I met murder on the way

Colin Kidd

  • Castlereagh: Enlightenment, War and Tyranny by John Bew
    Quercus, 722 pp, £25.00, September 2011, ISBN 978 0 85738 186 6

When I go home to the Ayrshire town where I grew up, I’ve noticed in recent years that even the dowdiest and most traditional hotels, where the outer limits of exoticism used to be a round of tinned pineapple on top of a gammon steak, have embraced fusion cuisine. Multicultural eclecticism, from food to fashion, is the norm in today’s Britain, and not just in the big cities. Among the few groups perceived as uncool are Ulster’s Protestant Unionists. It’s not only that bowler hats epitomise 1950s squareness, or that the symbolic meaning of orange sashes rather undermines their potential to offer a swish of colourful ethnic pluralism; there is also something in Ulster straightness – a dour literalism – which repels groups more accustomed to the sunny give and take of everyday evasion and hypocrisy.

During the Troubles the outside world found it easier to romanticise the Provisional IRA than to sympathise with the resilient negativity of Ulster Unionism. Unsurprisingly, Unionists had few friends in the newspapers. A bizarre exception was Michael Wharton, a satirical and outrageously reactionary fantasist at the Daily Telegraph, who wrote under the pseudonym Peter Simple. Yet Wharton’s attempts to ridicule the enemies of Unionism were funny precisely because they drew on received assumptions about both Unionists and liberals. Among the most memorable creations in his gallery of bien-pensant absurdity was the trendy filmmaker and self-publicist Neville Dreadberg, whose documentary Blood Orange was imagined as depicting the cannibalistic practices of rank and file Ulster Unionists. In a variant on the traditional Ulster fry-up – and Swift’s Modest Proposal – Wharton described Dreadberg’s cameras secretly filming the sautéeing of children, their screams muffled by the sinister beat of Lambeg drums.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland continues to promote the flat-earth doctrines of its founder, the Free Presbyterian minister Ian Paisley, as well as to provide ample opportunity for satire. The DUP’s Nelson McCausland, Northern Ireland’s culture minister, who believes that Ulster Protestants are descended from the lost ten tribes of Israel, has campaigned against the geological exhibits in the Ulster Museum in Belfast, whose labels seem to suggest – in a way contrived to gull the good people of Ulster into heresy – that the world was in existence long before the accepted date of its creation, 4004 BC. His colleague Mervyn Storey complained that the signs at the most popular tourist attraction in his North Antrim constituency, the Giant’s Causeway, misinformed the public by telling them that the rock formation was 550 million years old.

Despite such stories it would be a great mistake to pigeonhole Unionists as parochial know-nothings. Revisionist historians, most prominently Ian McBride and David Livingstone, have demonstrated that the history of Ulster Presbyterianism from the 18th century is characterised by intellectual richness, an openness to science, a commitment to progress and a taste for theological heterodoxy, notwithstanding backwoods opposition to all of these trends. There is more to Ulster Unionism than the necessarily constrained worldview of besieged settlers, and its culture can’t be reduced to the authoritarian anti-intellectualism of the DUP.

Similarly, it would be wrong to assume that the DUP’s thrawn defensiveness adequately reflects the outlook of Ulster Unionism. The political scientist Jennifer Todd has distinguished two traditions within it. The first is loyalism, whose primary concern has been the maintenance of a militantly Protestant – and largely Presbyterian – Northern Ireland. Confusingly, these loyalists are suspicious of Great Britain itself, which is the object of a highly conditional allegiance. The second kind of Unionism, according to Todd, is a sense of umbilical belonging to liberal Britain, an attachment based precisely – at least until recent decades – on the perceived contrast between British modernity and the agrarian, priest-ridden republic to the south. Needless to say, the London media tend to focus on the outlandish elements in the loyalist worldview.

Few books have done as much to reveal the latent liberalism of the Unionist tradition as John Bew’s The Glory of Being Britons: Civic Unionism in 19th-Century Belfast (2009). Bew challenged the prevalent notion that Unionism was at best a reflex response to Irish nationalism and at worst mere anti-Catholic prejudice. Rather, Bew showed that one of the strains of Irish Unionism in the long 19th century was an expansive and self-confident ‘civic unionism’, which had at its core ‘an emotional attachment to the role of the British nation as an enlightened and progressive force on the world stage’. Although now it is all too easily depicted as illiberal and retrogressive, the earlier lineage of Unionism was, according to Bew, marked by a generosity of spirit. In sharp contrast with the grudging laager mentality of the Troubles era, 19th-century Belfast Unionism was cosmopolitan in outlook and brimming with optimism.

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