Union Terminally Ill

Christopher Owens discusses the effects of Brexit and more with Paul Burgess, the author of the recently published The Contested Identities of Ulster Catholics.

From being threatened by loyalist paramilitaries for discussing a conditional united Ireland in the music press, through to his songs being covered by Samantha Fox (!) and his career as an author and lecturer, Paul Burgess epitomises a traditional facet of working class ideology: perseverance.

As an editor, his book The Contested Identities of Ulster Catholics serves as a companion book to 2015's critically acclaimed The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants. According to the press notes, this book:
...investigates the often-fragmented nature of Ulster Nationalist/ Republican/Roman Catholic politics, culture and identity... Historically the Catholic community of Ulster are regarded as a unified and coherent group, sharing cultural and political aspirations. However, the volume explores communities of many variants and strands, belying the notion of an easy, homogenous bloc in terms of identity, political aspirations, voting preferences and cultural identity.

Featuring contributions from the likes of Tommy McKearney, Anthony McIntyre, Gareth Mulvenna, Malachi O'Doherty and Aimee Smith, it's a long overdue tome that may hold uncomfortable truths for those with rigid views. 

Thanks to Dr. Burgess for taking time out of his schedule for a brief discussion on the book and where we, as a country, could be heading.

CO: ...Ulster Protestants received positive reviews for the differing views on the unionist/loyalist community. In 2018, when you look at the arguments made in the book (e.g. Gareth writing that " a community which for so long has been bereft of strong leadership and kinship networks") do they have even more prescience today, where noted politicians are openly discussing the possibility of a United Ireland?

PB: I believe that the Union is terminally ill. Yes, there may yet be periods of remission. Even some good days when self-delusion wins out over existential inevitability. But be in no doubt. Brexit and Scottish, English and Irish Nationalism are all eating away at the very fabric of the Act of Union itself. Additionally, Metropolitan London has ‘City State’ aspirations and the northern English provinces are clearly increasingly more dissatisfied with Westminster rule and the preferential treatment afforded London and the South East. All of this augurs badly for the maintenance of the union as we know it, in a post-Brexit UK.

Ulster unionism of course is a different animal to a large degree. Those who feel the winds of change most of course are the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist communities of Northern Ireland. For more than any other community within the union, they have (or perceive that they have) most to lose. This community have been at war to protect and preserve their constitutional and cultural status. A community who feel that the very ground beneath their feet is coveted by many of their fellow citizens who walk amongst them. And by another jurisdiction to the south, where senior politicians speak publicly of aspiration, inevitability and the fielding of candidates in their elections.

Nonetheless, faced with this scenario, the political representatives of Ulster Unionism have shown little or no capacity for adroit or imaginative responses to the unfolding dilemma. Rather, the duopoly of power sharing that passes for (sometime) governance in Northern Ireland continues to lock them into a ‘no surrender’ mind-set that is simply no longer fit for purpose. It may now be necessary to admit that until the ‘national question’ is adequately resolved, no durable and lasting solution to governance in the region is possible. We can no longer put the ‘cart before the horse’ so to speak. Former DUP Leader, Peter Robinson has acknowledged as much.

CO: With ...Ulster Catholics, what were the general areas you wanted covered, and were there any perceptions that you were keen to skewer? Aimee Smith's contribution seems interesting, particularly with some recent studies showing that a lot of younger people are identifying as Northern Irish. Catholics born post 1970 would have grown up seeing the country as just as much theirs as much as Protestants, with little division. Could this be finally happening?

I was particularly interested in challenging two key precepts. Firstly, I wanted to explore (and expose) the flimsiness of the apparent certainty that many Northern Nationalists had regarding their relationship with The Republic. The romanticised, idealised notion of a 32 county socialist Irish Republic so heartfelt of SF activists and PIRA volunteers ⇹ still crashes on the rocks of an unchanging partitionist mind-set and a rampant neo-liberal agenda. There is a tragedy in that of course, given the sacrifices many young people have made for that ideal. Throughout many of the chapters (and reflected in my preface) there emerges an ambivalence, ambiguity and at times downright hostility toward Northern nationalists from their southern kinfolk.

With ‘Tough, violent and virtually ungovernable? Northern Nationalists in the Irish Republic; a historical context’ Brian Hanley suggests some origins for this. Hanley’s chapter examines the reaction in the republic to the outbreak of the conflict in 1969 and examples of widespread sympathy with nationalists between that year and 1972.

Secondly, I have been keen to promote the rejection of the perceived dichotomy of the designations, ‘British’ and ‘Irish’. That is to say, that the two are not mutually exclusive and – in keeping with the tenets of the Good Friday Agreement – duel / joint nationality should be the accepted status of all citizens in the Province. However, perhaps a third designation - that of Northern Irish - could usefully sit alongside these fixed affiliations and be actively promoted by legislators in all civic arenas.

Both communities (and political parties) in Northern Ireland should be encouraged to reflect upon the changing nature of their relationships with their respective ‘Motherlands’.

Ulster Unionists have for some time feared that British citizens generally (and the metropolitan elite in particular) show a practiced indifference to their status. Furthermore, whilst the DUP may briefly enjoy a position of influence with the British Government, they should be in no doubt that the Tory party, civil service mandarins and a considerable number of the British public, are holding their noses whilst doing business with them.

Similarly, Northern Nationalists surely (if begrudgingly) must now accept that their ‘Irishness’ is viewed in somewhat different terms to/by those citizens residing in Munster, Connaught and Leinster.

Archaic appeals to outdated notions of exclusive affinity with both British and Irish states, needs to be re-cast in terms of a common, shared agency, dictated by the uniquely historical, cultural and socio-political factors pertaining to those who live within the state of Northern Ireland.

Emotional, cultural and economic investment in / ownership of the Northern Irish state by young Catholics has definitely been a feature of post GFA life there. The duopoly of viable political choices and the battle lines drawn between ROI remainers and UK leavers in the Brexit debate, has damaged this though. The political scene has been crying out for some time for a credible middle-ground presence of course.

But shared civic values and a common desire for stable, effective, devolved government have fallen foul of questionable ethics, conservative social mores and a relentless pre-occupation with identity politics and partition. Whilst internationally, shibboleths and previous certainties come under review and revision, the immovable object of unionist intractability continues to be vexed by the irresistible force of aspirant nationalism.

In that virtually unique manner in which Northern Irish politics can reduce the most complex and nuanced issues to a simple binary sectarian electoral outcome, both communities there find themselves signed up to the respective Brexit positions of the DUP and Sinn Féin. If dissent does occur within the virtually ‘Balkanised’ system of Northern Ireland, there exists no viable alternative political vehicle by which to mobilise or express it.

CO: It's interesting what you say about a third designation ("Northern Irish") as an awful lot of people between 18-30 that I encounter seem to regard themselves as such. Would it be fair to describe this as a post GFA effect?

PB: I agree that it’s a generational thing. The goalposts have definitely shifted for a significant number of young citizens. I’m less interested in this development for its own sake, but rather the potential to break out of the frustrating dichotomy of orange/green-British/Irish designations that keep people locked in. I do believe that there is definitely a definitive identity that is unique to the North East. It does not easily fit into the traditional Brit-Irish identifiers and there is plenty of good reasons for this, given the unique ‘melting pot’ history of Two key cultural and political influences acting upon the citizenry. 

CO: Given the rapid social changes that the South have been experiencing (described by one as "jumping from the 19th century to the 21st with no break), how big a role (in your experience) has that played in breaking down the notions of "Rome Rule" in the unionist community, and likewise the nationalist community?

PB: There’s undoubtedly been a massive transformation in social mores in ROI in the time I’ve been here (25 years) Ironically outstripping NI of course with its supposed shared British multicultural values and tolerance!! So the whole ‘bogey man’ preoccupation with ‘Rome Rule’ that had been a precursor to any consideration of a united Ireland, is simply not applicable. That said, Catholics here still interact with the church in a selective’ carte blanche’ manner, eschewing those aspects they don’t like but still embracing community events (weddings, 1st communion, funerals) as normal. Additionally, there has been no real state reform in regard to the continuing significant role of the RC church in education and health care provision. So in essence, the church has ‘gone underground’ somewhat, rather than left the field of play entirely. (ironically, not unlike the Protestant community at the formation of the state of ROI!) This symbiotic relationship needs to end, if progress toward unification can be made.

One less appealing development has been what I’ve been calling ‘Irish exceptionalism’ which can be explained by the thrusting neo-liberal success of policies that are exacerbating fiscal wealth creation for the few and driving social injustice. It’s very ‘un-Irish’ but can be evidenced in the financial sectors and Dublin political classes and saw Veradka and Coveney swagger somewhat in regard to Brexit and the negotiations. (Engendering a degree of bad blood amongst UK observers).

CO: When you talk about the hostility some southerners feel towards northerners, how much of that can be put down to traditional north/south rivalry (a la Manchester vs. London), and can revisionist historians such as Kevin Myers be held accountable as well?

PB: Whilst I think that there is a degree of hostility extended by southerners toward northerners, I feel that the prevailing sense is more one of mistrust born of lack of understanding. That is being addressed a little by the increase in tourism, south to north. However, it would be remiss to mention the latent hostility and resentment by certain sections of Irish society regarding the role of militant Republicanism throughout the troubles. There is an enduring feeling that the good name of the country was ‘dragged through the mud, around the world’ by the violence of PIRA. Admittedly, the strongest denunciations tend to lie within the affluent, educated middle classes who are conservative/ reactionary and hard headed about partition, the costs of the economic subvention to NI and the difficulties in assimilating NI unionists. There are of course regional rivalries, but the tensions that emerge between say, Dublin and Cork or urban and rural are very different to those held between both jurisdictions.

CO: From where you reside in Cork, do you see any hunger for an Irexit?

PB: I don’t personally detect any appetite for an exit from the EU in a similar way to UK Brexiteers. However, the EU inflexibility when it came to their insistence regarding bank bailouts, hurt the Irish people in the pocket. They should not be under any illusions that Europe will have no compunction in penalising them severely again if the situation should ever arise. Similarly, the position Europe is taking in supporting the Irish position in Brexit negotiations is purely pragmatic and somewhat serendipitous, as it offers the EU bargaining leverage. If that situation was reversed, Ireland would be expected to toe the line for the greater good. The recent vote for Peter Casey in the Presidential election does reveal a populist groundswell in Ireland, similar to trends internationally. But Casey is a business man himself, and whilst the status Quo is maintained in regard to a growing economy and inward investment, there is little prospect of any wish for an Irexit. (Despite an increasingly appalling record on issues of social justice and wealth inequalities affecting minorities and the underclass.

➽ Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.
Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212

Share This:

Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

2 comments to ''Union Terminally Ill"

  1. Excellent article. The next decade or so will be fascinating to watch and hopefully sense will prevail. The Brexit deal will of course be key. A border down the Irish sea is the obvious solution and may be the best outcome for the 6 counties. To be in the UK but also in the EU and closer to the south may put us in a "best of both worlds" scenario. It may also see both republicanism and political unionism get shafted and see them stamp their feet and throw toys from the pram which would cheer my heart no end! A change to allow the Irish president be a 32 county president and a 26 county return to the commonwealth would be another welcome development, bringing us closer north-south and east-west.
    With regards to "Rome Rule" any agreed Ireland would surely bring more secularisation as a way to sweeten any deal, and more secularisation is always good for society. The churches should have as little to do with public policy and life as is possible.
    Whatever happens the die hards are going to be disappointed.

  2. Rome Rule died with the Ryan Report and Marriage Equality, Peter.

    Funny how neither Planter/Gael/UK/Eire want a hard border and the Provo's political wing are actively agitating for a return to a partitionist assembly!

    The world's gone mad!


  • To add an Emoticons Show Icons
  • To add code Use [pre]code here[/pre]
  • To add an Image Use [img]IMAGE-URL-HERE[/img]
  • To add Youtube video just paste a video link like