For the first time I’m nervous flying to Belfast. It’s early morning, Friday 22 May, and radio reports tell of streams of voters heading to the polls. As I buy the Irish Times at the newstand in Terminal One, I catch sight of one of my graduate students – we nod and smile quickly. He’s flying to Cork to vote Yes. I haven’t a vote, but I want to be there on the day. Though the view is that a high poll is a sign of a strong Yes vote, I have a gut feeling – no, more a fear – that the No vote will be mounting up. I place the Yeses at 62 per cent, and feel that Sidney Elliott, a political scientist at Queens University, is too optimistic in predicting 75 per cent. But then I’m drearily pessimistic about everything.
On the Friday – Good Friday – when the Agreement was signed, we drove from Belfast to Donegal, listening to the radio news. It was a bitter cold day, the radio blanked out on the Glenshane Pass and in Dungiven, but always the tone of the reports, when they got through, was positive. It would soon be a done deal, they insisted. That Friday, when the announcer said the Agreement had been signed, I felt a sort of cold hope: I remembered Sunningdale, the Loyalist Workers’ Strike, the collapse of the Power-Sharing Executive in 1974. At seven that evening, we reached the house of the friend we were staying with on Lough Swilly. Looking at the hail sweeping down the darkening lough, he said, yes, it was good news the peace had been signed, but the deal had been hanging by a thread at four that afternoon. Now, on a hot, sunny, blue day I remember how precarious the talks had been. Reading an article in the Daily Telegraph where David Trimble concludes his argument for a Yes vote by saying ‘we must have confidence in ourselves to face the future, not use the troubles of the past as a comfort blanket,’ I wonder how many Unionists will follow his advice. The vote will be Yes, but he has got to get a majority of Unionist voters as part of that overall vote. There is also an article by the No-campaigner Robert McCartney, a barrister and UK Unionist MP whom no one in Britain I know has ever heard of. Perhaps that’s because he’s kept the press on their guard with his proven readiness to sue for libel (there was a famous episode in Northern Ireland some years ago involving a chocolate eclair). McCartney states that the majority of Unionists will vote No to ‘delegates of armed terrorists serving both in the assembly and government’. For him, the Good Friday Agreement is the product of Britain’s need to resolve its conflict with Republican terrorism in order ‘to protect the mainland’.
McCartney has campaigned vociferously with Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson against the Agreement – in April, at the launch of the United Unionist campaign, he gave the clenched fist salute – and though most people regard him as a provincial politician, his policy of trying to make Northern Ireland permanently part of the United Kingdom is popular with the prosperous middle-class voters of North Down, or ‘the Gold Coast’ as it’s called. Surely they’ll back the No vote? But I’m not sure. My image for the Good Friday Agreement is a short, strong rubber band, the sort attached to a metal tent peg. Like one of those bands, it can stretch in opposite directions, simultaneously strengthening the Union and helping move Northern Ireland into a new relationship with the Irish Republic. Or it can make Northern Ireland part of the new federal United Kingdom now emerging, as part of a confederal Ireland. Sovereignty over Northern Ireland will no longer reside in Westminster, the Agreement implies, but in the Assembly.
In Article One, paragraph six, of the Agreement the participants recognise ‘the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose, and accordingly confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both Governments and would not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland’. On its first page, the Agreement is commended ‘in a spirit of concord’ – there is a classical, enlightened feel to the document, but I know that in Ulster there is a deep permanent counter-enlightenment scepticism which mocks any attempt to create political consensus. Then I remember E.M. Forster’s image for the force that speaks to Mrs Moore in the echo in the Marabar Caves: ‘Something very old and very small. Before time, it was before space also. Something snub-nosed, incapable of generosity – the undying worm itself.’ It’s this sense of an unbudging, implacable destructiveness that makes me anxious. It brings back a passage in Maurice Leitch’s Liberty Lad, a novel set in Co Antrim which I first read in 1974, the year the Power-Sharing Executive was brought down: ‘the old deadly derision, the curse which we all are born with in this cold cynical northern province’. And then I recall the tormented character, Yarr, in Leitch’s next novel Poor Lazarus, as he runs out over bogland into a lough: ‘Three crows flap up clumsily from a rabbit carcase they had been feeding on by the lough’s edge. He hears their cry and shouts in delight. As the water rises up his legs he echoes, “Yarr ... Yarr ... Yarr ... Yarr.” The brown obliterating depths rush to welcome him. Yarr yarr yarr ...’ Yarr: it’s the name for a kind of destructive collusiveness, a sort of communal nay-saying, that waft of evil you catch sometimes when people, men mostly, sit up drinking late and someone leans across and says, ‘I’m gonna tell you what yur really like, yu fuckin’ wanker.’ This isn’t the ou-bouming cave, it’s the romper room, the name the UDA gave to the room where their victims were tortured and murdered (The Romper Room was a children’s programme on UTV years back). But the No vote will also include about 4 per cent hardline Republicans and a substantial number of what I’d term ethical voters – people who simply can’t stomach the release of convicted terrorists and want to register their disgust.
When the plane lands at Aldergrove, I buy the News Letter, the morning paper that has always obdurately defended Unionist values (though in my schooldays its heroic political correspondent Ralph Bossence did his best to ironise them). It’s the oldest daily newspaper in the United Kingdom and it belongs to what Seamus Heaney has called the ‘golden age’ of Belfast, when liberal and republican Ulster Presbyterians eagerly followed the American and French Revolutions, and many of them gave their lives in the Uprising they mounted in 1798. Now that paper proclaims on its front page: ‘SAY YES AND SAY IT LOUD.’ There is a new spirit in the News Letter, something joyous and creative and energised. Under the headline, ‘WE MUST SAY YES,’ the editorial reads: ‘If the unionist people unite behind David Trimble, and our politicians behave imaginatively and responsibly in the Assembly, they can become the architects and the artisans of a New Model Ulster. Today, unionism and nationalism can begin to work together to build the new model we can be proud of.’
This isn’t the language of traditional Unionism. It draws on the repertory of Freemasonry to summon an image of Cromwell and Milton’s republic. Reading the editorial, I begin to realise that the courage Trimble displayed at the peace talks, the great risk he took there, has given a significant section of the Unionist community a new imaginative charge. It would be sentimental to say that the spirit of those 18th-century Presbyterians is behind the words of the News Letter, but something has radically changed here. On television during the past two weeks, Trimble has sometimes looked nervous and strained (he has always looked uneasy in crowds), but he is also gaining in authority and stature. It’s like watching an actor explore a part and bring greater depth and resonance to it. Trimble and his deputy, John Taylor, are redefining Unionism, and the redefinition is there in the News Letter editorial’s ‘new-sprung modern light’, as Edmund Burke would put it. Something is flying off and out of the caked nest, and it’s not crying ‘yarr yarr yarr’. The comfort blanket is being chucked away.
On the Shankill Road, the Ulster Independence Centre has a placard saying ‘One Island, Two Nations’. There are posters proclaiming ‘It’s Right to Say No,’ but the overwhelming feeling is that the No vote is crumbling. Fifteen per cent are still undecided, but the No camp gained significantly from the temporary release of the Balcombe Street IRA gang and the Loyalist killer Michael Stone. I remember die Kipling story, ‘The Village that Voted the Earth Was Flat’. I fear the flat-earthers and can’t be sure.
Outside the headquarters of the Ulster Democratic Party (associated with the UDA) – a narrow converted shop on the Shankill Road – they are giving away large posters which show a hunched Paisley wiping his eye with a neatly folded handkerchief: ‘Don’t let Paisley wipe your eye! Vote Yes! And secure the future for our children.’ Rock music blasts from a loudspeaker on a caravan parked outside the shop, as parry activists ferry voters to the polling stations. I stand with various party workers on a bit of waste ground beside the headquarters.
‘Anything less than 65 per cent and we’re in the shit,’ one activist tells me.‘Trimble’s done brilliantly, it’s going to work out at 68 per cent.’
In the News Letter I read that the Grand Master of the Orange Order has strongly supported the No vote. With eight anti-Agreement Unionist MPs, he read out the United Unionists’ Declaration and Pledge before signing it. On the other hand, Sir John Hermon, a former Chief Constable of the RUC, has called for a Yes vote, saying it will hold ‘the centre ground of moderation’. I won’t rehearse the well-worn Yeats line, though, remembering another Yeats poem, I can see several Cuchulains battling waves of Nay-sayers in the Assembly next month. But in the sunshine, the scruffy, impoverished Shankill Road has a fairground cheerfulness. The dull fronts are redeemed every so often by bright greengrocer’s shops with tiers of fresh fruit and vegetables outside on the pavements.
A yard from me, the sun shines on the bald head and crisp white hair of a former terrorist who committed a particularly savage double murder in the Seventies. I watch him smiling and talking to various people who pass by. A big camper van swings into the side street. The party activist beside me asks have I read Gitta Sereny’s book on Mary Bell? No, I tell him, but I’m about to read her book on Albert Speer. D’you think the Mary Bell book should have been published? he asks. Yes, but I can understand how upset people are by it. She’s been treated very badly, Mary Bell, he says. And her daughter’s really suffered. It just shows, someone can do something terrible at a very young age and then change completely, d’you not think? Yes, I say, unsure, out of my depth, yes I suppose they can. A tall, watchful, intense man with coal black hair streaked with silver, he seems eaten up by something, somehow closed in and elsewhere, yet wanting to talk about enormous moral issues as we stand looking at the people passing. A young girl comes bouncing out of the caravan and goes to her dad standing the other side of me. ‘Gie’s some money for the shop.’ He gives her a pound coin and she runs down the street. I expect her to come back with fruit gums but she brings a jar of cockles and asks her dad to open them. She passes them round and I stand there chewing a vinegary bit of rubber. There’s a warm, working sense of communal solidarity here, as though we’re gazing far out to sea. Neither out far nor in the deep, the Frost title comes back – was he mocking fellow-travellers? – and I wonder, is this all an illusion?
Another converted shop a few yards down the road is the headquarters of the Progressive Unionist Party, linked to the UVF. Inside there’s a slightly yellowed portrait of the Queen – the young Queen of the Fifties – and a pro-abortion placard: ‘Forty women a week from here go to Britain for abortions. Change the Law Now.’ I talk to Dawn Purvis, the PUP Campaign Director. A dark-haired, forceful woman with those narrow-lidded, warmly sceptical eyes some Ulster people have, she tells me about the campaign. Blair played a blinder, she says. She was at the talks and, yes, between 3 and 4:40 on the afternoon of Good Friday they were hanging by a thread. But it was all done and dusted by 4:45. Trimble just went ahead. This was the moment in and out of time. Historical, but somewhere else as well. Somewhere, well out, beyond.
Yeah, Blair was great, another activist says. But look what Trimble is surrounded by. Too many baby barristers in the Unionist Party. As for the Young Unionists, they’re brainwashed wee goons. McCartney, he’s all bluff and bluster. Grew up on the Shankill and then cleared out. No one’s sure if he left anything in the bucket. I look puzzled. You know, Dawn Purvis explains, when a family moves out you always leave coal in the bucket for the next ones.
Outside the crowded office, I look up at a gable-end:
Lest We Forget
This plaque is dedicated to the memory of
Lt Col Trevor King died July 1994
Major W. (Frenchie) Marchant
These men were killed near this spot by the
enemies of Ulster.
No Sacrifice is too great for one’s country.
This looks like an unyielding Loyalist memorial, but the sense now is of working-class Protestants organising confidently against all that the No vote represents. This is a new experience, but why would it not be? It’s nearly thirty-five years since I walked in and out of pubs on Friday nights on the Shankill, trying to sell a very different News Letter, the Trotskyite Socialist Labour League paper. We got our analysis wrong, we had reckoned without nationalism. In those days, the people on the Shankill identified proudly with the Unionist Party, so we sold more papers on the Falls. I remember calling at a very poor terraced house there, and feeling guilty as a pale, badly nourished young woman handed some coins over for the paper.
During the afternoon, I talk to various people I know and imagine the convergence on the polling stations. Three Protestant pensioners are voting for the very first time today – voting Yes. My parents, devoted admirers, as I am, of Seamus Mallon, are driving down from Donegal to vote Yes. Somehow I don’t seem to know any No voters, but I keep asking people what they think the final outcome will be. In the Duke of York, where there used to be a portrait of my early hero Ralph Bossence, an old schoolfriend, Maxy, whom I remember playing in a pipe-band as part of Paisley’s first election campaign for Belfast City Council, says he thinks it’ll be 68 per cent Yes. ‘We have to be optimistic,’ he adds. ‘We’ve been scraping bodies off of the street these last thirty years. The turn-out’s huge. It’s the country people, the Voertrekkers, who’ve never had to make a decision in their lives, against the city.’
As Maxy talks, I remember his pipe-band following an open lorry where a young boy glumly turned over a series of placards: one of them showed a photograph of the Archbishop of Canterbury under the caption: ‘DR RAMSAY IS A BLASPHEMER.’ Then another friend, Ewall, predicts 67 per cent Yes and bets me a fiver. He reminds me that in the early Sixties Gerry Adams worked behind the bar here. No one I can hear is talking about the referendum. Mind you, Ewall says, releasing the Balcombe Street Gang and Michael Stone, that was a mistake. Typical colonialism. They don’t understand the people here. Yes, I say, they don’t understand that Unionists, many of them, make a distinction between loyalty to the monarch and loyalty to Westminster. Queen’s rebels, he says, that’s how they style themselves. That was Robert Bradford’s phrase, I say. The IRA murdered him, isn’t there a big shrine to his memory, a mural off Donegal Pass?
Ewall drives me to the Unionist headquarters in Glengall Street, where a young worker seems anxiously optimistic. The Yes campaign had problems getting on UTV, because the rules of balance were applied too rigidly. There is a tense, uncertain atmosphere in the building: a building whose thin, bare floorboards and baked confidence I remember from my schooldays. ‘The Ulster I’d like to see in the Seventies’, the title of an essay competition from 1965, comes back like a naive joke. The creaturely warmth and solidarity of the UDP and PUP offices on the Shankill seem very different from this office, with its ranged law books and new carpets. As I leave, Reg Empey, a leading Unionist, comes into the hallway. He looks worried.
Then I go with Ewall and his wife Eithne to watch them vote in a primary school in the constituency of the DUP deputy leader, Peter Robinson. Some very dour-looking people, Ewall says. Definite No voters, those. See that woman laughing? She’s a Yes. In a large schoolroom where the voting booths are, there’s an armed RUC man with a tanned, almost Greek face standing in front of a wall covered with dozens and dozens of smiling children’s portraits done in bright poster paint. Naive art and a constable in green uniform and flak jacket, but the composition’s a bit distracted by the stacked chairs behind him.
It’s early evening and we head off to the Sinn Fein office in Andersonstown:
CHANGING OUR CITY
OUR FUTURE AS EQUALS
The heavy security door is locked. I look up at the security camera. No answer. I ring again. No answer. Going back down the Falls, it seems less impoverished than the Shankill, maybe more confident. No sign of voters being bussed to the polling stations. I go over to the Newtonards Road and collect some leaflets from the Progressive Unionist Party: ‘A YES vote will affirm that you wish to keep the Union secure and maintain your British heritage and way of life.’ The bald, shy man behind the counter says there have been lots of complaints from people who haven’t received polling cards. On the wall above him a poster says ‘Lift’s For Polling Station For Yes Vote.’ There are other captions: ‘No Vote No Future’; ‘Show the Way for our Children’; ‘A Heart should be filled with love not hate.’ Beside them is a painting of Ulster soldiers at the Battle of the Somme and a photograph of a paramilitary memorial.
The polling-stations close at ten, and because the count doesn’t start until nine the next morning there’s a sense of anticlimax. Ewall and I look out over the city – darkness and yellow streetlights – and wonder what’s locked in all those boxes.
At the count in the King’s Hall the following day, a journalist tells me it was 200 years ago this morning that Lord Edward Fitzgerald issued the order for the United Irish Uprising to commence. A man my age points to a former terrorist a yard from us: ‘Hi, see thon fella – he put a contract out on me in the Seventies. I had to move South.’ The press pack are cheerful, optimistic, indolently watchful. We’re in a huge concrete hangar with what must be a gilded statue of George V way above us. A group of No politicians move in like Mafiosi.
When the Yes vote of 71 per cent is announced tears come to my eyes. I’ve been too pessimistic, too out of touch. Paisley and McCartney have been soundly beaten, but they will mobilise to wreck the Assembly (some of McCartney’s supporters jostle and push Seamus Mallon at the count). Now that the Queen has expressed pleasure at the Yes vote, and been attacked by Paisley for doing so, perhaps the Government will mobilise the monarchy against the wreckers. Hardline Loyalism expresses loyalty not to the Crown in Parliament, but to the monarchy as somehow above Parliament (the classic study is David Miller’s Queen’s Rebels). While I can’t abide the Orange Order, its central totemic figure – William of Orange – is and always will be a heroic figure for me. When Hazlitt remarks that England was to reject the ‘detestable doctrine’ of the divine right of kings, which ‘first tottered and fell headless to the ground with the martyred Charles, which we kicked out with his son James, and kicked back twice with two Pretenders to the throne’ – when Hazlitt affirms the historical power of the king he was named for, I raise a cheer. And I remember the moment Macaulay celebrates when James II’s Army – camped on Hounslow Heath to intimidate the citizens of London – cheered so loudly at the acquittal of the bishops James had imprisoned that their cheers could be heard at the centre of London. It is possible to hold onto this essentially Whig history and yet let go of a devotion to the British monarchy.
In the early Eighties – i.e. before die Anglo-Irish Agreement – while I was thinking about the evolving relationship between the two islands, I found an article in one of the colour supplements about cargo cults in the New Hebrides, where an entire tribe worshipped a framed photograph of the Duke of Edinburgh. That most unpopular member of the Royal family was their god. I realise now that Paisley’s, too, is a cargo cult and it will have to be dismantled by the object of its worship – the Royal Family. Along with arms decommissioning and the perils of the marching season, this is an issue that has to be faced by the British Government.
The next day, there is a special Sunday edition of the News Letter: ‘WE said it ... YOU did it! 676,966 people can’t be wrong. WELL DONE, ULSTER!’
Yes, the New Model Ulster is rising from the wreckage.