On the Window Ledge of the Union

Colin Kidd

  • Belfast 400: People, Place and History edited by S.J. Connolly
    Liverpool, 392 pp, £14.95, November 2012, ISBN 978 1 84631 634 0
  • Ulster since 1600: Politics, Economy and Society edited by Liam Kennedy and Philip Ollerenshaw
    Oxford, 355 pp, £35.00, November 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 958311 9
  • The Plantation of Ulster: Ideology and Practice edited by Eamonn O Ciardha and Micheál O Siochrú
    Manchester, 269 pp, £70.00, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 7190 8608 3
  • The End of Ulster Loyalism? by Peter Shirlow
    Manchester, 230 pp, £16.99, May 2012, ISBN 978 0 7190 8476 8

‘For God’s sake bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country.’ Visiting Northern Ireland as home secretary in 1970, Reginald Maudling, whose mellow moderation verged on a slothful desire for an easy life, was understandably exasperated by the Ulster problem – but no more so than a long line of politicians, before and since. Churchill – not so easily depicted as a faint-heart – lamented in the aftermath of the First World War that, while the cataclysm had transformed the rest of Europe, the Ulster question remained as intractable as ever and politicians would once more have to pay attention to the ‘dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone’.

Fifty years and another world war later, Ulster remained a needling presence in British political life. At the time of the Ulster Workers’ Council strike of 1974, which helped bring down the cross-community power-sharing executive agreed at Sunningdale in 1973, a peeved Harold Wilson openly denounced Ulster Protestants as ‘people who spend their lives sponging on Westminster and British democracy’. The prime minister’s accusation riled the Protestants, who thought themselves harder-working than their feckless Catholic neighbours, the real spongers in their eyes. Incensed Ulster Unionists began to sport sponges on their lapels.

Are the people of Ulster – as its Protestant champions claim – an integral part of the British nation? Or is Northern Ireland rather, as Irish nationalists insist, a relic of empire, whose close proximity to Great Britain obscures the otherwise bald fact that British colonialism is the ultimate cause of the modern Ulster Question? Both claims are valid, while neither tells the whole story. Certainly, the Northern Irish problem has its roots in a colonial project, the Ulster Plantation of the early 17th century. Yet with the passage of the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland in 1800, the north-eastern counties, with their Protestant majority, became the most self-consciously British region of the United Kingdom. By the same token, Britishness of the Ulster kind – Orange parades and kerbsides painted red, white and blue – seems demonstrative and stridently un-British. To the summer visitor from Britain who pulls off the ferry at Larne, the proliferation of Union Jacks along roads and at roundabouts is alienating. Unintentionally perhaps, the puffed-up hyper-Britons of Ulster exhibit colonial insecurity and make clear the precariousness of their position on what its current first minister, Peter Robinson of Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, once described as ‘the window ledge of the Union’.

A colonial strangeness lurks behind such seemingly familiar phenomena as student drunkenness. Belfast’s Holy Land is an area between Queen’s University and the Ormeau Road where the streets, built by a biblically minded Victorian Protestant, are named for Jerusalem, Damascus and Carmel. Originally, Protestants lived here, and later, the area became more mixed, with young lecturers bringing in a dash of counter-culture; but in recent years the Holy Land has become a place of student-dominated multiple-occupancy housing and raucous anti-social behaviour, which tends to culminate in riotous stand-offs with the police on St Patrick’s Day. The authorities would rather not confront the fact that many of the rioting students – ‘culchies’ (yokels) from mid-Ulster – wear Celtic tops or Gaelic Athletic Association shirts, and are asserting an instinctive quasi-sectarian command of what is now their territory. Protestant students prefer to rent accommodation further south in Stranmillis.

In Belfast the urban motorway – something that has done much to blight city life across the United Kingdom – has a sinister, though not altogether unhappy significance. As Dominic Bryan argues in his lively essay in Belfast 400, the M2 and the Westlink have served as a bleak cordon sanitaire between some of the rival sectarian ghettoes in the west of the city. Moreover, as the security forces were quick to recognise, the limited number of crossing points for vehicles meant that the centre of Belfast could be more effectively secured against disturbances spilling over from the Shankill and Falls Road areas. This estrangement persists, long after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Peace did not bring the ‘peace walls’ tumbling down, or strip away the protective netting which covers tiny back gardens within lobbed-bottle distance of the other community.

Ulster is, and remains, a collage of confessional territories. As the late A.T.Q. Stewart remarked in his history of Ulster, The Narrow Ground (1977), every resident of the province carries around in his or her head a complex and detailed geography: they know which villages or streets are Protestant or Catholic, or mixed. These internalised microgeographies – of small urban pockets such as Sandy Row or the Short Strand – provide the matter of sectarian conflict, for, as the acerbic historian Joe Lee lamented, Ulster has a ‘dearth of major atheist settlements’.

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