The issue of losers’ consent has come sharply into focus in recent decades, most obviously in the US presidential elections of 2000 and 2020, but also closer to home: how many Remainers immediately accepted the democratic verdict of the Brexit vote, and moved on? In Northern Irish politics a perverse variant of this phenomenon obtains: the problem of winners’ consent. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 not only brought an end to the Troubles but also enshrined the principle that a democratic majority would determine Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom, marking a major defeat for the IRA and a victory for the province’s unionist majority. But the victors – dourly downbeat at the best of times – failed to perceive their good fortune; they still don’t.
Although David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, had played a central role in negotiating the agreement, many unionists believed they had been conned. While the agreement won the near unanimous endorsement of nationalists in Northern Ireland, it was rejected by Ian Paisley’s hardline Democratic Unionist Party and divided Trimble’s Ulster Unionists; two of the future leaders of the DUP, Arlene Foster and Jeffrey Donaldson, were defectors from the UUP. In 2007, an elderly, faltering Paisley – his thrawnness cracking under Tony Blair’s barrage of blandishments – entered into power-sharing with Sinn Féin. This provoked the secession from the DUP of Jim Allister, who established an ultra-Paisleyite party, Traditional Unionist Voice. But despite Paisley’s volte-face, Northern Ireland’s unionists – especially its dominant party, the DUP – have never wholeheartedly welcomed the Good Friday Agreement, and have tended to focus on the compromises it entailed, including the release of IRA prisoners and the replacement of the Royal Ulster Constabulary with the Police Service of Northern Ireland. A recent poll put unionist support for the agreement as low as 34 per cent.
Robert McCartney, the leader of the short-lived UK Unionist Party, which wanted a Northern Ireland more completely integrated with Great Britain, once complained that Paisley was a pseudo-unionist whose real aim was to make Ulster a ‘mini-Geneva, run by a fifth-rate Calvin’. Certainly, the DUP, founded in 1971, began as a postscript to an ecclesiastical project: Paisley had set up the ultra-traditionalist Free Presbyterian Church in 1951, as a bastion against the liberalising, ecumenical tendencies that were, even in the starchy postwar era, all too evident in Northern Irish Protestantism. The point is significant: outsiders are quick to frame Northern Irish unionism in terms of conservatism, authoritarian religion and anachronistic articulations of British Protestant nationhood, but tend not to acknowledge the progressive, liberal elements locally that provoke these overreactions. Paisley’s liberal bêtes noires in his long career included Ernest Davey, the modernist theologian at Belfast’s Presbyterian College, and Terence O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s reformist prime minister in the 1960s, who tried – too cautiously for Catholics, too dramatically for Paisley – to refound Ulster unionism on a new non-sectarian basis of economic development and cross-border co-operation with the Republic.
Paisley’s primary ideological debts were to the theocratic Covenanters of 17th-century Scotland, who championed religious over temporal concerns, and in consequence gave only a limited and conditional loyalty to monarchs. Allegiance was conditional on the ruler’s adherence to Presbyterian goals, a tenet that has endured, with a more secular inflection, as Graham Walker and James Greer recognise, in Ulster Protestantism’s contractarian – and seemingly casual – commitment to the rule of law. The unionist fondness for Union Jacks does not preclude violent resistance to the British state when its policy conflicts with the interests of Protestant Ulster. Under the auspices of the Ulster Covenant of 1912 – a document signed by quarter of a million people determined to use any means necessary to prevent Irish Home Rule – unionists drilled and acquired munitions. During the Troubles, Paisley’s antics combined menace with a Pooterish sensitivity to social distinctions: on the one hand, indulging the criminal activities of loyalist gunmen in tough, working-class areas; on the other, putting on parade his solidly respectable supporters, in military formation though unarmed, who at his command would display their firearms certificates to the journalists present. In recent years there have been violent loyalist protests against the Northern Ireland Protocol, which in an attempt to square Brexit with an open border in Ireland effectively keeps Northern Ireland within the regulatory framework of the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union.
Unionism’s inheritance from Scotland is not confined to the chequered legacy of the Covenanters. As James Stafford shows, the liberalising ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment underpinned the British-Irish Union of 1800. Before 1800, the kingdom of Ireland was a straightforward dependency of Britain. It had its own parliament, the creature of the Ascendancy, Ireland’s Protestant landlord elite, but was excluded from full participation in British imperial trade. Pitt the Younger’s Commercial Propositions of 1785, for a free trade area between Britain and Ireland, sought to integrate Ireland more securely within the imperial system, but were rejected by the Irish parliament. Ultimately, it was the threat of revolution that led to union: it was a security measure in response to the attempted invasion of Ireland by French revolutionary armies in 1796 and 1798, and the Irish Rebellion of 1798, which drew support from both the oppressed Catholic peasantry and radical Presbyterians in Ulster.
Stafford insists that there was more to union than ‘counter-revolutionary realpolitik’. The thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment had noticed parallels between Scotland and Ireland. Alert to the social and economic consequences of the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707, they celebrated the liberation of Scotland’s farmers and peasants from a benighted feudal aristocracy, and the incentives this created for agrarian improvement. Adam Smith, in particular, foresaw a similar pathway for Ireland: ‘By an union with Great Britain the greater part of the people of all ranks in Ireland would gain an equally compleat deliverance from a much more oppressive aristocracy’ founded on ‘religious and political prejudices’. Such arguments resurfaced on both sides of the Irish Sea during the debates that immediately preceded the British-Irish Union. The Scottish politician Henry Dundas, an admirer of Smith and the prime mover behind the union, advanced an anti-feudalist rationale for British-Irish integration; and there were also echoes of Smith among Irish unionists, with Thomas Brook Clarke contending that it was only through commercial union with Britain that ‘the barbarous spirit of feudal power will finally depart from Ireland.’
But the union of 1800 was botched. Pitt and Dundas had intended to advertise it as a liberalising transformation of Irish society by introducing Catholic emancipation at the same time, which George III frustrated because he found it inconsistent with his coronation oath. Indeed, Walker and Greer note that the Protestant Orange Order, established in 1795, opposed legislative union in 1800 precisely because its members thought it would immediately lead to Catholic emancipation. Although Pitt resigned in February 1801, the liberal ideals of unionism were besmirched from the start. It remains difficult for most observers to disentangle unionism from conservatism and illiberal reaction.
Nevertheless, as Walker and Greer demonstrate, liberalism remained a vital thread in the Irish unionist tradition. Here their perspective aligns with Stafford’s. Just as Stafford aims to shift the focus of Irish historiography away from the insular atavisms of religion, nationhood and identity towards questions concerning Ireland’s place in European debates about political economy and modernity, so Walker and Greer highlight the close commercial and cultural ties between progressive liberal Presbyterians in 19th and early 20th-century Belfast and Glasgow. The transformation of Ulster’s Presbyterian rebels of 1798 into conventionally conservative Ulster Unionists was gradual, circuitous and closely bound up with developments in liberalism. Presbyterians welcomed Gladstone’s disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869 and his subsequent land reforms, but Irish Home Rule was a step too far. Isabella Tod, who was born in Edinburgh but moved to Ulster as a young woman, was a pillar of progressive Gladstonian liberalism, the founder of the first Irish Women’s Suffrage Society and a champion of educational opportunities for girls, but when the Liberal Party split over Home Rule in 1886 she co-founded the Belfast chapter of the Liberal Unionist Association. Although the Liberal Unionists would eventually merge with the Conservatives, they tended to be radical and anti-establishment – the antithesis of landed Anglican Toryism. We shouldn’t forget that the advanced liberalism of the late 19th and early 20th century sometimes closely approached socialism, as it did, unsurprisingly, in Belfast, which with its heavily unionised workforce was at the core of the UK’s industrial economy. In 1907 the Labour Party Conference was held there.
A shared opposition to Irish Home Rule consolidated the connection between Liberal Unionists and Conservatives that persists to this day. But Walker and Greer focus on liberalism’s fragmentation, which has bequeathed us two substantively different conceptions of the UK and its territorial constitution: the Gladstonian vision of devolution within a pluralist and diverse union-state and the narrowly unitarist conception advanced by the anti-Home Rule Liberal Unionist jurist A.V. Dicey. Political understanding of our lopsidedly Anglo-heavy yet multinational state veers uneasily between the revived Gladstonianism of Blair’s devolutionist reforms in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the neo-Diceyanism of Boris Johnson’s crassly anti-devolutionist ‘muscular unionism’.
But in Northern Ireland itself, an inclusive unionism that championed the benefits of its connection with an advanced, progressive Britain steadily gave way to a chauvinistic and exclusive version, which upheld Protestant supremacy and, after that was dismantled in the 1970s, a defensive sectarianism. The liberal ideals of unionism were never completely extinguished among the professional classes in Belfast and those Ulster politicians who primarily desired integration with the British mainland, but they have become much less prominent in unionist politics.
Emphasising the extent to which the politics and culture of Scotland and Northern Ireland have been entwined, Walker and Greer give an ironic history of Scottish unionism. What began as a liberal unionist affiliation with Ireland was transformed by the late 20th-century electoral collapse of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and the coming of devolution. Labour – long the preferred party of Scotland’s Irish Catholic community but now the standard-bearer of a threatened Anglo-Scottish connection – ‘was forced to become a unionist party in the explicit sense it had never wished to be’. But it was tricky enough disentangling the ideal of pan-British socialist solidarity from conservative traditions of unionism, never mind explaining away Labour’s alliance with the Conservatives in the Better Together campaign during the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. In the referendum’s aftermath, Jim Murphy, Scottish Labour’s new Catholic leader – and as such the principal political spokesman in Scotland for the Union – denied that he was a unionist. Scottish Labour has not yet recovered from the referendum and is still to find a convincing policy stance that distinguishes opposition to nationalism from collusion with unionism and its Protestant and conservative associations. Walker and Greer note that 57 per cent of Scottish Catholics voted Yes to independence, compared to 41 per cent of those identifying as Protestant – a possible harbinger of what they call the ‘Ulsterisation’ of Scottish politics. By this they mean not a descent into inter-community violence, but the displacement of class politics by identity politics, whose religious tinge commentators have preferred to ignore.
Brexit has made matters immeasurably worse, in Northern Ireland especially, enflaming identity politics when they were cooling. Only a few months before the Brexit referendum of June 2016, the centenary of the Easter Rising – a potential flashpoint – passed without incident, marked by ‘conciliatory public commentary’ and intergovernmental harmony between the UK and the Irish Republic. The most sophisticated of Northern Irish unionists, Arthur Aughey, a devotee of the English conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott, argued in the Belfast Telegraph that, since Brexit ‘intimated dis-union and radical disruption’, remaining in the EU would have been the prudent unionist option. But the Democratic Unionists have, bizarrely, spurned every chance at pragmatism, from their Leave stance in the referendum itself, by way of their noisy opposition to Theresa May’s pointedly union-sensitive deal, to their recent rejection of Rishi Sunak’s Windsor Framework. Why has the DUP consistently voted at each stage of the Brexit saga for the option most likely to bring about a border in the Irish Sea? To the abysmally low calibre of DUP politicians, we should add the lingering influence of Paisley’s anti-Catholicism. Whereas in England an ultra-conservative Catholic traditionalism inflects the Brexiteering of Jacob Rees-Mogg and the Daily Telegraph’s Charles Moore, in Northern Ireland Brexit’s cheerleaders see breaking from the EU as a logical extension of the Reformation. In his early anti-ecumenical campaigning during the 1950s, Paisley rebuked the archbishop of Canterbury for an apparent willingness ‘to barter our British heritage to the blaspheming bachelor of the Tiber’. Later, the European Community attracted the same anti-papal ire. Paisley identified the ‘Satanic power’ of the Antichrist as the glue that held together this ‘Catholic super-state’. But in a Northern Ireland that voted 56 per cent for Remain, Walker and Greer note that ‘the more upfront and resounding the expressions of Britishness … the less secure is the Union.’
Sectarianism of the Paisleyite kind is slowly waning. The Alliance party, a third force in Northern Irish politics that isn’t orange or green, took 20 per cent of the seats in the Assembly elections of 2022. Created in 1970 by disaffected members of the old Ulster Liberal Party along with moderate unionists, it is another echo of an earlier liberalism. For decades the Alliance was an eccentric fringe element in Northern Ireland’s crudely sectarian politics, but it now successfully taps into the disenchantment of the young, urban middle class with the political expressions of old-time religion. While this means that the DUP is ever more reliant on the working classes, a revamped Ulster Unionist Party is also set on courting the same secularised, anti-sectarian progressives.
More problematically, the rise of the Alliance undermines the binary assumptions on which the Good Friday Agreement rests. As modified by the St Andrews Agreement of 2006, it allows ‘the largest party in the largest designation in the Assembly’ to take the role of first minister, with ‘the largest party in the second largest designation’ taking the office of deputy first minister (though they are, in effect, co-first ministers). A three-way split in the Northern Irish electorate, with the rise of an unaffiliated non-nationalist, non-unionist category that includes the far-left People before Profit and the Greens as well as the Alliance, brings back into focus the province’s long-submerged progressive tradition, but also threatens to destabilise its devolved institutions.
These institutions are currently – as so often in the past quarter-century – in abeyance, ostensibly because of DUP hostility to the Northern Ireland Protocol, more plausibly because the party is in a huff that Sinn Féin, which won the 2022 election, is eligible to nominate the new first minister. But there are sound reasons for having another look at Northern Ireland’s constitutional arrangements. The Good Friday Agreement, which achieved a bare peace at the cost of further entrenching sectarian divisions within Northern Irish society, was a triumph of low expectations.
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