Unionist rage against the dying of the light offers nothing new

The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland, edited by John Wilson Foster and William Beattie Smith, Blackstaff Press, £12.99.

‘Who is speaking for the Union?’ Not enough people, and with insufficient rigour, according to a group of Northern Irish Unionist luminaries who are irked that ‘Irish separatist nationalism’ has had ‘a fair innings’ in recent years at their expense.

‘The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ is supposed to be their antidote, promising to be a ‘manifesto in favour of the constitutional link’ as well as a ‘handbook of arguments…against Northern Ireland’s severance from Great Britain.’ Telling, perhaps, that contributors including two former leaders of the Ulster Unionist party in David Trimble and Mike Nesbitt, feel the need to produce a book defending Northern Ireland’s place in the Union, especially in the province’s centenary year.

‘Now it is time for reason and reality to go to bat,’ the book’s cover blurb states immodestly. If that is the aim, the contributors have been bowled for a duck. The mean-spiritedness, paranoia, and instinctive condescension that are all-too-familiar traits of Northern Irish political Unionism drip off every page.

You don’t have to wait long. By the end of the first paragraph of the first page in fact. The case for Irish unity ‘is being pushed by the media at the expense of any equivalent pro-Union argument,’ writes Kate Hoey, the former Labour MP turned Faragist Brexiteer who now hangs out with the DUP, in the foreword. Obviously, she provides not a shred of proof for such a sweeping generalisation. (Her 500-word contribution gives the boys some cover though. Out of 26 writers, just two are women).

There’s a lot of padding in the 422-pages (and some chapters are in fact reproduced from a 1995 iteration of a similar book). The most significant section is probably Trimble’s on the Northern Ireland Protocol, the agreement to avoid a post-Brexit hard border between Northern and southern Ireland by checking goods coming in from Britain at the ports, which has so vexed Unionists by creating a ‘border in the Irish Sea.’ This undermines the notion of ‘consent’ he argues; that there must not be any change to Northern Ireland’s status unless a majority wishes it.

The problem with this line of argument is that it has already been tested, with the high court previously ruling that the protocol is entirely constitutional and does not affect the Good Friday Agreement. Indeed, Unionists are caught in a trap of their own making, betwixt and between their insufferable hubris and strategic incompetence. Brexit – for which they campaigned so enthusiastically – has proven their undoing. Its slow, remorseless logic unpicks the Union.

Not to say that Unionism did not have underlying problems. Two, in fact, that that are not addressed in this book. The first is an essential lack of generosity. No attempt is made to appeal to non-Unionists by making a pragmatic argument for the constitutional status quo, based on mutual respect and “better the devil you know.” There is always a constituency of people willing to keep things the way they are for fear of something worse. But Unionists are pathologically incapable of seeing this. As The Idea of the Union…’ amply testifies, Unionist leaders are intent on making the same mistakes until the point when there is demonstrable demand for an Irish unity referendum.

The clever move would be to write-off past mistakes that saw Northern Ireland run as a corrupt, anti-Catholic, Unionist fief for the first fifty years of its existence. Make peace with modernity. Embrace power-sharing in a genuine way. Concede the point on cultural respect issues like an Irish language act. Create a consensus for inaction. It would help the Unionist argument immeasurably if they could stop looking and sounding like the nasty people.

This leads to their second flaw, a total absence of emotional intelligence. In Talleyrand’s famous phrase on the Bourbons, Unionists have forgotten nothing and learned nothing. There is little wisdom in this book, or atonement for past mistakes. The vibe is angry, insular, and reductive. Nationalists are accused of ‘lawfare,’ using Gramscian tactics to compel organisations to bend to their view of the world. The journalist Ann Marie Hourihone is quoted describing the Irish language as ‘the Nationalists weapon of choice.’ This is the tone throughout.

In a particularly sour passage, there is a complaint that a team of medical researchers from both sides of the border have a ‘declared aim’ to build an ‘all-Ireland research and treatment centre and practice in oncology, independent of Great Britain.’ This is supposed to be a bad thing. As is cross-border co-operation in responding to the Covid pandemic. This type of peevishness does occasionally abate, but only to make way for conspiracy theories.

United Irelanders’ efforts are ‘broad and venerable and its strategists are unsleeping.’ Irish Nationalists – peaceful and constitutional throughout the decades of the Troubles – are lumped in with Republicans as a common enemy. The Irish government ‘along with all the political parties in the Republic, energetically pursue the dismantling of the United Kingdom.’ Eh? Taoiseach, Micheál Martin has expressly ruled-out any prospect of border poll for the lifetime of the current Irish government.

We are told that the peaceful and entirely legitimate bid for Irish unity ‘harasses and unsettles Unionists, many of whom supported the Belfast Agreement because they were told it would achieve stability for generations to come.’ The belief that there should be a permanent veto over constitutional change they do not like pervades the book. It serves to lay bare the existential angst many Unionists feel at where they find themselves. Friendless, at the mercy of events, and with little idea how they box themselves out of a tight corner.

We are therefore left with a string of familiar tropes. Its all de Valera’s fault. Or Sinn Fein’s. Or Westminster’s. Or Leo Varadkar’s. Or Biden’s. Or Brussels. Or because of sell-out Unionists. Self-reflection is in seriously short supply. The book shows that the closest thing Unionist politics has to a brain’s trust has little to offer other than a recitation of familiar gripes.

Ultimately, the book succeeds as a polemic, albeit one that will convince no-one but the diehard, but it fails, on its own terms, as a manifesto, bereft, as it is, of clever arguments, new thinking, or compelling analysis. Where’s the beef? in George W. Bush’s famous phrase.

There’s not much beef in ‘The Idea of the Union…’  but there is certainly no shortage of gammon.

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Comments (7)

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  1. Tom Ultuous says:

    Good article Kevin, calling it the way it is. I don’t think the DUP even supported the GFA. The odious Kate Hoey (one of the Labour traitors who stopped a second Brexit referendum by voting for the clown’s deal) has found her spiritual home.

  2. Micheal MacGilleRuadh says:

    I love how some of there ardent unionists have fine Gaelic surnames, eg. Hourihone, Hoey.

  3. Jon Lacey says:

    The Act of Union was carried out with blackmail, bribery, violence, bullying and threats; on a very limited franchise: its dissolution carried out by a a rising tide of self determination, are a terrible fear to any debate, these reactionary forces hold position and plateform because of the real legacy of the Act itself and the violent forces gathered around it which showed no respect for sense or sensibility, and certainly not for any Law at Union Headquarters (Westminster) any peace is fiction: it has been the political legacy of trench warfare. The intellectual residue, shameful in a shameless way, sweep them away. The economical base that gravitates to this ideological diatrituse criese out for reorganisation nationally and internationally . This tension is their real enemy the rest of their fight is with shadows

  4. Stuart Swanston says:

    An all Ireland centre for excellence in oncology research and care would be the thin end of the wedge and if permitted might lead to an all Ireland centre of excellence in sport, possibly, Heaven forfend – an all Ireland rugby team.

  5. John Monro says:

    Thank you Kevin. I live a very long way away, 12,000 miles to be exact. The quantity of my knowledge on NI issues and politics is not much higher than the Planck constant. But you write very well indeed, with some references well above my head and understanding – I have to take these on trust, I suppose! You dismiss the book with two very hard to answer put-downs. “First, its essential lack of generosity…… Second, its total lack of emotional intelligence”. I shall remember those two sentences for the rest of my life (I’m 74). Because, doesn’t that aptly and concisely describe pretty well every single serious personal, societal, national and international argument that comes to be an intractable problem that you might care to name. Other ways of describing the same sort of thing would be an inability to see the other’s point of view and an irrational and fixed attachment to a way of thinking. Perhaps the overriding vice is greed, not just for material things, but for your ideology to prevail, and we all keep falling for the same trick. They are interconnected and serious vices. I had to look up “Gramscian” – the dictionary unhelpfully provides a definition as a following of the ideas of Gramsci, Marxist political philosopher of the first part of last century. I find that it’s something to do with cultural hegemony, the idea that power of the capitalist “bourgeoisie” doesn’t have to physically force adherence and acceptance, merely provide the means and structures of a persuasive way of thinking that makes it natural, normal and not able to be questioned. Is that right? But why stop there, didn’t communism try to perform the same trick? Well, I think anyone reading and / or contributing to these pages understands our present position vis a vis Gramsci pretty well, I’m sure. We might think it’s done here incredibly successfully, and that’s certainly true, and without so much violence, but that isn’t true, violence is inflicted elsewhere else, Julian Assange might be able to correct any such impression and new police powers in regard to protests provide little reassurance. If Gramscian principles start being questioned or falling over, power wherever and whenever won’t hesitate to use the bigger stick when required.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      The question that exercised all European Marxists during the interwar years was why the predicted crisis of capitalism (WW1) hadn’t issued in the expected proletarian revolution. Gramsci developed his theory of hegemony to explain this failure.

      Basically, he argued that capitalism survived because it had stymied (and continued to stymie) the development of a revolutionary proletariat through the cultivation of a ‘false consciousness’ among the working class. Through the totality of education and culture, capitalism propagates its own ‘bourgeois’ norms of knowledge and value, science and morality, so that they become the ‘common sense’ norms by which everyone – including the working class – is constructed. Working people thus identify their own interests with those of the people for whom they work and, consequently, seek to maintain the status quo rather than overturn it. In developing this theory, Gramsci drew on Hegel’s so-called ‘master-slave dialectic’.

      On the basis of his theory of hegemony, Gramsci went on to argue that the communist movement needed to develop its own ‘historic bloc’ of proletarian norms of knowledge and value as an alternative to that of bourgeois science and morality, which it could then propagate through the totality of education and culture once it had seized and consolidated the power of the state in power and thereby construct ‘communist man’. In this respect, he belongs firmly among the totalitarian theorists who flourished between the wars and who dreamt of reconstructing man in their own particular image by seizing and using the power of the state to ‘colonise’ the totality of our lives with their particular knowledge- and value-norms.

      1. Paddy Farrington says:

        This, and in particular the last paragraph, must be the one of most reductive and inaccurate accounts of Gramsci’s thought I’ve yet come across. Unfortunately, Gramsci’s own work is notoriously difficult, partly because it was written while he was imprisoned by Mussolini’s regime, and was couched in such a way as to evade censorship. At least Wikipedia gives a more rounded picture of the importance, originality, and relevance of Gramsci’s ideas than this tendentious view.

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