that they have felt under threat from the beginning. They have never felt that the threat has gone away They have misperceived it at some times possibly, but once people feel under threat, reason goes out the window, and they have found it impossible to identify their interests and to pursue them, by virtue of all the time reacting simply negatively against a perceived threat, sometimes in existence, sometimes not. That can happen to any group; I mean the Israelis are also a bit irrational at times and don't necessarily pursue their own interests, or even identify them in the long run. Fear is a great destabiliser for rationality.[88]

It was realisation of the fact that they were 'unwanted children' which diminished the trust of the unionist community in the country to which they gave their allegiance. David Trimble personifies this belief that the Britishness of Northern Ireland is not an objective reality but is subject to the whim of fickle politicians in Westminster.


  • I regard myself as a unionist who is aware of the fact that I cannot unilaterally insist that the Union be continued, that there might be - there are not yet, I don't actually ever think there ever will be, but one has to acknowledge the possibility that there will be - circumstances where the other party to the Union would wish unilaterally to end it.[89]

This statement ties in with Miller's perception that the unionism of Protestant Ulster was never a feeling of cultural 'oneness' with the Greater British community, but a tactical political alliance. This was not however an allegiance to the British state, to its parliament, or even to its monarch, but to those constitutional arrangements which were vital to the maintenance of the Ulster Protestant way of life. The basis of the Union, therefore, was a contract between two separate parties, and not an internal agreement between members of the one family. In essence, this definition of the Union was supported by David Trimble, who emphasised not that unionists were simply a section of the United Kingdom separated by geography, but rather that they were a specific cultural community where loyalty to Britain was granted on a de facto basis, rather than Northern Ireland belonging in a de jure manner to the UK.


  • Yes, there is a sort of contract relationship. I'm sure you have read David Miller's book . . . I don't agree with all of Miller's book but I think it is quite interesting. But the idea of a covenant - I use that word instead of contract - is of course very very central to Presbyterian theological thinking, and a lot of people's political thought - it is true here, it has been true elsewhere as well - is closely related to their theology.[90]

As Miller has pointed out, the problem with perceiving loyalty to the state in contractarian terms lay in its subjective interpretations. The forces of modernisation had resulted in political change to the extent that sovereignty was no longer vested in a single person, the monarch, but was now replaced by a parliament responsible to the people. Ironically therefore the liberal-democratic institutions which Ulster Protestants placed so much emphasis upon augmented their feelings of insecurity and contributed to their isolationist political culture.


  • The people are fickle, and it is a fundamental feature of the British Constitution that parliament is incapable of giving binding promises: any law enacted by one parliament can be repealed by the next. . . . The Parliament Act forced upon the consciousness of Ulster Protestants the fact that they could find reassurance of their fundamental rights neither in a felt sense of co-nationality with any people - British or Irish - nor in the capacity of British institutions to give promises which came up to their own exacting standards of honesty.[91]

The endemic (and not unjustified) paranoia of the unionist community which emanates from constitutional uncertainty has highlighted the conditional nature of their loyalty, as their obedience is based upon a two-way relationship, a social contract or covenant with the government. The following statement by Ian Paisley in the Protestant Telegraph could be cited in support of the contractarian thesis: 'Government is not a one-way street. It is a civil contract in which each party has a duty.'[92] The belief that the Union is founded upon a contract (at least from the unionist perspective) rather than mutual trust and cultural commonality has fed the virus of political insecurity within unionism. It has produced frequent declarations that the actions of the 'mother country' have jeopardised the position of the Ulster Protestant community and so broken the contract between the rulers and the ruled, thus legitimating unconstitutional behaviour.

However, though intellectually more diverting than Bruce's one-dimensional characterisation of Ulster unionism, this theoretical edifice is built upon foundations which are just as shaky. The main problem with Miller's contractarian theory is its negation of unionism's cultural identification with Britain, even if this is largely a one-way unreciprocated relationship to a mythical British community which owes more to Kipling's Britishness than to the multicultural Britain of the late twentieth century. It is rather too mechanistic to simply interpret the dynamics of unionism as the autonomous exercise of political self-interest grounded in pseudo-legality. Ian Paisley Jnr's response when asked about the central principles of unionism provides a classic example and demonstrates the complex pattern within the unionist fabric of allegiance.


  • Number one, I believe in the principles of the Union, those principles being that the Union is best for everyone; that it offers and facilitates everybody's cultural, political and economic outlook better than any other option that appears to be available. Therefore I'm a unionist for practical reasons. But I'm also a unionist for very emotional reasons as well. My whole cultural/political philosophy I think is based in a very, not only nostalgic idea of what the past means, but also a very profound identity with the principles of Protestantism, with the principles of freedom, with the principles of civil and religious liberty and all those things which I think make up the cross-mix which is both a Protestant identity and indeed then a unionist political identity. [93]

It is undoubtedly the case that many unionists, especially (to use Todd's classification) in the Ulster British tradition, do regard themselves as having a close social and cultural affinity with the rest of Britain. Many unionists would regard themselves as being British in the manner of the Scottish or Welsh, with a subordinate regional loyalty to Northern Ireland, and they feel hurt that this is not accepted by the ruling elite at Westminster. Sammy Wilson, for instance, sees no reason why constitutional arrangements cannot be established in Northern Ireland similar to those in other regions of the UK, taking account of the regional differences between Northern Ireland and the 'mainland' while allowing for the devolution of specific responsibilities.


  • The first principle of my unionism is that I want to remain part of the United Kingdom. That is the bedrock of my belief. But, I believe that there is wide diversity within the United Kingdom, and I am not just talking about the diversity between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. It is now quite apparent that the Scots feel the same, the Welsh feel the same, even people in the North of England feel the same, and therefore the kind of unionism that I would want to see would allow for an expression of that diversity, and allow for some kind of institutional expression of the diversity as well. It would therefore be bolstered by a devolved - I'll call it an institution, I don't want to call it a parliament, some people would think that is too grandiose - but some devolved institution here in Northern Ireland, that would have real decision-making powers which would reflect, first of all, the wishes of people in Northern Ireland, and the particular flavour of politics here in Northern Ireland.[94]

However, it is clear that the status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom is not the same as that of Scotland or Wales. This has nothing to do with the legal niceties of the situation or any ceding of sovereignty occasioned by Britain's signing of the Anglo-lrish Agreement, but is rooted in cultural and historical factors. Miller has pointed out that Northern Ireland's position within the UK is not comparable with that of Scotland or Wales, due to its isolationist political culture. The Ulster Protestant community 'has evoked a kind of group loyalty incompatible with acceptance of the full implications of British nationality'.[95] Miller determined that it was the forces of modernisation and economic progress which were the root cause of the differences between Northern Ireland's relationship with England, and that of Scotland and Wales.

Despite its many advantages as a political theory of unionism, Miller's thesis presents hypotheses which do not always correlate with the reality of unionist Motivations. In his examination of the Home Rule period, for example, he States that unionists did not feel a cultural affinity with the rest of the UK.


  • The dilemma of the Ulster Protestant community derived from both their conception of political obligation and their rights of citizenship in contractual terms. Lacking a genuine feeling of co-nationality with the British people, they could not entrust their fate to 'safeguards' which depended on the willingness of that people to intervene in Irish affairs to rectify abuses. [96]

In his contention that unionists lacked 'a genuine feeling of co-nationality with the British people', Miller seems to be confusing objective fact with the perceived reality of the situation from the unionist point of view. He may be correct in his assertion that a common culture did not exist between the unionists and the English; however this was not reflected in contemporary unionist feelings (however irrationally such feelings were arrived at). The fact was that unionists did feel as much a part of the empire (and thus by extension part of a mythical British nation) as did the English during the Home Rule period and they still do to a large degree. It is unlikely for instance that they would have volunteered for slaughter at the Somme had they not felt themselves to be an intrinsic part of the empire, or not felt a strong cultural affinity with the 'mother country'. The unionist perception of the First World War was that it was a fight to preserve civilisation and the British Empire, their empire. This does not presuppose, of course, that their perception was an accurate one, or that they were accepted as being an integral part of the empire by its other constituent parts or within the 'mother country' itself. Tom Hennessey, writing about Ulster unioniist identity at the end of the nineteenth century, substantiates this point.


  • As in Great Britain, Ulster unionists, and Irish unionists in general, consistently defined themselves as being part of a British national community sharing a specifically British historical heritage. . . . The British imperial experience, that 'consciousness of great shared events' which created a communal myth of national identity, was apparent throughout unionist rhetoric at this time.[97]

Coulter casts a healthily sceptical eye over Miller's thesis and finds it wanting in several respects. He challenges Miller's claim that the contractarian element within unionist political thought is anachronistic in the modern liberal-democratic polity. Western society has not, in Coulter's analysis,


  • . . . resolved to the satisfaction of its citizenry those vital constitutional issues that pertain to the nature and limits of government and of political obligation. . . . The modern liberal democratic state has, in reality, proved incapable of satisfactorily resolving the problematic matter of the relationship between government and governed. Indeed, far from having been rendered obsolete, such issues of citizenship have in fact returned to the centre stage of political debate in recent times.[98]

Miller is seen as putting the theoretical cart before the horse. The oddity about the unionist-British relationship is not that Ulster unionists have erected conditions to their loyalty which find expression in periodic demonstrations of defiance against state authority. The anomaly is instead presented to be the conditional loyalty of successive British governments to the concept of the Union and to the unionist community in Northern Ireland. The kernel of Coulter's argument is that it was Britain's historic inability to provide an unequivocal definition of Northern Ireland's constitutional status which fashioned the supposed deviance of unionist political behaviour.


  • In view of the uncertainty that shrouds the constitutional future of Northern Ireland within the Union, it would seem both rational and inevitable that the unionist community should have remained so profoundly concerned with constitutional matters. . . . Suspecting that the intentions of Westminster regarding the Union are far from pure, the unionist community has inevitably withheld from the government its unqualified consent, as to do otherwise would place it in a singularly vulnerable position.[99]

For Coulter, therefore, the contractarian element in modern unionism is a rational and salient political tactic, a behavioural trait fashioned out of an antagonistic political environment, whereas for Miller it is a structural residue of unionism's historical evolution and 'Ulster's' unique economic development, which has served ever since to poison their relationship with the 'mother country'.

A full-scale assault on Miller's assumptions was launched by Arthur Aughey, who declared that his interpretation


  • . . . chooses the wrong foundation upon which to build, and is therefore substantially misconceived. It constructs an argument on grounds congenial to nationalism, and so it is not surprising that unionism appears woefully inadequate as a political doctrine.[100]

Aughey's critique of Miller asserts that the crisis within unionism does not revolve around the anomaly of conflicting identities, but is rather a consequence of the British government's insistence on denying them the democratic rights of statehood and the basic right to participate in the political process. What Miller sees as an identity crisis fashioned out of cultural confusion, Aughey represents as a product of stunted political development born out of the Government of Ireland Act and the establishment of a regional administration in Northern Ireland. Aughey takes issue with Miller's articulation of conditional loyalty, arguing that it is the definition of a political absolute which does not exist.


  • If conditional loyalty is at the centre of political behaviour, Miller has left one major question unanswered in his exposition: namely, what is unconditional loyalty? Of course, he cannot really answer this question for it falls into that category of absolutes which is outside the scope of politics.[101]

Of course the point Aughey is making here, namely that nobody's loyalty to the state is unconditional, is a valid one,[102] and he cites the example of militant republicanism as evidence of this fact. The IRA in this analysis are manifestly not loyal to the existing Irish nation, but to an idealised version of it which does not yet exist. However, Aughey's use of this example to support his argument illustrates a misunderstanding of Irish republicanism, as unlike the unionists, they do not accept the Government of Ireland Act, republicans do not accept the partition of Ireland and they do not accept what is legally termed the Republic of Ireland to be the 'Irish nation'. This belief that the state is not a complete manifestation of the Irish nation is recognised by the constitution and thus, in theory at least, by the state itself. It is not a case therefore, as Aughey suggests, of militant republicans giving conditional loyalty to the government of the twenty-six counties; they do not give any loyalty to it at all, although they do accept it as a de facto if not de jure reality. It could perhaps be said in Aughey's defence that regardless of a nation-state's cultural homogeneity, there comes a point when citizens will decide either individually or collectively to withdraw their loyalty to the government or sovereign.


  • The Obligation of Subjects to the Sovereign, is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth, by which he is able to protect them. For the right men have by Nature to protect themselves, when none else can protect them, can by no Covenant be relinquished. . . . The end of Obedience is Protection.[103]

Thomas Hobbes did not design this covenant with the unionists in mind, but commented that everyone had the right to withdraw their loyalty to the state in the last resort (in this case during a period of life-threatening political instability). Aughey is therefore correct in his assertion that the observation of social contracts and covenants between the rulers and the ruled was not the unique preoccupation of the unionist community. The riots which occurred in Britain's inner cities in the early 1980s would testify to the fact that unionists were not alone in their propensity to exhibit conditional loyalty to the state should sufficient alienation occur between the government and the governed. However, despite Aughey's objections to Miller's thesis and his declaration that unionism 'is no more conditional in its loyalty than any other rational political doctrine',[104] it could justifiably be claimed that the ambiguity of unionist loyalty to the state is pronounced to an unusual degree. Aughey's view that the loyalty of everyone is conditional is not shared by Enoch Powell for example, who points out the anomaly of seeking to belong to a particular state while refusing to obey the laws of that state. When asked to comment upon the legitimacy of the unionist campaign of civil disobedience against the AIA, Powell declared that a prerequisite of citizenship of a particular state was the acceptance of and obedience to the legitimately made laws of that state, regardless of how unpalatable these laws were considered to be. Powell argued that whilst a case could be made for unlawful protest action against legislation which had been influenced by the Dublin government through the AIA,


  • . . . you then get yourself into the great difficulty, that, claiming to be part of a country, you reject its law, and also you get into the difficulty of picking and choosing between one law and another, and saying, 'now is this law a consequence of, or in any way influenced by the Anglo-lrish Agreement, or isn't it?' Now I can see that the law on public order [Public Order Act 1987] was professedly influenced by the Anglo-lrish Agreement, but still there is the difficulty of claiming to belong to a state and not obeying its laws. . . . My view was that the law was still binding, and that if one claimed to belong to the United Kingdom, one was admitting that one was still bound by the law of the United Kingdom.[105]

Powell's contention that the individual owed a loyalty to the legislative institutions of the state to which they gave allegiance stands at variance, however, with more radical sentiments within the Ulster Unionist Party. David Trimble, for instance, rejects the dictum of parliamentary sovereignty, arguing that such fundamental concepts could not be institutionalised in such a manner.


  • I've never actually personally subscribed to the view that parliament is absolutely sovereign. . . . I have always regarded sovereignty at the end of the day, as resting in the people, and parliament just happens to be the present central institution within our constitution.[106]

When it was put to him that the loyalty of some unionists to Britain was dependent upon the monarch remaining Protestant, Trimble went on to assert that conditional loyalty was not an anachronism, but evidence of a liberal-democratic polity:


  • I'm not sure that the people who say that they are loyal to the monarch so long as it's a Protestant have actually thought the matter through, although what they are saying is strictly speaking accurate. That is the Act of Settlement, and people here who celebrate the Glorious Revolution are very deeply conscious of the fact that loyalty is conditional. That is the bedrock of the British constitution, there is no unconditional loyalty, but loyalty is conditional. . . . I mean otherwise we simply wouldn't be a democratic state at all. [107]

Aughey's dismissal of Miller's conditional loyalty thesis as the product of a false premise, a concern with the nation rather than the state, was accompanied by an attempt to provide unionism with a new coherence. The starting point for his more positive critique came with the suggestion that the central dynamics of the ideology have been misinterpreted by academics who mistakenly understand unionism in terms of nationalist criteria. Aughey rejects Terence Brown's assertion that unionism suffers from an impoverished identity, lacking the 'complex, rich, emotional identity' of nationalism.[108] His point is that to measure unionism against nationalism will inevitably result in misunderstanding as the two ideologies are fundamentally different in nature: '. . . the point is that unionism does not claim to be an entire philosophy of life but a rational political idea. To criticise it in such terms is to do so according to the assumptions of nationalism.[109]

What Aughey does not mention is that unionist demands for the preservation of the Union have been substantially based (in recent years at least) on the argument that they are a culturally distinct community from the rest of Ireland. As Garret FitzGerald remarked, '. . . they try to have it both ways, both in and out of the UK'.[110] Unionists do not simply declare that they have a political allegiance to Britain, but maintain that this is based on the desire to preserve the distinctive cultural and religious heritage of unionism. 'The average Loyalist today would state without hesitation that his first loyalty was to Ulster rather than to the United Kingdom parliament.'[111] In a similar vein, Sarah Nelson quotes a former unionist councillor as saying that unionism for him was about preserving the distinctness of Northern Ireland, rather than integrating it into the UK.


  • I joined the party from a love of Ulster, its customs, character and heritage. Unionism to me always meant 'Ulster first'. This I felt was the true unionism in the tradition of Carson and Craig. Our leaders were weak allowing Britain to interfere when it was clear they had lost any loyalty to Ulster.[112]

It could of course be pointed out that this speaker totally misunderstands both the political philosophy of Edward Carson and the balance of power between London and Belfast. Carson in fact disliked many of Ulster's local characteristics and particularly the culture of Orangeism, their speeches reminding him of 'the unrolling of a mummy. All old bones and rotten rags.' The point is, however, this is a perception of identity widely held within the unionist community. As there is no law of political motion which declares that the depth of a person's beliefs is directly related to the rationality by which they are reached, the important factor to consider when discussing perceptions of identity is not intellectual coherence so much as the degree of consensus. Aughey rejects the contemporary orthodoxy that the unionist ideology is handicapped by a crisis of identity, this too being the product of nationalist misrepresentation. He quotes the following response of a loyalist bandsman, questioned by New Society about his identity, but reinterprets the message to deny the identity crisis thesis.


  • Well, I'd like to call myself British, a British person like. But you look deep into it like, I'm Irish . . . because Northern Ireland like. You don't hear the English going round and saying, 'I'm British'. They'd turn round and say 'I'm English' . . . like the Scottish I'd like to classify myself as a British person - if anybody asks me my nationality I'd turn round an' say, 'British' . . . I hate calling myself Irish, myself like . . . but it's a thing you have to face up to. It's the truth, you look at yourself, you're living on one island.[113]

Rather than accept the apparently obvious explanation that this individual is profoundly confused about his identity, Aughey chooses to depict the bandsman as a latter-day Platonic philosopher-king, who exhibits


  • . . . a profound modern political wisdom - a wisdom which the identity-advocates ignore or are simply unable to recognise. For the confusion, such as it is, appears not to lie in the stumbling formulations of unionism but in the narrow perversity of the whole idea of the politics of identity.[114]

Aughey concludes that unionists are more interested in statehood than in nationhood. Their preoccupation is not to psychoanalyse themselves as nationalists do, in terms of cultural 'oneness' or diversity using the cultural totems of language, religion, etc.; the concern of unionists is primarily to integrate themselves into the modern British state. 'The identity of unionism has little to do with the idea of the nation and everything to do with the idea of the state.'[115] Having established that the unionist community is more interested in belonging to a state than a nation (despite evidence to the contrary as expressed through the Orange Order et al.), Aughey goes on to argue that states are not based on concepts of nationhood and do not, in fact, 'depend upon any form of substantive identity at all'. The modern state, he says, 'has transcended its dependence on extrinsic legitimations such as race, nation or religion, and is grounded in the political universals of right and the rule of law'.[116] Historian James Loughlin correctly points to the practical deficiencies in Aughey's theoretical conception of the state as an underpinning dynamic within unionist politics.


  • [The] notion that the state can be conceptualised in terms of the political universals of 'right and the rule of law', abstracted from the emotions of nationalism, is not very convincing. indeed, while Aughey notes that Robert McCartney employed the Union Jack in his campaign literature at the general election of June 1987, 'against his better judgement', its use in this context is instructive. It is impossible to dissociate the national flag from notions of national identity and it is impossible to imagine the state without also imagining the national flag.[117]

In his desire to rationalise the equal citizenship argument, Aughey rather misses the point that states and nations are intrinsically linked to one another and in a time of crisis the nation will prove to be a much stronger social coagulant than the state. The break-up of the Soviet Union could be cited as supporting evidence here, as the various factions which previously made up that political unit are not organising around the 'Holy Grail' of liberal democracy instead, old nationalities which had been submerged within the state for seventy years have re-emerged in their original form, dusted themselves down, and are prepared to protect the interests of what they define as their nation. The war in the former Yugoslavia is another obvious example. Here, ethno-nationalist antagonism, which had remained relatively dormant during the Cold War and under Tito, has re-emerged from hibernation, and the Serbs, Croats and Muslims continue to define themselves and their enemies in terms of their ethnicity and how this interacts with their shared history. While Aughey is correct to point out that states are political rather than cultural arrangements, he fails to mention that more often than not it is the forces of nationality, language, colour, religion, history and social cohesion due to threat from external enemies which bind the state together. In other words, are states not simply the political manifestations of nations, groups of nations, or parts of nations? As Emerson noted, the nation '. . . has in fact become the body which legitimises the state'.[118] States certainly do not exist (as Aughey suggests) as a result of liberal democracy - indeed, a significant number of these geographical units known as states studiously ignore concepts such as the 'political universals of right and the rule of law'.

In reality, many unionists exhibit a concern with identity/culture rather than merely an abstract desire for citizenship and liberal-democratic principles. Regardless of how benign the Irish Republic becomes or the extent to which it liberalises its social policies, unionists are unlikely to seek citizenship of it. As this chapter has demonstrated, unionism is not based solely upon rationalism, or on political, social and economic self-interest. At its most fundamental, it is based on a sense of belonging. In addition to seeing the Union as a protector of civil liberties, religious expression and economic well-being, there is a complex web of historical, emotional and psychological bonds (though these are largely unreciprocated) which underpin the dynamics of unionist political behaviour.

Two examples will suffice to demonstrate that many unionists are motivated by exactly the same symbolic forces which drive Irish nationalism. Consider the reaction to the decision by Queen's University of Belfast in 1994 to abandon the playing of the British national anthem at its graduation ceremonies, thus bringing the institution into line with the practice in the rest of the United Kingdom. The letters column of the Belfast Telegraph was dominated by this issue for months afterwards, while a unionist rally was organised and attended by several leading politicians in an attempt to pressurise the university to reverse its decision. Obviously this example of integration with the 'mainland' was not one which they found to their taste. Consider also the events in Portadown during the Protestant marching season in July 1995 and specifically the 'Siege of Drumcree'. The picture of unionists chasing the RUC across fields was more reminiscent of old-style triumphalism than democratic citizenship and is difficult to square with the claim that unionism is essentially motivated by a desire to adhere to the liberal values enshrined within the British state.

Aughey's concern to differentiate between statehood and nationhood, illustrated in the following two statements, is motivated out of a desire to demonstrate that unionists are entitled to equal citizenship with the rest of the freedom-loving residents of the United Kingdom.


  • If the autonomous principle of the modern state is taken to be right (in the Hegelian sense), then the relevant political concept is neither religion nor nation but citizenship. The United Kingdom is a state which, being multi-national and multi-ethnic, can be understood in terms of citizenship and not substantive identity (which helps to account for the bandsman's muddle). . . . The imperial notion of 'civus Britannicus sum' has transformed itself into the democratic ideal of different nations, different religions and different colours, all equal citizens under the one government. It is to this notion that intelligent unionism, which embraces both protestants and catholics, owes allegiance. . . . The character of unionism must be understood in terms of this idea of citizenship; and the longer that protestant unionists and catholic nationalists are denied local state power, the more important it becomes as a universal organising political value.[119]


    . . . nationality assumptions and notions of loyalty based upon them rather confuse the motivation of unionist politics. . . . unionism is concerned primarily with the quality of citizenship within the Union; it is nationalists who are agitated by ideas of nationhood and its extent. The political cohesion of the United Kingdom - its 'identity' if you like - cannot lie in loyalty to the nation. There is no British nation; there are only British citizens. Loyalty, if it means anything, must mean loyalty to the idea of the Union: the willing community of peoples united not by creed, colour or ethnicity but by recognition of the authority of that Union. [120]

Whether or not Aughey's various hypotheses carry any validity (his explanation of the unionist identity crisis, denial of the peculiarities of unionist conditional loyalty, and differentiation of nation and state, are not totally convincing), the fact is that his thesis concerning the dynamics of unionist politics is not reflected in the political reality of Northern Ireland. Coulter arrives at a reasonable conclusion.


  • The essential shortcoming of Aughey's account derives from his provision of an abstract and idealised characterisation of unionism that fails to take on board the realities of unionist motivation and political practice. While the political aspirations of many unionists may very well stem from their adherence to abstract ideals of citizenship, they are also motivated by substantive identities such as nationality and ethnicity Anyone who has ever witnessed an Orange parade or engaged flesh and blood unionists in conversation regarding their political beliefs could hardly draw a different conclusion. . . . The abstract and idealised interpretation of unionism provided by Arthur Aughey is indicative of an inconsistency in his approach that bespeaks an ideological prejudice.[121]

As Coulter rightly points out, whilst Aughey's unionism may be more about equal citizenship within the UK than the preservation of some cultural heritage, this could not be said of many others within the unionist community. For them, intangible concepts such as 'citizenship' are of secondary importance to the preservation of their cultural heritage and religion. The Republic of Ireland, for example, believes in the pantheon of western liberalism, in citizenship and natural justice, as much as does Britain (for example, its single transferable vote electoral system is more democratic in terms of the correlation between votes cast and seats won than its British counterpart). Yet some unionists are violently opposed to joining it and this is not simply as a result of the 1937 constitution and failed efforts to reform it. The political allegiance of unionism to Britain is not, therefore, solely based upon a desire to live in a western democracy (when given the opportunity from 1921 to 1972 unionists built a political system which was anathema to modern liberal-democratic theory) but is founded variously upon a wide range of assumptions, from being the best means of preserving their cultural distinctiveness from the rest of Ireland to being the optimal strategy for maintaining the region's economic prosperity.

Aughey defines his own unionism as if it is representative of the ideology as a whole. It is not. It may be a vision of unionism, it may be a more effective or legitimate expression of unionism, but it is not the reality of present experience. The majority of unionists are concerned about their identity, their culture, their religion, and their history, as of course are nationalists. They are not concerned with fitting into the multicultural multiracial Britain of the late twentieth century. It is not sufficient to condemn the majority of such unionists as ideological interlopers who merely hijacked unionism for their own ends. It is too trite to suggest that the devolution experiment which lasted from the beginning of the state until 1972 was '. . . not a victory for unionism., it was a victory for unionists'.[122] In other words it was led by a small group of sectional interests unable to take the longer view, aided and abetted by successive British governments.

More recently Aughey has shown signs of a more considered, less dogmatic, approach, although he comes to similar conclusions.


  • It may be countered that the interpretation so far is a one-sided view and does not do full justice to the character of unionism; that it ignores a deep current of political thought which places more emphasis upon an 'Ulster identity' than upon British citizenship; and that this current of thought is indeed separatist, is concerned to attain an explicit form of self-determination even to the extent of going for independence. Of course that current does exist and finds expression in a number of popular ways from bar bravado to the waving of Ulster flags. And there is no doubt that it is a legacy of 50 years of unionist government at Stormont. [123]

As this chapter has sought to indicate, there is a significant degree of 'doubt' that separatist sentiment within the unionist community was simply the product of the Government of Ireland Act and the Stormont administration. This strain in unionism, which Aughey rightly identifies, can be traced much further back than 1920. The Orange Order, for instance, was established long before Northern Ireland came into existence and it was not set up to lobby for liberal-democratic constitutional reform, or as a sister organisation to anything on the British 'mainland'. The nearest corollary in fact to the Orange Order in Britain would be the Freemasons, hardly an example of the British liberal-democratic polity much alluded to by the equal citizenship lobby. Similarly, the political by-product of evangelical Protestantism in the nineteenth century was separatist. The Great Revival of the 1850s fostered the notion that Ulster Presbyterians were a distinct community from both Catholic Ireland and Anglican Britain, a notion which, as we have already seen in this chapter, still prevails today.

John Whyte summed up the weakness of Aughey's critique and the equal citizenship case as a whole with his comment that the communal tensions in Northern Ireland transcend political institutions such as the party structure, and lie rather in the unique cocktail of its history.


  • The argument that the main difference between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom lies in their party systems is not convincing. Nowhere else in the United Kingdom are communal tensions remotely so severe as they are in Northern Ireland. Nowhere else does one find the lethal mixture of a large minority with a well-founded and deeply felt sense of grievance, and a narrow majority with justifiable anxieties about what the future may hold. There are nationalists in Scotland and Wales, but they do not display the bitter sense of injustice felt by nationalists in Northern Ireland and, apart from a tiny fringe, they do not resort to violence. There are racial tensions in some English cities, but these do not call into question the nature of the State. The truth is that Northern Ireland is different, and the notion that special institutions are required to meet the contending needs and aspirations of its two communities is reasonable. [124]

A similar line to Aughey has been taken by Patrick Roche and Brian Barton, who suggest that unionism has been maligned by the devious agenda of nationalist ideologues. They condemn Joe Lee's study (Ireland 1912-1985) as a one-dimensional analysis which fails to understand the wider complexities of the ideology.


  • Lee's perception of Ulster unionism is rooted in the most offensive of nationalist stereotypes: unionism is the political expression of nothing more commendable than a 'racial imperative'. Lee's book is an example of a failure to liberate the understanding of unionism and the politics of Northern Ireland from nationalist mythology and stereotype. [125]

Roche and Barton seek to redress what they regard as an imbalance in Irish historiography in favour of the nationalist critique. 'Nationalist ideologues have propagated, with virtual complete success since the late 1960s, an image of Northern Ireland as a "failed political entity".[126] The problem with this analysis is that it suffers from the very disease it ascribes to nationalist commentaries. The Roche and Barton critique is littered with phrases such as 'the nationalist argument' and the 'nationalist story', as if there was simply one monolithic perspective articulated by Irish nationalists. Indeed after one such sweep of their broad ideological brush, concerning the rationale of discrimination during the 1920-72 period, they commented that 'according to the nationalist story' discrimination was a conspiracy to subjugate Catholics, and promptly juxtaposed this with the views of Michael Farrell on the subject. While Farrell's contribution to an understanding of the Stormont period should not be underestimated, it would be fair to say that he occupies one particular strand of Irish nationalist opinion. Roche and Barton attempt to refute Farrell's analysis by suggesting that allegations of discrimination have been grossly exaggerated by nationalist historians. They cite the comment of the pro-Union economist Tom Wilson that because no one complained about discrimination the level cannot have been as high as 'the nationalist story' has subsequently alleged.


  • In 1970 the Stormont Government appointed a Commissioner of Complaints and it might have been expected that a large number of complaints about discrimination in housing would have been brought before him. . . . There was only one case in which discrimination was alleged. If discrimination had been as widespread as persistent republican propaganda has led so many people in Britain and the Irish Republic to believe, it is inconceivable that only a single case would have been brought before him.[127]

This is clearly an absurd argument to propagate. Could the same criteria be used to argue that, as nationalists made little use of the Police Complaints Board, little opposition existed within the Catholic community towards the security forces? The existence of institutional structures such as a housing ombudsman is not of itself going to provide reliable empirical evidence with which we can accurately determine the extent of discrimination during the Stormont regime. It could be argued, for example, that the low level of complaints from the Catholic community over housing allocation cited by Wilson demonstrates that alienation amongst the minority community had reached such a level that they had lost all faith in the system and were not even availing of the opportunities which did exist to air their grievances.

Notwithstanding the claims of Wilson, Roche and Barton, and Arthur Aughey that unionism has been falsely ascribed an identity crisis by nationalist historians, this is a conspiracy theory which holds little credibility. It is clear that politico-cultural identity within unionism is diverse to the point that it defies categorisation. There is a crisis of identity within the ideology, derived from the historical inheritance of unionism and the overriding sense of insecurity which this experience has engendered. The existence of an antagonistic state on the other part of the island (at times imagined, at times real) has been gradually accompanied by hostility to the unionist cause within the country to which unionists express an allegiance and from the rest of the world.

As this chapter has sought to demonstrate, the desire for unity fashioned from such insecurity constantly precluded progressive political behaviour, as the complex assortment of diverse interest groups and individuals which existed under the ideological canopy of unionism were unable to develop a coherent political programme. The fact is that the Union means different things to different people. Whilst one unionist may regard it, in accordance with Miller's characterisation, as a contract with Britain to protect the religio-cultural heritage of Ulster Protestantism, another might see it as simply another region of the United Kingdom, separated merely by geography and the unwillingness of successive British governments to incorporate what Wilfred Spender termed 'North West Britain' into the rest of the kingdom. These different perceptions of cultural identity had obvious political consequences, resulting in conflicting notions about where unionism should be going, and how its political strategy should develop. The lack of cultural homogeneity, when combined with the self-imposed structural partition within unionism and the conflict which accompanies the idiosyncrasies of human nature, led to intellectual incoherence and political stagnation. The next chapter will demonstrate the way in which the diversity of cultural identities in the unionist community has been reflected in diverging political analyses and conflicting political strategies within the ideology.

Notes

[1] S. Nelson, Ulster's Uncertain Defenders: Protestant Paramilitary and Community Groups and the Northern Ireland Conflict (Belfast, 1984), p. 9.
[2] J. Todd, 'Two Traditions in Unionist Political Culture', Irish Political Studies, 2 (1987), pp. 1-26.
[3] Michael McGimpsey, interview vith author, 16 October 1991.
[4] J. Todd, 'The Limits of Britishness', The Irish Review, 5 (1988).
[5] J. W. Foster (ed.), The Idea of the Union (Vancouver, 1995), p. 59.
[6] J. McGarry and B. O'Leary, Explaining Northern Ireland: Broken Images (Oxford, 1995), p. 121.
[7] David Ervine, interview with author, 20 November 1995.
[8] McGarry and O'Leary, Explaining Northern Ireland, p. 121.
[9] F. S. L. Lyons, Culture and Anarchy in Ireland 1890-1939 (Oxford, 1982), p. 134.
[10] McGarry and O'Leary, Explaining Northern Ireland, pp. 111-12.
[11] Garret FitzGerald, interview with author, 8 April 1992.
[12] Rev. Martin Smyth, interview with author, 22 November 1991.
[13] D. Armstrong and Hilary Saunders, A Road Too Wide (Basingstoke, 1985), p. 83.
[14] Clifford Smyth, A Protestant Pilgrimage (Ulster Television, 1989)
[15] E. Moloney and A. Pollak, Paisley (Dublin, 1986), p. 272.
[16] Rev. Ian Paisley, The History-Makers (BBC Radio Ulster, 22 January 1989).
[17] Michael McGimpsey, interview with author, 16 October 1991.
[18] John Taylor, interview with author, 30 September 1991.
[19] E. Moxon-Browne, Nation Class and Greed in Northern Ireland (Aldershot, 1983), p. 8.
[20] Nigel Dodds, interview with author, 2 December 1991.
[21] Billy Hutchirison, interview with author, 20 November 1995.
[22] Moloney and Pollak, Paisley, p. 271.
[23] ibid., p. 295.
[24] ibid., p. 290.
[25] Ian Paisley jnr, interview with author, 9 November 1995.
[26] Moloney and Pollak, Paisley, p. 293.
[27] She reportedly resigned from the Free Presbyterian Church at the beginning of the 1990s to the dismay of her father. Daily Express, 3 February 1992.
[28] ibid.
[29] L. Edgerton,'Public Protest, Domestic Acquiescence: Women in Northern Ireland', in R. Ridd and H. Callaway (eds.), Caught up in the Conflict: Women's Responses to Political Strife (London, 1986), p. 61.
[30] The Brook Clinic provides a range of family planning services and sex education for young people in Northern Ireland.
[31] Talk by lnez McCormack to Boston Public Library Symposium on Irish Women, 9 March 1993, quoted in 'Women in Northern Ireland' by C. B. Shannon in Chattel, Servant or Citizen: Women's Status in Church, State and Society, ed. by M. O'Dowd and S. Wichert (Belfast, 1995), p. 250.
[32] 'In the 1993 local government elections [in Northern Ireland] women constituted 14% of Official Unionist and 10% of Democratic Unionist candidates. These percentages are comparable to the ratio of women candidates for the SDLP which had 16% and Sinn Fein 11.5%. The latter figure was down 4% from 1989, undoubtedly a result of the frequency of assassination attempts on Sinn Fein councillors in recent years.' ibid., p. 249.
[33] Moloney and Poilak, Paisley, p. 36.
[34] Shannon,'Women in Northern Ireland' p. 250.
[35] M. McWilliams, 'Strategy for Peace and justice: Reflections on Women's Activism in Northern Ireland', Journal of Women's History, Vol. 6, No. 4/Vol. 7, No. I (Winter/Spring 1995), p. 30.
[36] Irish Times, 22 September 1995.
[37] ibid.
[38] The 30 May elections were to a forum which would then send delegates to all-party talks (including Sinn Fein in the event of a renewed IRA ceasefire). The electoral system was a hybrid between the normal single transferable vote form of proportional representation and a variant of the list system. One key advantage of the 30 May election from the point of view of smaller parties such as the Women's Coalition was that no deposits had to be paid in order to stand in the election and thus the exercise was not a severe financial burden on those likely to lose deposits in several constituencies.
[39] Sammy Wilson, interview with author, 20 November 1991.
[40] Rev. Ivan Foster, Talkback (BBC Radio Ulster, 10 February 1989).
[41] ibid.
[42] ibid.
[43] Clifford Smyth 'The Ulster Democratic Unionist Party: A Case Study in Religious Convergence' (PhD thesis, Queen's University, Belfast, 1983), p. 214.
[44] ibid., p. 214.
[45] Moloney and Pollak, Paisley, p. 271.
[46] Ian Paisley Jnr, interview with author, 9 November 1995.
[47] ibid.
[48] Peter Robinson, interview with author, 8 November 1995.
[49] Gary McMichael, interview with author, 22 November 1995.
[50] ibid.
[51] David Ervine, interview with author, 20 November 1995.
[52] Billy Hutchinson, interview with author, 20 November 1995.
[53] David Ervine, interview with author, 20 November 1995.
[54] ibid.
[55] ibid.
[56] Peter Robinson, interview with author, 8 November 1995,
[57] Rev. Ian Paisley, in J. Loughlin, Ulster Unionism and British National Identity Since 1885 (London and New York, 1995), p. 217.
[58] For God and Ulster? Protestant Voices from the North (RTE Television, May 1996)
[59] S. Bruce, Fortnight, No. 242 July-September 1986), p. 6.
[60] S. Bruce, God Save Ulster! The Religion and Politics of Paisleyism (Oxford, 1986), p. 57.
[61] C. Coulter, 'The Character of Unionism', Irish Political Studies, 9 (1994), p. 7.
[62] McGarry and O'Leary, Explaining Northern Ireland, p. 197.
[63] ibid., pp. 200-1.
[64] Bruce, God Save Ulster!, p. 249.
[65] S. Bruce, The Edge of the Union: The Ulster Loyalist Political Vision (Oxford, 1994), p. 22
[66] ibid., p. 25.
[67] ibid., p. 30.
[68] P. Stringer and G. Robinson (eds.), Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland 1990-1991 (Belfast, 1991), p. 25. See also McGarry and O'Leary, Explaining Northern Ireland, p. 110, Table 3.3.
[69] Bruce, Edge of the Union, p. 159.
[70] Nelson, Ulster's Uncertain Defenders, p. 25
[71] Ulster Vanguard was originally set up on 9 February 1972 by the former Stormont Minister for Home Affairs William Craig as a right-wing militant pressure group within the Unionist Party. On 18 March 1972 Craig led a rally in Belfast's Ormeau Park attended by 60,000 supporters where he talked of 'liquidating the enemies of Ulster and threatened a unilateral declaration of independence from Great Britain. Essentially this was a quasi-fascist movement with Craig assuming the role Oswald Mosely occupied within the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s.
[72] Smyth, 'Democratic Unionist Party', p. 7 1.
[73] The Ulster Clubs were set up by radical unionists in the rural areas of Northern Ireland after the signing of the Anglo-lrish Agreement in November 1985. This was an attempt to provide both organisation and muscle to the unionist campaign against the initiative. In their conscious mimicry of the Ulster Clubs established by Sir Edward Carson in the fight against Home Rule at the beginning of the twentieth century, they represented a classic example of unionism's tendency to look back to victories of the past in order to deal with crises of the present. They openly admitted their intention to engage in violence as a means of achieving their political objectives and their slogan was 'hoping for the best but preparing for the worst'. Northern Ireland's independent political review Fortnight magazine carried a profile of the Ulster Clubs' Chairman and leading activist Alan Wright under the headline 'Is this man bluffing?' it turned out that he was - he later left active politics and went to Bible college.
[74] David Trimble, interview with author, 3 October 1991.
[75] ibid.
[76] Dr John Alderdice, interview with author, 7 February 1996.
[77] ibid.
[78] ibid.
[79] D. Miller, Queen's Rebels: Ulster Loyalism in Historical Perspective (Dublin and New York, 1978).
[80] ibid., p. 1,
[81] ibid., p. 12.
[82] ibid., p. 5.
[83] ibid., p. 23.
[84] Bruce, God Save Ulster!, p. 25 1.
[85] P. Arthur and K. Jeffery, Northern Ireland Since 1968 (Oxford, 1988).
[86] ibid., p. 46.
[87] John Taylor, interview with author, 30 September 1991.
[88] Garret FitzGerald, interview with author, 8 April 1992.
[89] David Trimble, interview with author, 3 October 1991.
[90] ibid.
[91] Miller, Queen's Rebels, p. 102.
[92] Rev. Ian Paisley in Protestant Telegraph, 19 March-1 April 1977, in ibid., p. 6.
[93] Ian Paisley Jnr, interview with author, 9 November 1995.
[94] Sammy Wilson, interview with author, 20 November 1991.
[95] Miller, Queen's Rebels, p. 46.
[96] ibid., p. 103.
[97] T. Hennessey, 'Ulster unionist territorial and national identities 1886-1893: Province, island, Kingdom and empire', Irish Political Studies, 8 (1993), pp. 29-30.
[98] Coulter, 'Character of Unionism', p. 3.
[99] ibid.
[100] A. Aughey, Under Siege: Ulster Unionism and the Anglo-lrish Agreement (Belfast, 1989), p. 20.
[101] ibid., p. 23.
[102] See also Coulter,'Character of Unionism', p. 5.
[103] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Ch. 2 1, p. 14.
[104] Aughey, Under Siege, p. 23.
[105] Enoch Powell, The History-Makers (BBC Radio Ulster, 5 February 1989).
[106] David Trimble, interview with author, 3 October 1991.
[107] ibid.
[108] T. Brown, The Whole Protestant Community: The Making of a Historical Myth (Derry, Field Day Pamphlet No. 7, 1985), p. 8.
[109] Aughey, Under Siege, p. 14.
[110] Garret FitzGerald, interview with author, 8 April 1992.
[111] John Taylor in David Miller, Queen's Rebels, p. 3.
[112] Nelson, Ulster's Uncertain Defenders, p. 96.
[113] Aughey, Under Siege, p. 15.
[114] ibid., p. 16.
[115] ibid., p. 18.
[116] ibid.
[117] Loughlin, Ulster Unionism and British National Identity, p. 221.
[118] R. Emmerson, From Empire to Nation: The Rise to Self-Assertion of Asian and African Peoples (Cambridge, Mass,, 1960), p. 96, in Miller, Queen's Rebels, p. 44.
[119] Aughey, Under Siege, p. 19.
[120] ibid. p, 24. Yes, but for many it only retained such authority for so long as the monarch remained Protestant and the state preserved the cultural ethos of Ulster unionism. Witness the comment in Anglo-Irish Betrayal: What Hope Now For Loyal Ulster: 'It must be stated quite clearly and unambiguously that Ulster's Loyalty is primarily to her Protestant Faith and to her Queen (and in that order!).'
[121] Coulter, 'Character of Unionism', p. 16.
[122] Aughey, Under Siege, p. 19.
[123] A. Aughey, 'Unionism and Self-Determination', in P. Roche and B. Barren (eds.), The Northern Ireland Question: Myth and Reality (Aldershot, 1991), pp. 11-12; reprinted in Foster (ed.), The Idea of the Union, p. 16.
[124] J. Whyte, Interpreting Northern Ireland (Oxford, 199 1), p. 2 19.
[125] Roche and Barton (eds.), The Northern Ireland Question, p. vii, referring to J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985 (Cambridge, 1989).
[126] ibid., p. 8.
[127] T. Wilson, Ulster: Conflict and Consent (Oxford, 1989), p. 130, in ibid., p. x.


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