2007 - 2022

What We Talk About When We Talk About Ulster

YES March & Rally for Scottish Independence. Image by Ivon BartPity poor Ulster. The good name of the historic province of north-east Ireland has had a pretty raw deal of it over the years.

‘Ulster’ is frequently used as a synonym for the political construct of Northern Ireland. (It’s not, as anyone from Cavan, Monaghan or Donegal will attest.)

The province’s symbol – the striking Red Hand of Ulster – has been pilfered from Irish mythology by loyalist paramilitaries who splash it across murals of gun totting hooded men on Belfast gable ends.

All too often, too, ‘Ulster’ is a shorthand for atavistic violence, bitterness and division. A toxic politics where ethnicity trumps all else.

So I was both surprised and disquieted to hear “Ulsterisation” being used to talk about Scottish politics this week.

“Ulsterisation” – a term which, grimly, was actually coined in the 1970s to refer to the British Government policy of relying on Ulster regiments as Northern Ireland descended into violence – is supposed to mean that Scotland is now divided along constitutional lines.

“Look! They have nationalists. We have nationalists. They unionists. We have unionists.” Throw a Saltire around Gerry Adam’s shoulders and he could be standing on an SNP ticket in Invercylde. (That Ruth Davidson would need to remain in the closet if she were to wear the Democratic Unionist red, white and blue should have given commentators a clue to the limits of this school of analysis…)

“Ulsterisation is now complete” Herald columnist David Torrance declared in the wake of last week’s Scottish Parliament elections. Torrance’s piece made a perfectly reasonable point: Scottish politics has become unmoored from the rest of the UK, as Northern Ireland’s has been for decades; in Scotland, the constitution is king. It has become, he argued, “Ulsterised”

But ‘Ulsterisation’ as a concept does not work, on a number of levels.

First, as others quickly pointed out, comparing post-referendum Scottish politics to a society still scarred by more than three decades of violence that cost more than 3,000 lives is at best unhelpful, at worst offensive.

In Scotland, political differences are settled by the ballot box, never the Armalite.

Northern Ireland is a brittle post-conflict polity. Dissident republicans target security forces. Loyalist paramilitaries are still recruiting new members, according to the latest report by the International Monitoring Commission (an international body hastily reinstated last year after the IRA was involved in murdering a former member).

And in Scotland? An egg thrown at Jim Murphy two years ago, and endless screen grabs of intemperate numpties on Twitter.

Defenders of the idea of ‘Ulsterisation’ as applied to Scotland – in many cases people with little or no first hand knowledge of life on the other side of the Sea of Moyle – counter that it refers not to violence but to the primacy of constitutional politics. Surely, it is self evident that both Northern Ireland and Scotland are divided pretty much down the middle by nationalism and unionism?

Well, no actually.

“Ulsterisation” presupposes that political identify is structured the same way in Northern Ireland and Scotland. It isn’t.

We might use the same terms – “nationalist”, “unionist” – but they mean different things.

In Northern Ireland, less than one in five are currently in favour of Irish unification. That figure includes many ‘nationalists’ – but that does not make them any less nationalist in their eyes and, just as crucially, in the eyes of others.

Nationalist and unionist in Northern Ireland are about much more than an attitude to the future of the border. The terms are an ascription of group identity grounded in ethnicity and, often most importantly, physically bounded in space. Religion as practised may be a part of this for some, but not for most.

The stereotypical images of ‘Ulster’ – the painted kerbstones and flag festooned lampposts – speak to the dominance of territoriality in the construction of Northern Irish political identities.

Most people in Belfast live on streets that are 90% Catholic or Protestant. There is ‘republican’ Falls Road, and ‘loyalist’ Sandy Row. The ‘other’ side – implicitly and explicitly – are unwelcome.

Does this sound like Scotland?

Sure, ‘yes’ voters tend to be younger and from more working class areas, but that’s demographics not “Ulsterisation”. If there are 15 foot corrugated iron walls separating Airdrie and Coatbridge, I have missed them.

During the referendum some families were split down the middle on independence. This is practically impossible in Northern Ireland where political identity is a function of where you were born, not your confidence in the latest set of Gers figures.

Sure, “Ulsterisation” exists in Scotland. As a first generation Irishman living in the West of Scotland, I have experienced it first hand. (After a recent TV appearance one wag on Twitter advised me to “fuck off back home you potato muncher”).

This “Ulsterisation” is a product of the centuries-long migration from the north of Ireland. Protestants and Catholics alike found work in Scottish industries. They brought their sectarianism – their ‘Ulsterisation’ – with them, and it still flies from some flag poles in Bridgeton cross and the like.

But sectarianism is not the defining feature of Scottish life that it once was. And even in Northern Ireland there are signs that this “Ulsterisation” is on the wane.

In elections to the Northern Ireland assembly Thursday, over half of Northern Irish voters chose the DUP or Sinn Fein. But there were signs of nascent diversity. The left-wing People Before Profit won two seats, including in ‘republican’ West Belfast where Gerry Carroll topped the poll with almost a quarter of votes cast.

Let’s keep ‘Ulster’ for talking about rugby, the greasy fry-up, and some of the most beautiful countryside on these islands. But not for trying to understand contemporary Scottish politics.

Comments (31)

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  1. Redgauntlet says:

    Well said, Peter, a timely intervention, I quite agree.

    David Torrance is parochial and inward looking like most Scottish journos, and a shit-stirrer to boot, which is why he drew the mildly offensive comparison I guess.

    The obvious parallel to Scotland is Catalonia, where the Constitutional question is all consuming too, and where there has never been any bloodshed – in contrast to Euskadi/Basque Country, which in some respects at least, is comparable to the situation in the six counties.

  2. Thrawn says:

    When people talk anout Ulsterisation they aren’t saying people are going to start kneecapping people or bombing party conferences…they are saying the political conversation will no longer just be about what you think is best for the scottish people but on how your thoughts on that subject relate to your views on the constitution. So bluntly..are you a socialist first or a unionist…are you nationalist or a conservative…are you a Lib Dem or…well who cares.

    We are already seeing it in the vast outpouring of rage towards those who voted with their conscience for the Greens and RISE etc because in their view it cost the SNP a majority. We are also seeing it in Labour voters turning to the Tories to defeat the SNP. For me this is the corrosive effect nationalism can have on a national discourse…its us vs them…its the end justifies the means…its don’t betray your nation by having an opinion contrary to mine…thoroughly depressing really

    1. Dave says:

      But – ‘ vast outpouring of rage ‘ – don’t see it . A small number of bampots on line ? The SNP seems to be saying that unless there is in the future a clear desire for independence then so be it . In the meantime they are entitled to put forward arguments in favour of Scotland controlling its own affairs .
      There is evolutionary pressure for groups to form, and vilify ‘out groups’ but we know this and should rise above .

    2. Mr Anderson says:

      Your comment isn’t wrong if that is all you see, I voted snp/green a few people were miffed about the bothvotes plan not working out, but plenty voted like me. This wasn’t a vote for independence from my perspective, although Ruth Davidson and the media are obsessed about making every vote a parody of the referendum.

      Anyway the real issue here is ‘ulsterisation’ it is a loaded click bate term, we all know what it evokes you can’t just take the constitutional element from it and apply it to Scotland, without all the baggage.

      1. Thrawn says:

        I can honestly say that when I first read the term the idea that popped into my head was not sectarianism or violence but rather the binary nature of NI political discourse. But regardless of the term used (how about Basquisation, or Kurdistanisation, Chechnysing, or even ISISisation….sorry couldn’t resist…obviously joking) the question I believe Torrance was trying to highlight, is one that despite all the outrage no one has yet answered. Is it healthy for our political discourse to be about the constitution to the exclusion of everything else?

  3. c rober says:

    During indy I did see those with ROU tats voting Yes , however one just needs to see the Geroge SQ numpties , brigton etc to realise that there is some Ulsterisation of a level now appearing within politics , more so when you have and I qoute “we are over to send them a message” from the the walking bands on a dae oot.

    What is ironically missing from this missing link voter is that it is them and us in poltics , the elite and those that enable them. Irish unionists seem to think that they are held in high regard for being an English colony , they however are not , “spud muncher” , signs with “no Irish” , you are welcome as fodder , to crete and protect the wealth of your masters , but not much else.

    Specifically that representation has now jumped ship in their voting , from Slab Socialist to tory.

    Fortunately it is a minority , but Scotland already has ugly Scars from that minority , and not via poltics , which is shared with Ulster , so I would prefer that its the Ulsterisation of politics and not the other option reappearing , both over the water and in Scotland.

  4. Jacob1972 says:

    Well said Peter. I hope you’ve made your views clearly and forthrightly to those (all pro-Tory) journalists who have made this lazy and unhelpful comparison.

    1. J Galt says:

      Well some of us “SNP all our life never voted Tory” people think they might have a point as well.

      It is acknowledged that Scottish Politics is breaking from the English/Ruk model and somewhat generally, though of course not in detail, starting to resemble conditions in NI.

      Observation of this should not be confused with wishing it to happen. Our responsibility, on all sides is to make sure the worst aspects of Northern Irish politics do not occur here.

  5. Edwin Moore says:

    ‘‘Ulster’ is frequently used as a synonym for the political construct of Northern Ireland. (It’s not, as anyone from Cavan, Monaghan or Donegal will attest.)’

    Well that Ulster is itself a ‘political construct’ – shaped in Elizabethan era

  6. LesRoches says:

    When I read this crap this morning, I wondered what planet the so called journalist was on. Project fear is alive and well. It just goes to show how worried some people are. It is clear the constitutional question still remains and Mr Hosie’s job is to convince with facts and not with a pistol. Further talk of Ulster is a disgrace as both they and Scotland moved on long ago. I think it is time the media evolved as well.

  7. Tony Rozga says:

    Thanks, an interesting article.

  8. Gashty McGonnard says:

    Methinks Mr Torrance’s talk of Ulster is more in hope than in observation. Nothing would cement the Union firmer, he imagines, than internecine spleen among the Northern Savages, which only the Pax Britannica might assuage.

    Torrance is ontae plums. We will not become polarised and entrenched over the constitution. We will not ditch the constitutional questions for fear of causing offence. We will move forward with popular sovereignty in one hand and the common weal of bread and butter issues in the other.

    Divide ‘n’ Rule Imperialism is a busted flush, we’ve seen it all before. Must try harder, Mr T.

    1. Thrawn says:

      “We will not become polarised and entrenched over the constitution”

      Well I would say, from the rest of your comment, at least for you, the opposite is true…or tell me what policy provision of a unionist party could make you vote for it over the SNP?

      1. Gashty McGonnard says:

        You wot??? Which part of my comment would make it impossible for me to ever vote for a unionist party?

        Can a unionist party never support popular sovereignty? (eg, say if Labour proposed an elected monarchy or a republic for the UK)

        Can a unionist party never support the common good? (eg, say if Labour reintroduced Clause 4)

        Can a unionist party never oppose imperialism? (eg, say if some anti-imperialist Little-UKer party arose)

        If you think my comment precludes ever voting unionist – you must be assuming that the UK is intrinsically autocratic, elitist and imperialistic, and can never be otherwise.

        In any case, it’s more than possible for civil society to be divided over the constitution for a lengthy period, without ever becoming entrenched in the Falls/Shankill kind of way that Torrance invokes.

  9. Jim Monaghan says:

    I have to strongly disagree with most of this, as someone with direct experience of both communities in Northern Ireland. There is no difference between the terms nationalist and unionist here and there. Perhaps the author is thinking of other terms such as “loyalist” or “republican” that he mentions when describing one part of one town. The division between nationalists and unionists is only about whether you believe NI should be part of Britain or part of Ireland (independent). I know ‘unionists’ who were born on the other side of the fence in the picture that the author paints of how NI is didvided. I also know several ‘nationalists’ born on the ‘unionist’ side.

    While I think that David Torrance’s use of the term Ulsterisation was perhaps wrong, his main point is true. In fact, you only need to go to the Bella Caledonia Facebook page to see that, to many people including many voters, we are dividing political opinion on the issue of whether Scotland should be part of the UK or not.

    We spent months discussing how to maximise the nationalist vote rather than what was in the party manifestos. We now see people talk about the SNP doing a deal with the Greens, simply because they are seen as being on the YES or nationalist side. Its clear that the other parties in the parliament have far more in common with the SNP than the Greens, apart from the one question that, whether we like it or not, is defining our political discourse in this country.

    Labour tried to fight an election outside of that divide, based on their policies versus the incumbent Government’s policies. They were sidelined. The tories realised the mood and fought the referendum battle again, they were in the middle of things, not sidelined.

    Meanwhile, across the water, the success of People Before Profit was a long time coming. People in NI who operate outside of the Nationalist/Unionist divide, are usually sidelined, it has taken Eamon McCann nearly 50 years to have a succesful election campaign.

    Torrance’s piece is not suggesting we are going to throwing pipe bombs and building peace walls, any reaction to his opinion based on that will be over the top.

    I am not the only person who is finding it difficult to discuss any political issue outside of this frame.

    There is no concensus among unionist parties over anything other than the constitutional question, there is no concensus among pro-indy parties other than on that question. Yet we constantly lump parties together based on that one single issue, rather than their polices for a Scottish Parliament.

    Sometimes I find that we on the pro-indy side are too ready to reject and attack any opinion that makes us stop and think about where politics is in this country. We should be, if the asessment of political engagement in 2014 is correct, seeing RISE and other groups flourish in the mood of anti-establishment and anti-austerity. But they lost out largely, in my opinion, because people were taking decisions on how to maximise a nationalist vote or minimise a unionist vote.

    It IS a problem, by all means find a different term for it, but I think that by focussing on the use of the term ‘Ulsterisation’ we ignore Torrance’s point. The author has answered the things that Torrance wasnt saying, he wasnt comparing Scotland’s divisions to the violence in NI, he was talkign about votes in elections.

    1. But there’ difference Jim between acknowledging that the ‘national question’ is dominant and suggesting that we live in a culture that is similar to Ulster. We don’t. Not remotely. Torrance was deliberately smearing and distorting the political landscape.

      1. Thrawn says:

        Surely the fact that the “national question” is so overwhelmingly dominant is bad enough as myself and the above commenter are suggesting. The fact that no policy decision can be made without filtering it first through your stand on the constitution cannot be healthy. The fact that you and this site were vehemently criticised for advocating independence but in a flavour different to the vanilla SNP surely shows this

        You can summon up all the faux outrage at the term used (personally I am thankfully young enough for the troubles to be a distant memory so for me the term had nothing but political connotations) but for me if you changed it to Quebecoisation, or Cataloniasation or whatever, the basic principle that Scotland is becoming a nation where identity is more important that ideology is undeniable and depressing

    2. Frank says:

      Jim you are absolutely right, the national question is the dividing line in Scottish politics which means that for the foreseeable future the devolutionists will be on the sidelines. I just don’t see how their is anyway back for Scottish Labour and the fact that the SNP, who are in government for the best part of a decade can still win landslides reflects the dominance of the constitutional question over everything else. What strikes me is just how nationalistic the left has become. The biggest demand for a second referendum came from Rise and Solidarity, with Sheridan and his hyper-nationalistic party looking more and more like a left wing version of UKIP.

      1. Valerie says:

        If some folk find this ‘constitutional question’ depressing, they need to get out more, or widen their breadth of reading.

        There is more than ample discussion of government policy every single day. The fact that it may be filtered through the lenses of independence is because it is usually relevant to the discussion, because so much is dependant on power or economics.

        It’s wrong and naive to think Indy supporters are determined to free their country for the sake of it. The vast majority have done their research, and continue to update their knowledge on the overwhelming economic case for independence.

        Then there is the very straightforward reason of not being constrained, ruled and ridiculed by a corrupt elite based London.

        1. Frank says:

          Yes, but we also need to be reflexive and understand the times that we are situated in. That’s how I interpreted Jim’s comments.

        2. Thrawn says:

          Congratulations for confirming your monomania….please forgive the rest of us (you know the 55% who voted No) for not wanting to share it.

          As for your suggestion that your desire for independence is based on a cold rational evaluation of the economic benefits then I take it you accept the at least theoretical possibility that that evaluation might point to retaining the union

          1. Frank says:

            Assuming that people make political decisions on the basis of a rational cost benefit analysis then if you are reasonably well off then it made sense to vote no in favour of the status quo. The worrying thing for the future of unionism is that the number of people, especially the young, who are not able to benefit from neoliberalism are increasing and as the middle class in Scotland shrinks support for independence will increase.

  10. Scav says:

    Hear hear. There are divisions of opinion in the broader Yes movement: between impatient socialists and gradualist social democrats, left-libertarian idealist greens and probably a few centre-right small-c conservative libertarians too.

    But none of those who will shape the movement are in this for ethnic identity politics. We’re the People of Scotland, not–as many who should know better keep saying–the “Scots”. And the central issue has always been democracy.

    Sure, Nicola Sturgeon’s government will only call the referendum when we can win it. Unionist commentators make a big show of incredulity, try to paint this as cynicism. But waiting until enough people actually *want* a change is hardly cheating: it’s respecting the result of the first referendum in a way that Westminster government has completely failed to respect the result of the general election.

    There’s an absolutely unacceptable status quo which cannot stand indefinitely. This year or 2021, gradually via federalism or by a quick and amicable divorce, Scotland will become independent by only democratic means.

  11. Blair paterson says:

    When are we going to know when a majority of people want independence are we to go by the unionists polls or that font of all knowledge curtice we will never know to me this is just an s.n.p. Fudge do what you were founded to do get Scotland free don’t pussy about waiting for what you consider the right time the time is now

    1. Thrawn says:

      Other than yet more manufactured outrage, the main premise of Paul Kavanagh’s article is that Scotland is not like Ulster because Scottish Unionism is “weak, fragile, and highly conditional”. The implicit corollary of that is that Nationalism strong, robust and unconditional. Or in other words us Unionist’s are too stupid, too cowardly or too greedy to support the virtuous SNP in their noble quest to save us from ourselves.

      I’m sorry but if i needed any more evidence that Scottish political discourse was becoming more and more polarised along constitutional issues then this article has amply provided it

  12. Steve says:

    IIRC, Ulsterisation meant an attempt by HMG to contain the conflict and keep it away from “the mainland”. But it’s pretty clear that Torrance means Scottish politics is firmly binary along Yes/No lines, and that was cemented last week. He is right for the moment.

  13. Scott Cameron says:

    Torrance and Kerr’s infantile hyperbole is unadulterated click bait. Time and time again they, plus Massie, Cochrane, Hjul etc. love to propogate the post indy-ref civil war myth, which would vindicate their ramblings. In fact, i’m sure they’d love some form of direct action to take place so they could say ” I told you so”. Torrance’s dummy was well thrown out of his pram when his vernacular was called into question by a current stablemate. Surprised he wasn’t blocked which is his response when anyone retorts with even the slightest erudite response. It’s just a pity that we’repending so much time dissecting the lowest common denominator.

  14. Pogliaghi says:

    When the Orange Order marched past my flat in Ibrox the day succeeding the Indyref in all their full-on chauvinistic pomp I certainly felt like I was experiencing “Ulsterization”. However, I don’t hate Rangers, or the Orange Order specifically. I hate the phenomenon of the lumpenproletariat Marx identified over a century ago. And in this sense as, as a quasi-Celtic country weighed down by the political boat-anchor of a manipulated lumpen-proletariat I think we really are experiencing “Ulsterization”; but not solely with respect to nationalist politics.

    1. Gashty McGonnard says:

      The West of Scotland has been ‘Ulsterised’ in one sense for over 150 years. A huge proportion of the Clyde Basin’s population has roots in the North of Ireland, for better or worse.

      Rather than worrying about polarisation of mainstream politics, we should be asking why the Nth generation descendants of Ulster migrants are still over-represented in the ‘lumpenproletariat’, as you say. Why do people with identifiably Irish surnames still have poorer health outcomes than the general population, and why are they more likely to do prison time? Why are people from our most deprived areas still interested in the politics and religious traditions of another place, while being utterly apathetic about Scottish politics? What really stops working class people with an Orange or Green identity from integrating fully into Scottish society?

      Political manipulation has no doubt played its part. But economic and social alienation is complex – we won’t solve it by making pariahs of anyone.

  15. Angus MacCuish says:

    Scottish politics has become polarised and will increasingly become so.

    I have absolute faith (baring dirty tricks by uk secret services), that those seeking independence will continue on a peaceful democratic path. Yes there will be the odd fool who makes an intemperate remark. In a democracy that happens, but consider the pains the SNP has gone through to counter, rebuke and overcome the anti English label the press used to tar us with.

    Conversely I have no faith that the hard core unionists fringe will honour democracy, they’ll take their lead from westminster, who lie, smear and bomb when they don’t get their way.

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