What We Talk About When We Talk About Ulster
‘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.