Deciding I wanted to expand upon and add to the sense of balance in the first chapter of my present research, I browsed the library catalogue at Ulster University recently and selected a few books with a unionist slant on Northern Ireland. One in particular by Antony Alcock, a previous professor of Humanities at my own university and described as a ‘specialist in culturally divided communities and the process of European integration’ had me eagerly looking forward to the read. I had anticipated this book as potentially the pick of the bunch. Boy but I couldn’t have been more disappointed and deflated reading it.
The late Professor Alcock was born on the island of Malta in 1936 to an English Royal navy officer father and a Hungarian mother. Raised in Devon and Hampshire he was educated at Harrow and also did two years national service as a commissioned officer with the Seaforth Highlanders. He also did a degree at Montreal and an MA at Stanford California before completing a PHD over five years in Switzerland. After all of this Alcock would progress to become head of the humanities faculty at the University of Ulster Coleraine, and was an avid supporter of unionism and an advisor in more recent times to David Trimble during the recent peace process.
Reading through the book Understanding Ulster one could only wonder as to where Alcock received his loyalist sentiment from. Going back to pre-Christian Ireland and Ulster in particular his attempts to assert the historical separateness of Ulster was like a Daily Sport newspaper column rather than of an academic standard to be expected from the head of a university faculty. We are given little or no historical references to substantiate his claims. The reader quickly realises after being subjected to the assertion that Saint Patrick was more Protestant in his religious outlook than ‘Roman’ and that the plantations of Ulster were merely a ‘coming home’ of a people who had been pushed out to Scotland by the arrival of the Celts, that this is going to be an excruciating read.
The vast majority of the colonists who supplanted the ancient Irish were Scots descended from the Irish colonists of Scotland in the third and fourth centuries. In returning to Ireland the Scots were, in a very real sense, merely returning to the land of their fathers. It is on record that many of the planters spoke Gaelic hardly distinguishable from that on the lips of the old Irish. As the reader tries to digest this it is then claimed that the success of the plantations had been ultimately due to nothing more than the superior farming techniques of the planters in comparison to those of the natives.
As a result of economic competition and higher levels of agricultural skills and techniques the immigrants came to take over the most fertile land. The indigenous inhabitants were not completely evicted but merely moved onto marginal land.
Alcock goes on to suggest that whilst this created some inevitable friction, tension was eased by the plentiful availability of land as a result of large numbers of the Gaelic population having ‘left the country’. How convenient! In a tiny three lines between paragraphs he does for some reason inject some reality and contradiction.
Nevertheless, the effect of this (and the other) plantations was to introduce a foreign community which spoke differently, worshipped apart, and represented an alien culture and way of life.
This is a somewhat different description of events from the returning home to the land of their father’s narrative earlier. Was this work ever proof read, one is left to wonder. How disappointing.
The other major events in ‘Ulster’ history such as WW1 and WW2 are almost ignored in the chapter ‘Ireland 1919-1949 a Protestant state for a Protestant people and a Catholic state for a Catholic people’. The reader is basically told of the Irish betrayal of Britain with the 1916 Rising, whilst in contrast a few months later loyal Ulstermen were slaughtered for God and country at the Somme. That is your lot, effectively. The same summary treatment is afforded to WW2, with a brief mention of Eire’s ‘betrayal’ of Britain in withholding the Treaty Ports and its stubborn policy of neutrality whilst again Ulster remained loyal and true. No attempt at balance is offered regarding for example Churchill’s military advisors stating clearly with France in German hands the southern Treaty Ports would be too easily accessible to bombers and therefore of no strategic advantage in reality. This is where this reader was particularly disappointed, being presently researching Derry and the Battle of the Atlantic during WW2. The entire war is effectively ignored, airbrushed out of our ‘Understanding Ulster’ experience. We are simply expected to accept the ‘Ulster good and loyal’ and ‘Catholic Ireland bad and disloyal’ propaganda.
Then we come to the outbreak of the troubles in 1969 and are to be told the entire events were the result of a deliberate smear campaign by the IRA and Peoples Democracy taking control of the civil rights movement. This ploy was only successful with the assistance of a gullible Westminster and a media which for sensationalism continually encouraged children to throw stones at the police. The RUC for its part is portrayed as innocent brokers in a civil conflict rather than forming and essential part of the mobs burning Catholic streets. Seemingly there was no real sense of discrimination or gerrymandering either and the reason so many Catholics lived in a single ward in Derry was through choice and wanting to be among their own kind. (I kid you not).
Unionists felt they had been successfully smeared, that the whole matter was indeed a put up job by Irish nationalists and consequently any guilt for abuses vanished. Nor did it help that at the beginning of the troubles foreign journalists got children to throw stones at the police in order to get dramatic footage. Thus any hope of creating a relationship of trust, co-operation and understanding with the smearers - triumphant nationalism, gullible government, and a tendentious media-vanished. 
Alcock rambles on seemingly trying to convince himself that there are two nations on the island of Ireland and that the planters’ descendants today are no more foreign than American colonists or Swedes in Finland and attempts to assert, rather unsuccessfully, that there is no comparison with the white settlers in British Kenya or Zimbabwe.
Alcock describes ‘Ulster’ as the unloved unwanted garrison and laments the attitude of successive secretaries of state to N. Ireland in the past.
What has puzzled many unionists is that often a new secretary of state for Northern Ireland is appointed who immediately makes enthusiastic pro-unionist comments. Then suddenly after a few weeks, it is as if the unfortunate man has been taken aside, to a small room, and been shown something or had something said to him which had the effect of altering his attitude.
Whatever could have such an immediate impact on new arrivals in ‘Ulster’ seems somewhat amusingly to be genuinely lost on Alcock.
The book basically goes on to suggest that not only is a majority in Northern Ireland required for Irish unity in the future but the agreement of a majority of Unionists will be required to make that a reality as 750,000 will be as difficult to handle as a million. Academic threats it would appear as in 1912 mode, and there was one hoping that a Harrow, Stanford and PHD education may have broadened his perspective. Insightful and interesting also was the blame for the UVF and its sectarian murder campaign being squarely set at the feet of successive British governments and their repeated frustration and thwarting of the wishes of the unionist politicians. Simple! He then proceeds to suggest that both communities be encouraged to move away from the political poison of border politics by accepting the status quo and developing and concentrating on a mutual European focus and working to build the European structures as a kind of ‘self-determination’ and enjoy the benefits which flow from that.
The book was published in 1994, the author died in 2006. His book is sadly very unlikely to feature in my thesis as it was a major disappointment coming from someone who I would have been instinctively inclined to hold in respect and something akin to awe, being the holder of such an academic position. It was instead a very disappointing and deflating read. More of an Ulster propaganda exercise in too many places and but for the fate of religion the man could easily have been a ‘school of historicism’ classmate of Tim Pat Coogan. It came as a shock that someone with such a seemingly high standard of education and with a well-travelled background and having held an esteemed position at a respected University could produce this work. It had the potential for a great read, but the inability to contain his obvious loyalist and at times totally subjective sense of political bias ruined this. The constant injection of assertions and material that would be better at home on a satirical website or in jest on a political blog detracts hugely from the experience of reading this work. Is this really what they are teaching young Protestants in school? Sadly the only lesson I learned from this book was ‘don’t do it this way’.
Professor Antony Alcock, 1994, Understanding Ulster. Ulster Society Publications. ISBN 978-1872076188