Mike Burke 🔖 reviews an edited collection of Unionist writing.


Introduction

The Idea of the Union is an edited collection of 25 essays by leading unionist commentators and academics that aims to make a moderate and reasonable case for the union. It fails spectacularly. Large parts of the book are an embarrassment, which goes well beyond the ill-considered decision to have Baroness Hoey write the book’s foreword. Hoey’s petty and sectarian comments about nationalist influence that caused so much controversy after the book’s publication are, unfortunately, indicative of the views of many of the book’s contributors.[1]

The 2021 edition of the book, at 422 pages, is much weightier than the 139 pages of the 1995 edition. It warrants a considered review. Evaluating an edited book is always difficult because the various authors bring diverse interests and approaches to the task at hand. This diversity is evident in The Idea of the Union, even allowing that almost all the contributors write from a vigorously unionist point of view. The chapters cover different periods, from partition to the protocol. They use disparate conceptual frameworks including legal, constitutional, cultural, geopolitical, economic and historical. But commonalities do emerge from all this variety. I examine several conspicuous themes that appear in multiple chapters, and show how select authors contribute to the development of each theme.

The Idea of the Union counsels a retreat to a sinister past, takes a derisive view of nationalists and republicans, supports a multifaceted regime of unionist supremacy, demands a veto over constitutional change that fundamentally undermines democratic equality, and distorts history to serve narrow ideological ends.

In a recent letter to the editor in the Irish Times, Patrick Fitzpatrick urges people to listen to unionists’ views of Ireland’s future (Fitzpatrick, 2022). Columnist and former UUP advisor Alex Kane admonishes Sinn Féin to understand unionists’ perceptions and concerns before inviting them to join a united Ireland (Kane, 2022b). I trust everyone, north and south, will listen to and understand what unionists say in this book. For the most part, their views are small-minded and bellicose, and contribute little to discussions of the way forward.

The Unionist Time Machine

The book’s unionism is retrograde in two principal ways. It wishes to reconstitute parts of the unionist ancien regime and it attempts to resurrect the stale ideas and timeworn projects of unionists David Trimble and Arthur Aughey. Trimble died last week after a short illness.

In the first instance of retro unionism, some contributors wish to turn back the clock to 1967, before the mass mobilization around civil rights, the temporary disarming of the RUC, the abolition of the B Specials, the dissolution of Stormont and the imposition of direct rule (Smith1; Polley; Gudgin1).[2] Back, that is, to a period of unrestrained unionist rule and seeming constitutional permanence.

Other authors would recede to a more recent past, to 1997 or so, before the Good Friday Agreement. Their aim is to undo that settlement and erase all its direct antecedents including Sunningdale, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Joint (Downing Street) Declaration and the Framework Documents. They envision a regime that institutionally spurns nationalist and republican interest in shared governance, parity of esteem and democratic constitutional change (Aughey1; Dudgeon; Lowry; Smith2).

The two groups of unionist time travellers—those returning to 1967 and those to 1997—may, happily, arrive at a similar destination: a governance system in which unionists form a voluntary coalition with a moderate centre or perhaps obeisant nationalists as part of a United Kingdom secured against both constitutional change and institutionalized southern input. That the authors could seriously contemplate such arrangements is a measure of how hopelessly out of touch they are. There is, of course, an equality-based case to be made for reforming the Assembly and Executive to take into account Alliance’s recent consolidation of the centre ground. But the authors go well beyond adjustments to the operations of institutions to tear away everything positive that nationalism sees in the GFA. The cavalier ease with which they shred the Agreement and overturn its popular ratification indicates the tedious hubris that suffuses the book.

The Idea of the Union is so mired in the past that it spends little time talking about a reconciled and improved future.[3] Professor Nicholas Allen calls the book “a troubling unionist manifesto” and notes that: “There is next to nothing here of unionism as a programme for the improvement of society, the alleviation of poverty, the increase of educational opportunity, or as a resource to respond to climate catastrophe” (Allen, 2021, p. 1). 

The co-editors, John Wilson Foster and William Beattie Smith, responded quickly and angrily to Allen’s criticism. How could unionists devise such programmes “while they are harassed daily by an increasingly emboldened nationalist front with only one goal in its sights: getting Northern Ireland out of the UK and into a fantasy united Ireland, abetted by Irish governments” (Foster & Smith, 2021, p. 1). Foster and Smith’s position seems to be that the book’s contributors could escape from this stultifying harassment long enough to research and write their chapters exploring what the co-editors admit are “important issues;” but they just couldn’t break free sufficiently to think about the future of the north (Smith & Foster, 2021, p. 1). There is no favourable way to describe the co-editors’ argument here: it’s just idiotic to suggest that nationalist advocacy of Irish unity prevents unionists from thinking of how to move forward. Foster himself has written elsewhere about the agenda for discussions of the north’s future and proposed various kinds of consultative forums that should be established (Burke, 2020). In the book, though, concern with reviving yesterday’s politics obstructs engaging with tomorrow’s challenges, whatever might be the constitutional circumstance.

In the second instance of retro unionism, the book recycles the tired ideas and contradictory interventions of David Trimble and Arthur Aughey. As leader of the UUP, Trimble was directly involved in the negotiations that led to the Agreement and later served as the north’s inaugural First Minister. Along with John Hume, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts at finding a peaceful resolution of the northern conflict. Aughey is a prominent unionist academic, emeritus professor of politics at the University of Ulster and author of numerous scholarly works on northern politics and other topics.

Trimble makes two kinds of appearances in the book, as an authority on the Agreement and as an embodiment of civic unionism. On both counts, he leaves a mixed legacy. He endorsed and endangered the Agreement. He supported and repudiated civic unionism. The Idea of the Union bolsters the most disagreeable parts of Trimble’s varied political practice.

Invoking his status as an authority, Trimble writes a short chapter contending that the protocol is a “political betrayal” that “rips the very heart out of the Agreement” by demolishing the requirement for democratic consent to constitutional change (pp. 342 & 340). Other contributors call on Trimble’s privileged expertise to reiterate his argument that the protocol is incompatible with the GFA’s notion of consent (Foster1; Smith1). Hoey explains that because Trimble helped to construct the Agreement, “he should know” when it’s being violated (p. 7).

The book’s positioning of Trimble as an unquestioned authority on the Agreement is problematic. Trimble’s relation to the GFA and its aftermath is highly complex. On the one hand, he was instrumental in helping to bring about the peace settlement and gaining, for a while, majority unionist consent to its terms. Many commentators praise Trimble for these formidable achievements. On the other hand, he quickly moved to undermine some of the GFA’s basic provisions. In the moments after the Agreement was reached, he circumvented other talks participants to try to achieve outside negotiations what he failed to achieve inside them. Trimble attempted to impose on everyone his own highly contested interpretation of the GFA’s provisions on decommissioning, with initial help from Tony Blair’s side letter and Bertie Ahern’s prevarication (Browne, 1999; Watt 1999). His futile quest continued long after the Agreement had been democratically endorsed and led to frequent suspensions of devolved government that impeded progress for years. Trimble made another attempt to undercut the GFA in July 1998, as parts of the Agreement were being incorporated into domestic British law. He cooperated with anti-Agreement unionists to try to alter the GFA’s majority consent clause by imposing a unionist veto over constitutional change. He maintained all the while that he was not violating the Agreement. Other architects of the GFA understandably disagreed with him, and his attempt to change the Agreement after the fact proved unsuccessful (Hansard, 1998; Burke, 2021a).

If Trimble did not fully understand or accept the Agreement’s provisions on decommissioning and consent, he seems also to have misjudged the Agreement’s relation to the protocol. The protocol does not violate the GFA’s consent clause, no matter how much Trimble and the book protest. As Justice Richard Humphreys points out in his review of The Idea of the Union, the courts have repeatedly ruled in clear and simple terms “that the claim of protocol incompatibility with the agreement is clearly wrong.” He continues: 

This is basic, entry level stuff. ... Detailed reasoned judgments from independent British courts seem to have had limited impact on the [unionist] understanding of this issue. (Humphreys, 2021, pp. 8 & 10).[4]

In a strange recent intervention, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson seemingly refutes the position of Trimble and the book. He also appears to reverse his own initial stance on the protocol, which he confusedly continues to peddle. Whereas Donaldson regularly holds that the protocol violates the GFA, in March he began to make the additional and contrary argument that the GFA must be formally amended in order to create a violation between it and the protocol (Donaldson, 2022).[5] The March version of his argument came in response to yet another court ruling upholding the protocol’s compatibility with the Agreement. In short, Donaldson’s proposed amendment to the Agreement means to manufacture an inconsistency that doesn’t currently exist. Neither the book’s contributors nor the unionist appellants bringing their legal case against the protocol to the UK Supreme Court will be entirely pleased with Donaldson’s intervention. Clearly, Donaldson wants to have it both ways: the protocol unquestionably violates the GFA; but if it doesn’t, we need to change the GFA to make it so. However confusing and contradictory is Donaldson’s position, it’s at least more honest than that of Trimble and other contributors, who push as unvarnished fact a legal position that the courts have continually overruled.

The Idea of the Union plainly fails in its attempt to trade on Trimble’s purported expertise. Its summoning of Trimble’s civic unionism is equally unsuccessful.

Near the end of the book, three contributors refer directly and approvingly to Trimble’s civic unionist credentials. Academic William JV Neill and former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt appeal for an inclusive unionism and cite as precedent the Nobel lecture in which Trimble admits that the north had been a cold house for Catholics (pp. 361 & 378). Co-editor Smith, in his summary of the book’s case for the union, quotes Trimble’s ambition “to raise up a new Northern Ireland in which pluralist Unionism and constitutional nationalism can speak to each other with the civility which is the foundation of freedom” (p. 406).

Let me make two related observations here, one about Trimble and one about the book. First, Trimble was not simply a civic unionist.[6] He took both hardline and pragmatic positions. His contradictions and incoherencies spanned a range of ideological trajectories within unionism: cultural, liberal, civic, new, traditional, rational and emotional (Dixon, 2000, 2004; Patterson, 2004, 2012).[7] The Trimble of the Nobel lecture and the “pluralist parliament for a pluralist people” was also the Trimble of Vanguard, the Ulster Workers’ Council strike and decommissioning (Trimble, 1998). He was not opposed to triumphalism and supremacy, as he showed not just in Drumcree but in his 2002 address to a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council in which he characterized the UK as “a vibrant multi-ethnic, multi-national liberal democracy” and the south as a “pathetic sectarian, mono-ethnic, mono-cultural State” (Moriarty, 2002).

The second observation is that the book is by no means a civic unionist interpretation of northern politics, with the partial exception of the chapters by Neill and Nesbitt. Their reasonable contributions and their praise of Trimble’s civic-mindedness stand in stark contrast to the book’s overwhelming message of incivility and pettiness. Smith’s fleeting courtship of civility is contradicted by the rancour of everything else he says. His contributions, along with those of fellow editor JW Foster, are among the least generous in the book. The Idea of the Union magnifies the parochial as it marginalizes the civic aspects of a diverse unionism. It chooses to identify with the most illiberal and least civic of Trimble’s many sides.

Arthur Aughey, like Trimble, has a place of prominence in the book, which takes its title from one of his chapters. True to form, The Idea of the Union highlights unsavoury elements of Aughey’s unionism. In this section, I’ll discuss his and the book’s contribution to the notion of “culture war.” Later on, I’ll pick up this notion again and address other problematic parts of Aughey’s thought that the book reinforces.

In 1994, Aughey wrote a tract entitled “Irish Kulturkampf.” The next year, the Ulster Young Unionist Council republished it as a pamphlet, with an introduction by the Council’s Chair Arlene Foster (née Kelly). One prominent theme in this work is that nationalists and republicans—variously described as ignorant, narrow, backward looking, reactionary, nativist and racist—are conducting a “systematic cultural attack” on Protestantism and unionism (Aughey, 1994, 15). This concept of kulturkampf or culture war is now a staple of unionist discourse. Aughey didn’t invent it, but he helped to popularize it. He also directly implicated Irish reunification in this campaign of cultural subordination by legitimizing the idea that, for Protestants, a united Ireland suggests “race death” (Aughey, 1996, 23).

JW Foster enthusiastically endorses—even extends—the idea of culture war, although he does not use that precise term. Just as Aughey argues that nationalists turn culture into a weapon to assault Protestants, Foster suggests that they weaponize every conceivable issue, not just cultural ones, in their relentless attacks against unionists. Nationalist and republican positions on legacy, human rights, healthcare, the economy, the Irish language and countless other political issues become, in Foster’s eyes, mere “fronts” for the reunification campaign that continuously oppresses unionists (p. 17). Similarly, former UUP councillor Jeff Dudgeon discovers war in the courtroom. He sees the pursuit of justice through the courts—in such cases as the torture of the hooded men, the murder of Pat Finucane, the massacre in Ballymurphy and the internment of Gerry Adams—as examples of the republican “lawfare industry,” which uses “law to achieve the ends once reserved to war” (pp. 288 & 292). Dudgeon is particularly irritated that in each of these four cases the courts confirmed the republican narrative of the conflict. He urges the British government to shut down the lawfare industry by eliminating all avenues of legal redress for historical cases, in seeming anticipation of Westminster’s recent legacy bill.[8] On the legal battlefield, there must be no judicial or quasi-judicial validation of enemy narratives that challenge unionist or British orthodoxies. 

This distorted unionist lens sees war everywhere.[9] And its twisted logic prescribes that if this is war, then the stakes must be correspondingly high. They are, according to Foster. He reinforces Aughey’s linked concepts of culture war, Irish unity and race death, again borrowing the ideas but not the exact words. Foster warns of the plans of nationalists who actively advocate for a united Ireland. What these politically involved nationalists really desire is “power over unionists or an island cleared of Protestants” (p. 87). He further cautions that a 32-county republic will entail “extirpation of unionism on the island” (p. 82). Servitude, mass clearance and extirpation are very high stakes indeed. Readers would be justified in dismissing this constructed war as an unhinged delusion, except that its rhetorical waging has real consequences.

Humphreys is concerned about the book’s failure to indicate a willingness to abide by the results of a border poll supporting Irish unity. He believes that a unionist commitment to play by the rules might help to temper “the bogeyman of loyalist ‘resistance’” (Humphreys, 2021, p. 14). If anything, some of the book’s contributors are moving in the opposite direction by openly playing the Orange card. Smith, for instance, explicitly raises the likelihood of “intense resistance” by loyalist paramilitaries should constitutional change occur without unionist consent. That is, loyalist political violence may well follow a democratic border poll conducted under the provisions of the Agreement, which clearly do not require unionist consent to Irish unity. To Smith, the main problem is not the potentially violent loyalist response to a democratically produced outcome; rather, it’s the unbearable provocation and “moral absurdity” of the Agreement’s failure to institutionalize unionist privilege in a border poll (p. 405).

A similar concern arises over the book’s adoption of Aughey’s notion of culture war. While Aughey suggests that the proper unionist response to the Irish kulturkampf is to emphasize generosity and openness to diverse cultural expressions, his and the book’s use of the sensationalist imagery of war and devastation points to another kind of response. It’s easy to predict how the loyalist street might react to tales of Irish Nazis and commissars—to borrow Aughey’s metaphors—who are on the march behind their “United Ireland” banners to attack Protestant and unionist culture, with the ultimate aim of domination, sectarian clearance and extirpation. The street would erupt. In fact, instances of “culture war” in contemporary unionist discourse are, almost without exception, intended to stoke popular outrage in aid of mobilizing against the attacking enemy rather than to promote unionist generosity towards the “other”.[10] Aughey’s and Foster’s scenarios are dangerous scaremongering, pure and simple. They instill fear as a means of rallying unionists, which in turn may intimidate nationalists from holding, voicing or acting on a preference for unity. Many other damaging ramifications can flow from the politics of fear, as the history of the north shows. We need to ask just what kind of case for the union is this book making.

The Most Odious People Ever (MOPE)

Liam Kennedy, emeritus professor of history at Queen’s University Belfast, coined the acronym MOPE to signify that Irish nationalists view themselves as the Most Oppressed People Ever. For him, MOPE is a shorthand way of belittling the Irish people’s catastrophic historical experiences, blaming the victim while absolving the oppressor, and delegitimizing contemporary nationalist campaigns for change, including constitutional change. A few years ago, I heavily criticized his use of this notion (Burke, 2016). Now, I think it’s time to wrest MOPE from Kennedy’s grasp, so I reconceptualize the term to mean the Most Odious People Ever. In my usage, MOPE is an evidence-based summary of the offensive depiction of nationalists and republicans in the pages of The Idea of the Union.

In what is arguably the book’s most repulsive image, academic and former Royal Navy Reserve officer Geoff Sloan suggests that nationalism is a virus for which unionism is the vaccine (p. 63). I suppose that in some quarters this pandemic reference might be considered witty or de rigueur. I’m not in those quarters. In many ways, Sloan’s insult is but the nadir of a cascading set of derogatory remarks spewing out of various authors’ mouths. Let me take a quick and selective alphabetical walk through the book’s objectionable barrage.

For Aughey, Irish nationalism is incorrigibly sectarian, and the people who advocate for a border poll are tribal bullies driven by a “destructive neurosis” (pp. 238, 352 & 353). Foster sees nationalists and republicans as racist and hopelessly irrational, witless captives of theocracy and folk belief (pp. 79, 17 & 20). They are diehard cancel-culture warriors who are unsleeping, muscular, noisy and vigorous in pursuit of political dominance and a united Ireland (pp. 31, 13, 20, 29 & 28). Arthur Green, co-founder of the unionist Cadogan Group, views Irish separatist thinkers as reactionary and immature; their Irish story is whiney, crippled, inhibited and stunted (pp. 38-40). Edgar Haslett, an ardent integrationist who died in 1996, employs Kennedy’s conception of MOPE only to confirm the accuracy of my reconceptualization. For him, the nationalist view of Irish-British history is mostly propaganda, a self-pitying sob story that eschews objective analysis and has no relevance to today’s debates (pp. 190-91, 193 & 200). Conservative analyst Henry Hill regrets that UK-wide devolution did not fulfill unionism’s worthy goal “to kill nationalism stone dead” (p. 267). Neill’s story of the duplicitous nationalist spider trying to lure the innocent unionist fly into its dangerous web mars his reasonable if vague case for reimagining unionism (p. 364). Unionist journalist Owen Polley argues that the loathsome republican movement must be publicly humiliated in an act of contrition for its crimes, a position recalling Ian Paisley’s bigoted “sackcloth and ashes” moment (p. 248; Paisley, 2004, no page (n.p.)). Academics Patrick Roche and Brian Barton decry the role of nationalist leaders and politicians, who are sectarian, inflexible, negative, stubborn, extreme, and feckless (pp. 163 & 164). Smith depicts the southern state as blinded by illusion and myth. It is a ruthless exploiter that advances its relentless irredentist campaign through diplomacy and bad faith (pp. 184 & 187). During the northern conflict, it cynically leveraged Provisional violence “to advance its selfish political agenda” (p. 394).

I could offer many other examples, but I think I’ve made my point. There is, however, one related issue that deserves some additional discussion: the book’s use of Anglophobia.

Anglophobia serves three principal functions for the many contributors who employ the term. First, it emphasizes that Irish nationalists are an especially hate-filled people animated by anti-English, anti-British and anti-unionist feelings. That is, it confirms that they are the Most Odious People Ever. Hoey suggests that the Irish, especially those living in Ireland, love anti-English rhetoric (p. 8). According to Foster, many Irish Catholics believe that their anti-Britishness is part of an “ethnic type” that should govern all behaviour and tolerate no exceptions (p. 133). What better proof is there of Anglophobia than that hostile unionist analysts like Hoey and Foster should declare that it’s what the Irish really feel.

It’s ironic that such a spiteful book filled with open animus towards Irish nationalists and republicans should berate the Irish for purportedly being driven by hate.

Anglophobia serves a second function. As part of the book’s generally contemptuous view of Irish nationalists, it helps to diminish and dehumanize those who wish to end British rule in Ireland. It is a prelude to and justification for the book’s support of a political regime of unionist supremacy and nationalist subordination in the north, which is the subject of the next section.

Third, Anglophobia is an easy and lazy explanation of Irish and northern politics. It’s another form of victim blaming—akin to Kennedy’s version of MOPE—that both holds the Irish primarily responsible for all difficulties and minimizes or erases the substantial unionist contributions to conflict and division. Smith, for instance, identifies Dublin’s Anglophobia as the major cause of regular breakdowns in relations between the Irish and British states (p. 405). Many authors point to Anglophobia as the primary driver of Irish support for the protocol (Bassett, Foster2, Polley, Roche & Barton). For Foster, Anglophobia has specific effects that shape a destructive republican separatism and distort Irish-English relations (p. 30). But it also has general effects that are evident in every corner of Irish life: “the national narrative which is the Republic’s Story of itself, and which infuses every important aspect of society, is sadly still anti-British and anti-unionist” (p. 17).

I can’t emphasize enough how generic and empty is the book’s use of Anglophobia as an explanation. Anti-English sentiment is by definition a dominant cause of every Irish, nationalist or republican initiative that unionism opposes. It is so well established as a ubiquitous root cause that there is no need to provide concrete evidence of how it actually works or to weigh the relative contributions of other explanatory factors. Simply saying the word “Anglophobia” completes the explanation.

Supremacy and Subordination

The book’s unionism is ultimately founded on a supremacism that relegates nationalists and republicans to a subordinate social and political status.

Many scholars of unionism tend to minimize the supremacist elements of unionist politics and ideology. They point to unionism’s wide diversity of beliefs and practices to disprove the narrowing stereotype of a supremacist core. They also argue that regular displays of triumphalism, what Colin Coulter calls “swaggering supremacism,” are fuelled more by a profound sense of disempowerment than by self-satisfied feelings of superiority (Coulter, 1994, p. 14). In this section, I’m not directly concerned with such swagger or its reputed causes, although sound-and-fury unionism is related to what I address. I’m looking at a form of supremacism that derives from and links together various chapters of The Idea of the Union.[11] It may not be as openly provocative as triumphalism but it is no less real and no less pernicious.

There are at least five interconnected variants of unionist supremacism that appear in The Idea of the Union. British and unionist culture is superior to Irish and nationalist culture; the British conception of citizenship is better than its Irish counterpart; unionist identity in the north must have a privileged status denied to nationalists; nationalists must curtail their advocacy rights; and unionists alone must have a superordinate set of voting rights.

Culture and Citizenship: Ascendancy still

The first two variants of supremacism—centred around culture and citizenship—are most evident in the chapters by Foster and Aughey. Foster is primarily interested in making a cultural case for the union, although his notion of culture is intimately linked to politics. Aughey defends the union in political rather than cultural terms, but he is not averse to becoming an officer in the culture war, as we saw above. For the most part, the book’s other contributors follow these two authors in conceiving of the union and unionism as some combination of cultural-political elements.

Foster believes that unionism is not merely a political phenomenon; it is “a deeply embedded cultural identity and allegiance.” He describes this allegiance in personal terms: “the constitutional union . . .  best expresses the historic and contemporary realities of my cultural and ethnic kinship.” Further: “I am a unionist because unionism is my culture” (pp. 79 & 78). But Foster’s unionism is not simply a cultural orientation based on ethnic affinity, social solidarity or shared history. It is a socio-cultural hierarchy grounded in ascendancy. His study of Irish literary culture convinced him “of the superiority of unionism over republicanism” (p. 87). British culture ranks above Irish culture because it is bigger, broader and has more intellectual capacity. The south “does not have enough cultural storage space” to accommodate unionists (p. 83).

Aughey prefers a political to a cultural definition of unionism, calling it “a very pure political doctrine” (p. 238). He explains: “The idea of the Union is the willing community of citizens united not by creed, colour or ethnicity but by a recognition of the authority of the Union. Its relevant concept is citizenship and not nation” (p. 226).[12] Aughey creates a political hierarchy mirroring Foster’s system of cultural stratification. Aughey’s argument in support of the union is that the British notion of citizenship is inherently superior to the Irish notion. British citizenship is rational, modern, inclusive and based on equality. Irish citizenship is romantic, reactionary, exclusive and “deeply imbued with the spirit of racism” (p. 228).

Foster’s and Aughey’s portrayals are simplistic, their contrasts erroneous. But that kind of critique is not my main concern here. I wish to focus attention on both authors establishing their positions by unequivocally asserting British and unionist supremacy over Irish nationalism. We begin to see here an unmistakable congruity in the book’s general approach to unionism. Derogatory conceptions of nationalists, republicans and the Irish state produce direct formulations of the superiority of unionist culture and politics. And, as I examine next, this form of thinking culminates in support for a hierarchy of unionist privilege and entitlement in the contemporary politics of the north.

Identity: Reducing nationalism

The book’s third variant of supremacism explicitly champions an elevated status for unionist identity in the north. This form of unionist privilege operates at the nexus of culture and politics. The following schema is an abbreviated but accurate representation of the book’s unequal classification of unionist and nationalist identities in the north:

  • Unionism = Britishness + Union
  • Nationalism = Irishness – Unity.

Unionists must have their British culture plus their preferred constitutional arrangements: the north must remain part of the UK. Nationalists, in contrast, can have their Irish culture but not their favoured constitution: Irish unity is out of the question. These asymmetrical formulas, by their very nature, reduce nationalism relative to unionism. They define unionism as the indissoluble connection of culture to constitution, nationalism as the necessary separation of the two (O’Dowd, 1998). Nationalism cannot ever be unionism’s equal. 

The GFA notionally resolves the constitutional impasse between nationalism and unionism by a democratic vote in a border poll. The book resolves it by an antidemocratic decree, unilaterally claiming that unionism has constitutional supremacy over nationalism. I’ll return in the next two sections to the whole issue of unionism, a border poll and democracy.

The unionist schema outlined above has long been a central part of Foster’s thought. Reasonable and moderate unionists simply “desire to retain their Britishness in constitutional as well as cultural terms” (p. 12). Nationalists, on the other hand, must reconcile themselves to limiting their ambitions to those that can be met inside the constitutional framework of the union. Haslett explains the societal benefits of constraining nationalism:

With acceptance of Northern Ireland as an undisputed part of the United Kingdom, the threat (of Irish unity) would be removed and nationalist culture would become an enriching ingredient for everyone in a multi-cultural society. There never has been any impediment put in the way of the practice and enjoyment of Irish culture. If it were not exploited in pursuit of republicans’ wider political agenda it could become a source of pleasure for all of us and an important factor in building understanding between Northern Ireland and the Republic (p. 201).

Haslett’s argument, reprinted from the 1995 edition of the book, articulates what has become a conventional unionist demand for the development of a “non-political Irishness” that sees nationalism stripped of its constitutional aspirations (Kennedy, 1995, pp. 35 & 36).[13]

In demanding that nationalists drop a defining element of who they are, unionism refuses to accept nationalists qua nationalists. This refusal is a powerful declaration of supremacy. In this contrived universe, little if anything can be accomplished so long as nationalists continue to aspire to reunification. Constitutional nationalists must become constitutional unionists as a precondition for reconciliation and stability in the north and for understanding and normalcy in Belfast-Dublin relations. That is, all constitutional entanglements would be cleared immediately if only nationalists abandoned their goal of Irish unity. And everyone in the north and south could join hands to celebrate Irish sport, song, dance, theatre and literature.

It’s truly depressing that a book published in 2021 purporting to make a moderate and reasonable case for the union could regurgitate such a crude supremacism and prejudiced resolution.

Advocacy: Shut the fuck up about Irish unity

The book’s inegalitarian perspective on fundamental political rights is the fourth variant of supremacism. There is little likelihood that nationalists will entirely remake their identity by relinquishing their aspiration to Irish unity. Some nationalists even show a heightened inclination to pursue their constitutional goal, actively and peacefully. The book wishes to close down that pursuit by restricting nationalist and republican advocacy of a united Ireland.

The unionist narrative on nationalist constitutional expression can be usefully characterized as “shut the fuck up about Irish unity.” Foster captures the essence of this position: nationalists “should soft-pedal unification . . .  since not to demand unification is obviously the only chance for it someday to happen by consensus” (p. 87). I’ll unpack the full meaning of this quotation in due course, especially its duplicitous reference to unification by consensus. For now, I’ll concentrate on the unionist desire for nationalists to keep their constitutional mouths shut.

Unionist contributors to the book are not the only participants in this narrative. The DUP, UUP, TUV, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and other notable commentators in the north and south frequently adopt the same discourse. The SDLP employed it in the recent Assembly election campaign in an unsuccessful attempt to gain electoral advantage over Sinn Féin. I identify the narrative as unionist because it often proceeds from unionist sensibilities, serves the primary unionist objective of maintaining partition and connects to the book’s broader sense of unionist supremacy.

The narrative takes two forms. The first is the familiar story that a border poll is divisive; the second that constitutional change is a debilitating distraction from more important agendas.

Aughey, Foster and Smith equate a border poll with division, political instability and social tumult (Aughey2; Smith2; Foster1) . Talk of a border poll should cease, they urge, because it unsettles and aggravates unionists. This first form of the narrative is partial and partisan, capturing only the unionist tendency of the north’s constitutional dynamic. It emphasizes, almost exclusively, that there is no unionist consent for constitutional change. It says nothing about the equivalently significant fact that there is no nationalist consent for maintaining the constitutional status quo (Burke, 2021b). Humphreys captures the striking one-sidedness of this narrative: 

Generally, people who say that one cannot coerce hundreds of thousands of unionists into a united Ireland have no real problem with coercing hundreds of thousands of nationalists into a United Kingdom (Humphreys, 2018, pp. 84 & 85).

The glaringly conspicuous truth is that a border poll is divisive because the border itself is divisive. To be sure, the prospect of constitutional change disturbs those citizens who do not want change; but no prospect of constitutional change equally distresses those who desire change. To shut up about Irish unity in order to avoid division, as this form of the narrative demands, is to settle the constitutional divide in unionism’s favour. It is to say that keeping unionists constitutionally happy is more important than is allowing nationalists democratically to pursue their legitimate constitutional aspirations.

The second form of the narrative stresses that advocacy of Irish unity is a frivolous pursuit that diverts attention from the north’s pressing social and economic problems. It suggests that you cannot—at one and the same time—mobilize for constitutional change and address the rising cost of living, healthcare reform, income inequality, educational restructuring and the like. Again, the book’s solution is to have nationalists shut up about unity.

Aughey sets the overarching parameters of this type of narrative. Nationalists’ belief in the inevitability of a united Ireland pushes them to insist that preparations for unity must begin immediately. This kind of reasoning, Aughey asserts, takes the air out of other issues: “The policy agenda and political language will be determined by only one issue, how to achieve unity.” Pursuing a united Ireland reduces the complexity of the GFA “to only one idea” and makes reunification “the only priority” (p. 349). In short, advocates of unity have just one issue, one idea, one priority.

Others have picked up on Aughey’s conception of the suffocating oneness of Irish unity. The unionist Curatorial Group is so enamored that it reproduces Aughey’s argument in its own name (Curatorial Group, no date). Unionist commentator Alex Kane takes the same position as Aughey, arguing that “Sinn Féin now lives and breathes for a border poll . . . it occupies their every waking moment” (Kane, 2022a, n.p.).

The narrative of obsession gathers strength despite its manifest absurdity. That it was immediately employed against the Scottish National Party’s recent announcement of a second independence referendum suggests that the narrative is an unthinking ideological reflex mechanically applied (BBC, 2022). In the north’s case, there is no evidence to suggest that nationalists and republicans are preoccupied with Irish unity and a border poll. The SDLP constantly kicks the whole question further down the road. Sinn Féin, understandably, uses the opportunity provided by Brexit as a springboard for unity initiatives. But the party’s election manifestos, even since Brexit became a salient issue in 2016, do not give priority to unity; they routinely devote the same attention to reunification as to other matters.[14] And instead of pursuing just one issue, one idea or one priority, the party continues to publish policy papers on the full range of social and economic issues, north and south. Whatever one might think of such proposals, they are at least as detailed as any that other parties produce. Many different matters seem to occupy Sinn Féin’s waking moments. The civic nationalist group Ireland’s Future also has varied concerns. It conceives of reunification in the broadest possible terms, and hopes to encourage discussions of citizenship, rights, identity, and a host of socio-economic matters.

Nationalists and republicans are clearly capable of doing more than one thing at a time, advocating for unity and addressing other issues. But the purpose of the unionist narrative of obsession and suffocation is not to be historically accurate. It is to shove nationalists and republicans away from Irish unity by constructing a bogus and self-serving discourse of blame. Unionists are in effect saying to nationalists: “shut up about a border poll and roll up your sleeves so we may all work together on the real issues; keep talking about Irish unity and you will impede social and economic progress.” The narrative conveniently blames nationalism and obscures the heavy unionist responsibility for hindering progress.

The two forms of the shut-the-fuck-up narrative, that nationalist advocacy of a border poll is both divisive and distracting, are illustrations of what I term the law of constitutional inertia. The law states that “a constitution at rest tends to stay at rest, unless and until people actively mobilize to change it”.[15] For unionists, curtailing nationalist rights of constitutional expression helps to keep the constitutional status quo comfortably at rest. Taking away the means of change blocks the end of change. This narrative is not essentially about divisiveness or suffocation, but about ensuring that unionists get their way on the constitution. The narrative forms themselves are mere masks.

Democracy: My vote counts, yours doesn’t

The fifth and final kind of supremacism is the book’s claim to expansive electoral rights for unionists. One of the defining elements of modern liberal democracy is that the votes of all citizens are formally equal. Many contributors to The Idea of the Union wish fundamentally to undercut that democratic equality and introduce a system in which only unionist votes count.

The book destroys vote equality by demanding a unionist veto over constitutional change, although it shies away from using the language of “veto”.[16] It no doubt avoids that term because “veto” has such undemocratic or antidemocratic connotations. In fact, the book goes to great lengths to evade addressing what the unionist veto means for democracy in the north. Foster and Smith use many euphemisms for veto, suggesting that constitutional change occur by free consent, express consent, joint consent, parallel consent, collective consent or consensus (pp. 78, 405 & 87). Aughey resurrects John Hume’s idea of “uniting people and not territory” as a formula for constitutional change requiring unionist agreement (p. 352). Sloan employs the notion of “geopolitical realities” to ensure that the north forever remains part of the UK, just as unionism wants, regardless of majority opinion (p. 62). All these terms and phrases are pleasant-sounding substitutes for the grim reality of an undemocratic system of unionist privilege. A veto by any other name is still a veto.

The book’s unionist veto over constitutional change doubly disadvantages nationalists. It nullifies nationalist votes in a border poll and it negates nationalist opinion on the constitutional status quo.

Let’s examine first how the disadvantage works in a border poll. As we know, the GFA prescribes a simple majority of 50 percent + 1 as the threshold for winning a border poll. A unionist veto fundamentally contravenes the Agreement’s majority consent rule. Suppose that a border poll produces the following vote pattern:

  • an overall majority for unity
  • a nationalist majority for unity
  • a unionist majority for union.

This is the very kind of result that the book’s unionist veto is designed to subvert. Under the Agreement, Irish unity wins this border poll solely because of the overall majority, even if that majority is by one vote. But under a unionist veto, the exact same vote pattern yields the opposite constitutional outcome: unity loses and the union is maintained. Unionists win in defiance of overall and nationalist majorities, even if those majorities are substantial. In effect, nationalist votes in favour of unity do not count at all in the border poll result. Nor do the votes of other individuals who contribute to the overall majority by backing change. The only votes that matter are unionist votes; they entirely determine the outcome. If unionists votes are tallied first, there is no point in counting any of the remaining ballots. Better still, only unionists need go to the polls. Non-unionist votes are completely superfluous, whether they support unity or union.

The unionist veto in effect values unionist votes at 1 and nationalist/other votes at 0. It is a grossly biased scheme that rules out democratic constitutional change. I’ve yet to hear any reasonable or sensible defence of this kind of privilege. Certainly the book provides none.

The book’s notion of unionist veto carries a second major disadvantage for nationalists. The veto is unreciprocated. That is, the book offers unionists a veto over constitutional change but does not give nationalists a corresponding veto over maintenance of the constitutional status quo. Unity cannot happen without unionist consent; but the union carries on undisturbed without nationalist consent.[17] The unionism expressed in this book is so consumed by supremacism that it can’t even comprehend the deep unfairness and inequality in this lack of reciprocity. Nationalist constitutional preferences—either in support of change or against the status quo—hold no worth to supporters of a unionist veto.

In his critique of The Idea of the Union, Humphreys offers a comprehensive summary of the case against a unionist veto over constitutional change. Such a veto:

. . .  is a betrayal and a nullification of the most central core element of the agreement. A few obvious points:

1. Consent of 50 per cent plus one of the total valid poll is the only rule that treats both (unionist and nationalist) aspirations equally.

2. This is what unionism signed up to in 1998.

3. This is what a majority of the people of the region and of the island approved.

4. This is what the UK government on behalf of Northern Ireland solemnly agreed in a binding international treaty that remains binding.

5. It would be a parody of democracy to change the rules just because nationalism might succeed.

6. The notion of “parallel consent” [unionist veto] rigs the system, making the nationalist aspiration impossible because unionists by definition won’t give consent without ceasing to be unionists.

7. It also tears up the core concept of the agreement of parity of esteem by unfairly creating a double standard whereby the test for Union is different from the test for unity.

8. This makes nationalist votes effectively worthless, making unionist votes the only ones that count.

9. Such a negation of basic equality of civil and political rights is fear in the face of the democratic process masquerading as heroism.

10. If a majority for unity happens, unionist consent as the minority won’t be required, and that’s an inevitable feature of any fair, equal and democratic process. Britain, with all of its dignity and principle as seen from London, has had to let go of possession of a lot of territory over the years by yielding to democratic choice, and Northern Ireland would be no exception.

11. Every reasonable person would reject a mentality that would seek to impose a minority’s state on an unwilling majority, replicating pre-1994 South Africa on Northern Irish soil (Humphreys, 2021, pp. 13-14).[18]

The book’s brand of unionism rejects any democratic resolution of the constitutional question and instead decides the issue by calling forth discredited ideas of unionist superiority, privilege and entitlement. The north will remain part of the UK, just as unionists demand, even when there is no democratic basis for union.[19]

Distorting and manipulating history

In his introductory chapter, Foster promises that the book’s contributors will “set the historical record straight” in “the battle between historical truth and republican ideology and politics” (p. 17). The book’s back cover highlights this promise: “Irish separatist nationalism has had a fair innings. Now it’s time for reason and reality to go to bat.” These assurances describe a binary opposition between nationalist and republican propaganda on the one side, and unionist reason and truth on the other. They could and perhaps should be quickly disregarded as yet another tiresome illustration of the book’s supremacist unionism, another repetition of the same old imperialist trope. But it is worthwhile to explore how successfully the book establishes its claim to historical accuracy and truth. It is not at all successful.

Much of the book’s historical discussion is about apportioning blame for the conflict that erupted in the late 1960s. Let’s entertain a parsimonious model that the main historical agents in the north are nationalists (including republicans and the Irish state), unionists (including loyalists and the old Stormont regime) and the British state. Ben Lowry, deputy editor of the News Letter, explicitly identifies these leading protagonists, but many other contributors work with the same model in mind. If we were to express, as percentages, the causal weights that the book attaches to these various explanatory factors, the model of conflict in the north would look something like:

  • Northern conflict = 85%Nationalism + 14%BritishState + 1%Unionism.

The general model is that nationalism/republicanism carries by far the heaviest blame for conflict in the north; the British state shares some culpability mainly because it doesn’t always fully back every unionist whim; unionism and Stormont are relatively blameless. Our earlier discussion of Anglophobia as an explanation anticipates the imbalance of the causal weights in the general model. The book determines these weights ideologically, not empirically. Far from setting the historical record straight, as Foster promises, the book imposes an ideological explanation disguised as a scholarly one. And it projects this historical model into the present to conclude that nationalists and republicans are primarily responsible for contemporary division and dysfunction in the north, with Britain sharing some of the blame. As before, unionism is barely implicated.

Let me briefly illustrate how the model works. Barton’s examination of partition sets the causal weights that other contributors apply to the Stormont years and beyond. He emphasizes the republican rising of 1916 as a principal cause of partition. He minimizes the explanatory impact of naked unionist coercion that had the active and tacit support of the British state. He has next to nothing to say about the crucial parts played by unionist sectarianism and British duplicity in the placement of the gerrymandered six-county border. Roche and Barton sugarcoat the oppressive nature of unionist rule in the north. According to them, the south’s hostility to the new regime and northern nationalists’ refusal to embrace its parliament largely excuse any subsequent excesses by the northern state. Gudgin buries how the brutal loyalist, RUC and B Special responses to early civil rights protests set the north on a violent path (Gudgin1). Smith’s lopsided analysis of the crucial years from 1969 to 1972 faults the British state for betraying unionism by capitulating to republican terrorism and nationalist aggression (Smith1). Lowry plays word games, misrepresents the evidence and relies on sham statistics to conclude that state collusion in murder is not just a nationalist myth but a calculated lie. According to his analysis, security-force collusion is not responsible for a single conflict-related death.[20]

The misleading “explanatory” model is but part of the problem. The book also distorts the historical record to the point of completely inverting history. It turns history on its head by claiming that Britain is a cultural colony of Ireland and that the colonizing Irish are energized by the mission of bringing their superior culture and civilization to unionists and the British (Foster3; Aughey2; Neill). In this topsy-turvy world, the colonizer becomes the colonized; the oppressor, the oppressed; the superior, the subordinate. At the stroke of a unionist pen, Perfidious Albion transforms into Perfidious Hibernia. A similar reversal of the historical record that is remarkable in its sheer audacity portrays the civil rights movement using discrimination as a stick with which to beat unionism (Gudgin1).

In a final corruption, the book directly manipulates history to support the political and ideological campaigns of contemporary unionism. Aughey’s chapter on the constitution best illustrates this abuse of the past to assist the present. Aughey recalls fondly the years of Mary Robinson’s presidency of Ireland (1990-1997). It was a time characterized by several encouraging developments: a serious attempt to listen to and understand the views of unionists, an emerging ethos of cooperation, a new respect for the diversity of cultures in Ireland and a fresh appreciation of unionism’s constructive role in Irish history thanks to the work of revisionist historians.

This shining portrait of the 1990s that Aughey draws in 2021 is markedly different from the somber picture he presents in 1994, writing in the middle of Robinson’s tenure. In the mid-1990s, he does not sense any encouraging developments around him; he sees imminent danger everywhere. Recall that these are the years in which Aughey discerns an Irish kulturkampf—a concerted campaign by a narrow and sectarian nationalism to attack unionist and Protestant culture.

Aughey’s contrary depiction of the same period serves an important political and ideological function for unionism. Reimagining the menacing Irish kulturkampf as the benevolent Mary Robinson years allows Aughey to conjure the present as a serious deterioration. Robinson’s presidency is long gone, he warns; unionism really is in peril now. Many contributors join Aughey in representing a border poll as a major current threat from a resurgent and bigoted nationalism bent on sowing division and discord. The book’s brand of unionism needs a nationalist or republican “other” to despise and fear; it needs a powerful approaching enemy against whom to muster.[21] In Aughey’s hands, history becomes whatever unionism needs it to be. He gives unionism the same aggressive foe in 1994 and 2021, even though he has to remake history to do it.

Conclusion

Unionism is a much more diverse social, political and ideological force than this book suggests. In addition to the lack of civic unionist appeals, there is a dearth of working-class voices in the book’s sometimes proudly patrician focus on “the higher professions” (p.24). Perhaps unionists unrepresented or embarrassed by The Idea of the Union will share more fully their thoughts on the future of the north. Years ago, Norman Porter (1996) articulated a generous sense of civic unionism. More recently, the public statement of 105 civic unionists and others confirmed a strong commitment to equality, fairness and tolerance (Wilson, 2018). Currently, there are many grass-roots initiatives in which unionists work with other communities in a spirit of cooperation and mutuality. All these manifestations of unionism have infinitely more to offer to contemporary debates than does the book’s noxious project.[22] Unionism should move on from the retrograde attitudes, supremacist presumptions, undemocratic schemes and self-interested distortions that are the mainstay of The Idea of the Union.


Notes

[1] For some critical responses to Hoey, see Collins (2022), Murphy (2022) and McCord (2022).

[2] The names in parentheses refer to chapter authors. Some authors—JW Foster, WB Smith, Arthur Aughey, and Graham Gudgin—have written more than one chapter. I append numerals to an author’s name when it’s necessary to distinguish between chapters written by the same author. Smith1, for instance, refers to the first chapter written by co-editor WB Smith, starting on p. 168. Smith2 indicates Smith’s second chapter beginning on p. 389. I use the same notation for the other authors of multiple chapters. Sometimes, largely for stylistic reasons, I refer directly to page numbers to indicate which chapter I am examining.

[3] Neill and Nesbitt never get beyond the vaguest of platitudes in their generally well-meaning discussions of reconciliation. Haslett’s reference to reconciliation as “jabberwocky” and Dudgeon’s dismissal of it as “a dead letter” are sentiments that are all too common in the book (pp. 200 & 292).

[4] Brendan O’Leary (2022) makes the same argument as Humphreys, that the unionist position on the protocol’s incompatibility with the GFA is simply untenable. Gallagher (2022) finds that the British government’s arguments about the protocol, which mirror the unionist position, are a political construction that have no historical or legal foundation.

[5] Technically, Donaldson is calling for an amendment to the Northern Ireland Act, a piece of British legislation implementing part of the Agreement. His amendment of the NIA would materially alter the corresponding provisions of the Agreement.

[6] As Neill seems to recognize (p. 368).

[7] In an analysis that he admits “may well be too sympathetic to Trimble,” Dixon explains or explains away Trimble’s inconsistencies by examining the constraints and pressures the unionist leader faced (Dixon, 2004, 480).

[8] The British Government introduced the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill in the House of Commons on 17 May 2022. The Bill in effect bars prosecutions for Troubles-related offences. It also bars new civil claims, stops inquests that have not yet reached the stage of a substantive hearing, and prohibits any investigations outside of those conducted for information recovery under the Bill’s authority.

[9] Unionist historian Henry Patterson views northern politics similarly: “all areas of public policy are a battleground for republicans” as they pursue their insidious agenda of ethnic provocation and Irish unity (Patterson, 2004, p. 181).

[10] Michael Gove’s anti-Agreement tract is an example of the generic use of the notion of culture war (Gove, 2000). This nationalist war against the Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist (PUL) community is a recurrent theme on the Unionist Voice website. Interviews and focus groups with individuals involved in the flag protests in 2012-13 provide many other illustrations of the importance of culture war in mobilizing communities against what is construed to be a threatening enemy (INTERCOMM & Byrne, 2013; Halliday & Ferguson, 2016). Research by Paul Nolan and others shows that culture was one of six significant drivers of the flags protests (Nolan et al., 2014). Allison Morris examines how the current protocol protests by young loyalists are activated by perceived threats to their culture (Morris, 2022). The street politics of which culture war is a part reflect a deep and multidimensional dissatisfaction among some loyalists and unionists with the direction of politics in the north. The way in which the book uses culture war is a particularly cynical exploitation of that sense of deprivation. Neill’s chapter in The Idea of the Union is an exception to the general use of culture war as a means of closing ranks and preparing for battle. He frames part of his analysis in the discourse of a culture war but in the end suggests unionists must transcend that discourse by being generous, open and civic-minded.

[11] This supremacism is, however, not limited to the book’s contributors, as I examine briefly in the body of the paper. See also Burke (2020).

[12] Armstrong too emphasizes constitutional politics: “Unionism is, strictly speaking, a political allegiance to the integrity and membership of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” (p. 386).

[13] Dennis Kennedy leads unionism’s call for nationalists to develop a purely cultural or non-political Irishness (Kennedy 1999, 2005 & 2009). See also Roche (1995), Aughey (1996) and Walker (2017). In the book, Foster refers to “non-political Catholics or even nationalists” (p. 16). The conception of the “political” in Foster’s discussion is hypocritical and contradictory. As Foster makes clear, nationalists or Catholics who prefer unity are “political,” but those who prefer union are not.

[14] With the exception of the 2019 Westminster election manifesto, which has “Time for Unity” as its overall theme. Many party manifestos, including Sinn Féin’s, are available on the CAIN website (CAIN, 2022).

[15] With due respect to the Canadian “living tree doctrine” of constitutional evolution, which suggests that a constitution can grow and change over time. My law refers specifically to the constitutional change provisions of the Agreement. The Canadian doctrine is more general, referring to how developing social understandings can lead to expansions in the scope of human rights protections. In (partial) conformity with my law, the living tree doctrine still requires an active intervention—in the form of a judicial ruling—to inject new life into a constitution that is at rest (Centre for Constitutional Studies, 2019).

[16] In the book’s one use of the term that I noted, Aughey speaks ironically of “the unionist ‘veto’” (p. 347).

[17] The lack of reciprocity is consistent with the unionist narrative, discussed earlier, demanding that nationalists shut up about Irish unity because a border poll is divisive. Both “no reciprocity” and “no talking” devalue nationalist rejection of the constitutional status quo. For a more complete discussion of reciprocity and constitutional change, see Humphreys (2009 & 2018) and Burke (2021b).

[18] Humphreys is specifically critiquing Seamus Mallon’s notion of parallel consent to constitutional change, which gives unionists the kind of veto that the book endorses. Related to the concerns he expresses here, Humphreys directly challenges unionists to take “the democracy test” (Humphreys, 2021, p. 15). That such a challenge needs to be issued is indicative of the book’s highly questionable attitude towards democracy.

[19] Aughey is particularly brazen in his use of democracy as an argument of convenience. In the first edition of The Idea of the Union, he says that there is a democratic basis for the union as long as unionists are the majority in the north. But he is concerned that unionists could lose their majority status and that the north could be voted out of the UK. To counter this possibility, he suggests that unionists start thinking of themselves as a UK-wide minority and claim constitutional permanence as a right of minority citizenship. That is, even with no democratic basis, the union is to continue. For Aughey, democracy is simply an opportunistic argument to be employed or discarded as circumstances warrant. The important thing is to keep the north in the UK, on any basis (Aughey, 1995).

[20] Lowry continues to cite the woefully outdated and wildly inaccurate estimate that the state was responsible for 10 percent of conflict-related deaths (p. 313). Both Relatives for Justice and the Committee on the Administration of Justice pointed out years ago that the 10 percent figure is a serious underestimate because it does not take into account deaths caused by security-force collusion (RFJ, 2014; CAJ, 2015).

[21] Hoey encapsulates the book’s overall approach. In referring to the north’s centenary, she looks back on 100 years of threats and envisions even greater threats in the next 100 years.

[22] Three (perhaps four) of the book’s contributors signed the civic unionist statement. I leave it to them to explain how the statement conforms to the view of unionism expressed in the book.


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Moriarty, G. (2002). “Trimble says Republic is sectarian and pathetic.” Irish Times. 11 March. Retrieved from https://www.irishtimes.com/news/trimble-says-republic-is-sectarian-and-pathetic-1.1053269

Morris, A. (2022). “Powderkeg of loyalist discontent threatening to erupt this summer.” Belfast Telegraph. 2 July. Factiva.

Murphy, A. (2022). “People are being targeted for delegitimization.” belfastmedia.com. 15 January. Retrieved from https://belfastmedia.com/people-are-being-targeted-for-delegitimization

Nolan, P., and D. Bryan, C. Dwyer, K. Hayward, K. Radford and P. Shirlow. (2014). The Flag Dispute: Anatomy of a Protest. December. Supported by the Community Relations Council & the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Ireland). Belfast: Queen’s University of Belfast. Retrieved from https://pure.qub.ac.uk/en/publications/the-flag-dispute-anatomy-of-a-protest

O’Dowd, L. (1998). “’New Unionism’, British Nationalism and the Prospects for a Negotiated Settlement in Northern Ireland.” In Rethinking Northern Ireland: Culture, Ideology and Colonialism. ed. D. Miller, 70-93. London and New York: Addison Wesley Longman.

O’Leary, B. (2022). “The precarious and the perfidious; Twenty-five succinct essays on the complex operation of the Northern Ireland protocol.” Irish Times. 19 March. Factiva.

Paisley, I. (2004). “Extracts from Speech by Ian Paisley, then leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), at the North Antrim DUP Association annual dinner, Saturday 27 November 2004.” CAIN. Retrieved from https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/issues/politics/docs/dup/ip271104.htm

Patterson, H. (2004). “The Limits of ‘New Unionism’: David Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party.” Éire-Ireland 39:1 & 2 (Spring-Summer): 163-188. Retrieved from https://muse.jhu.edu/article/170171

Patterson, H. (2012). “Unionism after Good Friday and St Andrews.” Political Quarterly 83:2 (April-June): 247-255.

Porter, N. (1996). Rethinking Unionism: An Alternative Vision for Northern Ireland. Belfast: Blackstaff Press.

RFJ. (2014). Relatives for Justice. “RFJ respond to SoS Progaganda [sic] Myths.” 16 April. Retrieved from https://www.relativesforjustice.com/rfj-respond-to-sos-progaganda-myths/

Roche, P.J. (1995). “Northern Ireland and Irish Nationalism,” in The Idea of the Union, 128-134.

Smith, W.B., and J.W. Foster (2021). “Our new book tries to fill the gap in expression of unionist views.” News Letter, Letter to the Editor. 29 July. Factiva.

Trimble, D. (1998). “David Trimble's Address at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast, Thursday 3 September 1998.” CAIN. Retrieved from https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/events/peace/docs/dt3998.htm

Unionist Voice. (various dates). Retrieved from https://unionistvoice.com/

Walker, B. (2017). “Playing party politics over Irish unity always backfires; History shows efforts to promote reunification: have resulted in more support for unionism.” Irish Times. 28 August. Factiva.

Watt, N. (1999). “Differing interpretations of Prime Minister's last-minute letter.” Guardian. 5 February. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/1999/feb/05/northernireland.tonyblair

Wilson, J. (2018). “A Positive Challenge To Northern Ireland Nationalists.” The Pensive Quill. 27 February. Retrieved from https://www.thepensivequill.com/2018/02/a-positive-challenge-to-northern.html

📚 John Wilson Foster and William Beattie Smith (eds), The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland—Realities and Challenges, 2021. Belcouver Press. ISBN-13: ‎978-0993560729

⏮ Mike Burke has lectured in Politics and Public Administration in Canada for over 30 years.

Retro Unionism

Mike Burke 🔖 reviews an edited collection of Unionist writing.


Introduction

The Idea of the Union is an edited collection of 25 essays by leading unionist commentators and academics that aims to make a moderate and reasonable case for the union. It fails spectacularly. Large parts of the book are an embarrassment, which goes well beyond the ill-considered decision to have Baroness Hoey write the book’s foreword. Hoey’s petty and sectarian comments about nationalist influence that caused so much controversy after the book’s publication are, unfortunately, indicative of the views of many of the book’s contributors.[1]

The 2021 edition of the book, at 422 pages, is much weightier than the 139 pages of the 1995 edition. It warrants a considered review. Evaluating an edited book is always difficult because the various authors bring diverse interests and approaches to the task at hand. This diversity is evident in The Idea of the Union, even allowing that almost all the contributors write from a vigorously unionist point of view. The chapters cover different periods, from partition to the protocol. They use disparate conceptual frameworks including legal, constitutional, cultural, geopolitical, economic and historical. But commonalities do emerge from all this variety. I examine several conspicuous themes that appear in multiple chapters, and show how select authors contribute to the development of each theme.

The Idea of the Union counsels a retreat to a sinister past, takes a derisive view of nationalists and republicans, supports a multifaceted regime of unionist supremacy, demands a veto over constitutional change that fundamentally undermines democratic equality, and distorts history to serve narrow ideological ends.

In a recent letter to the editor in the Irish Times, Patrick Fitzpatrick urges people to listen to unionists’ views of Ireland’s future (Fitzpatrick, 2022). Columnist and former UUP advisor Alex Kane admonishes Sinn Féin to understand unionists’ perceptions and concerns before inviting them to join a united Ireland (Kane, 2022b). I trust everyone, north and south, will listen to and understand what unionists say in this book. For the most part, their views are small-minded and bellicose, and contribute little to discussions of the way forward.

The Unionist Time Machine

The book’s unionism is retrograde in two principal ways. It wishes to reconstitute parts of the unionist ancien regime and it attempts to resurrect the stale ideas and timeworn projects of unionists David Trimble and Arthur Aughey. Trimble died last week after a short illness.

In the first instance of retro unionism, some contributors wish to turn back the clock to 1967, before the mass mobilization around civil rights, the temporary disarming of the RUC, the abolition of the B Specials, the dissolution of Stormont and the imposition of direct rule (Smith1; Polley; Gudgin1).[2] Back, that is, to a period of unrestrained unionist rule and seeming constitutional permanence.

Other authors would recede to a more recent past, to 1997 or so, before the Good Friday Agreement. Their aim is to undo that settlement and erase all its direct antecedents including Sunningdale, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Joint (Downing Street) Declaration and the Framework Documents. They envision a regime that institutionally spurns nationalist and republican interest in shared governance, parity of esteem and democratic constitutional change (Aughey1; Dudgeon; Lowry; Smith2).

The two groups of unionist time travellers—those returning to 1967 and those to 1997—may, happily, arrive at a similar destination: a governance system in which unionists form a voluntary coalition with a moderate centre or perhaps obeisant nationalists as part of a United Kingdom secured against both constitutional change and institutionalized southern input. That the authors could seriously contemplate such arrangements is a measure of how hopelessly out of touch they are. There is, of course, an equality-based case to be made for reforming the Assembly and Executive to take into account Alliance’s recent consolidation of the centre ground. But the authors go well beyond adjustments to the operations of institutions to tear away everything positive that nationalism sees in the GFA. The cavalier ease with which they shred the Agreement and overturn its popular ratification indicates the tedious hubris that suffuses the book.

The Idea of the Union is so mired in the past that it spends little time talking about a reconciled and improved future.[3] Professor Nicholas Allen calls the book “a troubling unionist manifesto” and notes that: “There is next to nothing here of unionism as a programme for the improvement of society, the alleviation of poverty, the increase of educational opportunity, or as a resource to respond to climate catastrophe” (Allen, 2021, p. 1). 

The co-editors, John Wilson Foster and William Beattie Smith, responded quickly and angrily to Allen’s criticism. How could unionists devise such programmes “while they are harassed daily by an increasingly emboldened nationalist front with only one goal in its sights: getting Northern Ireland out of the UK and into a fantasy united Ireland, abetted by Irish governments” (Foster & Smith, 2021, p. 1). Foster and Smith’s position seems to be that the book’s contributors could escape from this stultifying harassment long enough to research and write their chapters exploring what the co-editors admit are “important issues;” but they just couldn’t break free sufficiently to think about the future of the north (Smith & Foster, 2021, p. 1). There is no favourable way to describe the co-editors’ argument here: it’s just idiotic to suggest that nationalist advocacy of Irish unity prevents unionists from thinking of how to move forward. Foster himself has written elsewhere about the agenda for discussions of the north’s future and proposed various kinds of consultative forums that should be established (Burke, 2020). In the book, though, concern with reviving yesterday’s politics obstructs engaging with tomorrow’s challenges, whatever might be the constitutional circumstance.

In the second instance of retro unionism, the book recycles the tired ideas and contradictory interventions of David Trimble and Arthur Aughey. As leader of the UUP, Trimble was directly involved in the negotiations that led to the Agreement and later served as the north’s inaugural First Minister. Along with John Hume, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts at finding a peaceful resolution of the northern conflict. Aughey is a prominent unionist academic, emeritus professor of politics at the University of Ulster and author of numerous scholarly works on northern politics and other topics.

Trimble makes two kinds of appearances in the book, as an authority on the Agreement and as an embodiment of civic unionism. On both counts, he leaves a mixed legacy. He endorsed and endangered the Agreement. He supported and repudiated civic unionism. The Idea of the Union bolsters the most disagreeable parts of Trimble’s varied political practice.

Invoking his status as an authority, Trimble writes a short chapter contending that the protocol is a “political betrayal” that “rips the very heart out of the Agreement” by demolishing the requirement for democratic consent to constitutional change (pp. 342 & 340). Other contributors call on Trimble’s privileged expertise to reiterate his argument that the protocol is incompatible with the GFA’s notion of consent (Foster1; Smith1). Hoey explains that because Trimble helped to construct the Agreement, “he should know” when it’s being violated (p. 7).

The book’s positioning of Trimble as an unquestioned authority on the Agreement is problematic. Trimble’s relation to the GFA and its aftermath is highly complex. On the one hand, he was instrumental in helping to bring about the peace settlement and gaining, for a while, majority unionist consent to its terms. Many commentators praise Trimble for these formidable achievements. On the other hand, he quickly moved to undermine some of the GFA’s basic provisions. In the moments after the Agreement was reached, he circumvented other talks participants to try to achieve outside negotiations what he failed to achieve inside them. Trimble attempted to impose on everyone his own highly contested interpretation of the GFA’s provisions on decommissioning, with initial help from Tony Blair’s side letter and Bertie Ahern’s prevarication (Browne, 1999; Watt 1999). His futile quest continued long after the Agreement had been democratically endorsed and led to frequent suspensions of devolved government that impeded progress for years. Trimble made another attempt to undercut the GFA in July 1998, as parts of the Agreement were being incorporated into domestic British law. He cooperated with anti-Agreement unionists to try to alter the GFA’s majority consent clause by imposing a unionist veto over constitutional change. He maintained all the while that he was not violating the Agreement. Other architects of the GFA understandably disagreed with him, and his attempt to change the Agreement after the fact proved unsuccessful (Hansard, 1998; Burke, 2021a).

If Trimble did not fully understand or accept the Agreement’s provisions on decommissioning and consent, he seems also to have misjudged the Agreement’s relation to the protocol. The protocol does not violate the GFA’s consent clause, no matter how much Trimble and the book protest. As Justice Richard Humphreys points out in his review of The Idea of the Union, the courts have repeatedly ruled in clear and simple terms “that the claim of protocol incompatibility with the agreement is clearly wrong.” He continues: 

This is basic, entry level stuff. ... Detailed reasoned judgments from independent British courts seem to have had limited impact on the [unionist] understanding of this issue. (Humphreys, 2021, pp. 8 & 10).[4]

In a strange recent intervention, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson seemingly refutes the position of Trimble and the book. He also appears to reverse his own initial stance on the protocol, which he confusedly continues to peddle. Whereas Donaldson regularly holds that the protocol violates the GFA, in March he began to make the additional and contrary argument that the GFA must be formally amended in order to create a violation between it and the protocol (Donaldson, 2022).[5] The March version of his argument came in response to yet another court ruling upholding the protocol’s compatibility with the Agreement. In short, Donaldson’s proposed amendment to the Agreement means to manufacture an inconsistency that doesn’t currently exist. Neither the book’s contributors nor the unionist appellants bringing their legal case against the protocol to the UK Supreme Court will be entirely pleased with Donaldson’s intervention. Clearly, Donaldson wants to have it both ways: the protocol unquestionably violates the GFA; but if it doesn’t, we need to change the GFA to make it so. However confusing and contradictory is Donaldson’s position, it’s at least more honest than that of Trimble and other contributors, who push as unvarnished fact a legal position that the courts have continually overruled.

The Idea of the Union plainly fails in its attempt to trade on Trimble’s purported expertise. Its summoning of Trimble’s civic unionism is equally unsuccessful.

Near the end of the book, three contributors refer directly and approvingly to Trimble’s civic unionist credentials. Academic William JV Neill and former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt appeal for an inclusive unionism and cite as precedent the Nobel lecture in which Trimble admits that the north had been a cold house for Catholics (pp. 361 & 378). Co-editor Smith, in his summary of the book’s case for the union, quotes Trimble’s ambition “to raise up a new Northern Ireland in which pluralist Unionism and constitutional nationalism can speak to each other with the civility which is the foundation of freedom” (p. 406).

Let me make two related observations here, one about Trimble and one about the book. First, Trimble was not simply a civic unionist.[6] He took both hardline and pragmatic positions. His contradictions and incoherencies spanned a range of ideological trajectories within unionism: cultural, liberal, civic, new, traditional, rational and emotional (Dixon, 2000, 2004; Patterson, 2004, 2012).[7] The Trimble of the Nobel lecture and the “pluralist parliament for a pluralist people” was also the Trimble of Vanguard, the Ulster Workers’ Council strike and decommissioning (Trimble, 1998). He was not opposed to triumphalism and supremacy, as he showed not just in Drumcree but in his 2002 address to a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council in which he characterized the UK as “a vibrant multi-ethnic, multi-national liberal democracy” and the south as a “pathetic sectarian, mono-ethnic, mono-cultural State” (Moriarty, 2002).

The second observation is that the book is by no means a civic unionist interpretation of northern politics, with the partial exception of the chapters by Neill and Nesbitt. Their reasonable contributions and their praise of Trimble’s civic-mindedness stand in stark contrast to the book’s overwhelming message of incivility and pettiness. Smith’s fleeting courtship of civility is contradicted by the rancour of everything else he says. His contributions, along with those of fellow editor JW Foster, are among the least generous in the book. The Idea of the Union magnifies the parochial as it marginalizes the civic aspects of a diverse unionism. It chooses to identify with the most illiberal and least civic of Trimble’s many sides.

Arthur Aughey, like Trimble, has a place of prominence in the book, which takes its title from one of his chapters. True to form, The Idea of the Union highlights unsavoury elements of Aughey’s unionism. In this section, I’ll discuss his and the book’s contribution to the notion of “culture war.” Later on, I’ll pick up this notion again and address other problematic parts of Aughey’s thought that the book reinforces.

In 1994, Aughey wrote a tract entitled “Irish Kulturkampf.” The next year, the Ulster Young Unionist Council republished it as a pamphlet, with an introduction by the Council’s Chair Arlene Foster (née Kelly). One prominent theme in this work is that nationalists and republicans—variously described as ignorant, narrow, backward looking, reactionary, nativist and racist—are conducting a “systematic cultural attack” on Protestantism and unionism (Aughey, 1994, 15). This concept of kulturkampf or culture war is now a staple of unionist discourse. Aughey didn’t invent it, but he helped to popularize it. He also directly implicated Irish reunification in this campaign of cultural subordination by legitimizing the idea that, for Protestants, a united Ireland suggests “race death” (Aughey, 1996, 23).

JW Foster enthusiastically endorses—even extends—the idea of culture war, although he does not use that precise term. Just as Aughey argues that nationalists turn culture into a weapon to assault Protestants, Foster suggests that they weaponize every conceivable issue, not just cultural ones, in their relentless attacks against unionists. Nationalist and republican positions on legacy, human rights, healthcare, the economy, the Irish language and countless other political issues become, in Foster’s eyes, mere “fronts” for the reunification campaign that continuously oppresses unionists (p. 17). Similarly, former UUP councillor Jeff Dudgeon discovers war in the courtroom. He sees the pursuit of justice through the courts—in such cases as the torture of the hooded men, the murder of Pat Finucane, the massacre in Ballymurphy and the internment of Gerry Adams—as examples of the republican “lawfare industry,” which uses “law to achieve the ends once reserved to war” (pp. 288 & 292). Dudgeon is particularly irritated that in each of these four cases the courts confirmed the republican narrative of the conflict. He urges the British government to shut down the lawfare industry by eliminating all avenues of legal redress for historical cases, in seeming anticipation of Westminster’s recent legacy bill.[8] On the legal battlefield, there must be no judicial or quasi-judicial validation of enemy narratives that challenge unionist or British orthodoxies. 

This distorted unionist lens sees war everywhere.[9] And its twisted logic prescribes that if this is war, then the stakes must be correspondingly high. They are, according to Foster. He reinforces Aughey’s linked concepts of culture war, Irish unity and race death, again borrowing the ideas but not the exact words. Foster warns of the plans of nationalists who actively advocate for a united Ireland. What these politically involved nationalists really desire is “power over unionists or an island cleared of Protestants” (p. 87). He further cautions that a 32-county republic will entail “extirpation of unionism on the island” (p. 82). Servitude, mass clearance and extirpation are very high stakes indeed. Readers would be justified in dismissing this constructed war as an unhinged delusion, except that its rhetorical waging has real consequences.

Humphreys is concerned about the book’s failure to indicate a willingness to abide by the results of a border poll supporting Irish unity. He believes that a unionist commitment to play by the rules might help to temper “the bogeyman of loyalist ‘resistance’” (Humphreys, 2021, p. 14). If anything, some of the book’s contributors are moving in the opposite direction by openly playing the Orange card. Smith, for instance, explicitly raises the likelihood of “intense resistance” by loyalist paramilitaries should constitutional change occur without unionist consent. That is, loyalist political violence may well follow a democratic border poll conducted under the provisions of the Agreement, which clearly do not require unionist consent to Irish unity. To Smith, the main problem is not the potentially violent loyalist response to a democratically produced outcome; rather, it’s the unbearable provocation and “moral absurdity” of the Agreement’s failure to institutionalize unionist privilege in a border poll (p. 405).

A similar concern arises over the book’s adoption of Aughey’s notion of culture war. While Aughey suggests that the proper unionist response to the Irish kulturkampf is to emphasize generosity and openness to diverse cultural expressions, his and the book’s use of the sensationalist imagery of war and devastation points to another kind of response. It’s easy to predict how the loyalist street might react to tales of Irish Nazis and commissars—to borrow Aughey’s metaphors—who are on the march behind their “United Ireland” banners to attack Protestant and unionist culture, with the ultimate aim of domination, sectarian clearance and extirpation. The street would erupt. In fact, instances of “culture war” in contemporary unionist discourse are, almost without exception, intended to stoke popular outrage in aid of mobilizing against the attacking enemy rather than to promote unionist generosity towards the “other”.[10] Aughey’s and Foster’s scenarios are dangerous scaremongering, pure and simple. They instill fear as a means of rallying unionists, which in turn may intimidate nationalists from holding, voicing or acting on a preference for unity. Many other damaging ramifications can flow from the politics of fear, as the history of the north shows. We need to ask just what kind of case for the union is this book making.

The Most Odious People Ever (MOPE)

Liam Kennedy, emeritus professor of history at Queen’s University Belfast, coined the acronym MOPE to signify that Irish nationalists view themselves as the Most Oppressed People Ever. For him, MOPE is a shorthand way of belittling the Irish people’s catastrophic historical experiences, blaming the victim while absolving the oppressor, and delegitimizing contemporary nationalist campaigns for change, including constitutional change. A few years ago, I heavily criticized his use of this notion (Burke, 2016). Now, I think it’s time to wrest MOPE from Kennedy’s grasp, so I reconceptualize the term to mean the Most Odious People Ever. In my usage, MOPE is an evidence-based summary of the offensive depiction of nationalists and republicans in the pages of The Idea of the Union.

In what is arguably the book’s most repulsive image, academic and former Royal Navy Reserve officer Geoff Sloan suggests that nationalism is a virus for which unionism is the vaccine (p. 63). I suppose that in some quarters this pandemic reference might be considered witty or de rigueur. I’m not in those quarters. In many ways, Sloan’s insult is but the nadir of a cascading set of derogatory remarks spewing out of various authors’ mouths. Let me take a quick and selective alphabetical walk through the book’s objectionable barrage.

For Aughey, Irish nationalism is incorrigibly sectarian, and the people who advocate for a border poll are tribal bullies driven by a “destructive neurosis” (pp. 238, 352 & 353). Foster sees nationalists and republicans as racist and hopelessly irrational, witless captives of theocracy and folk belief (pp. 79, 17 & 20). They are diehard cancel-culture warriors who are unsleeping, muscular, noisy and vigorous in pursuit of political dominance and a united Ireland (pp. 31, 13, 20, 29 & 28). Arthur Green, co-founder of the unionist Cadogan Group, views Irish separatist thinkers as reactionary and immature; their Irish story is whiney, crippled, inhibited and stunted (pp. 38-40). Edgar Haslett, an ardent integrationist who died in 1996, employs Kennedy’s conception of MOPE only to confirm the accuracy of my reconceptualization. For him, the nationalist view of Irish-British history is mostly propaganda, a self-pitying sob story that eschews objective analysis and has no relevance to today’s debates (pp. 190-91, 193 & 200). Conservative analyst Henry Hill regrets that UK-wide devolution did not fulfill unionism’s worthy goal “to kill nationalism stone dead” (p. 267). Neill’s story of the duplicitous nationalist spider trying to lure the innocent unionist fly into its dangerous web mars his reasonable if vague case for reimagining unionism (p. 364). Unionist journalist Owen Polley argues that the loathsome republican movement must be publicly humiliated in an act of contrition for its crimes, a position recalling Ian Paisley’s bigoted “sackcloth and ashes” moment (p. 248; Paisley, 2004, no page (n.p.)). Academics Patrick Roche and Brian Barton decry the role of nationalist leaders and politicians, who are sectarian, inflexible, negative, stubborn, extreme, and feckless (pp. 163 & 164). Smith depicts the southern state as blinded by illusion and myth. It is a ruthless exploiter that advances its relentless irredentist campaign through diplomacy and bad faith (pp. 184 & 187). During the northern conflict, it cynically leveraged Provisional violence “to advance its selfish political agenda” (p. 394).

I could offer many other examples, but I think I’ve made my point. There is, however, one related issue that deserves some additional discussion: the book’s use of Anglophobia.

Anglophobia serves three principal functions for the many contributors who employ the term. First, it emphasizes that Irish nationalists are an especially hate-filled people animated by anti-English, anti-British and anti-unionist feelings. That is, it confirms that they are the Most Odious People Ever. Hoey suggests that the Irish, especially those living in Ireland, love anti-English rhetoric (p. 8). According to Foster, many Irish Catholics believe that their anti-Britishness is part of an “ethnic type” that should govern all behaviour and tolerate no exceptions (p. 133). What better proof is there of Anglophobia than that hostile unionist analysts like Hoey and Foster should declare that it’s what the Irish really feel.

It’s ironic that such a spiteful book filled with open animus towards Irish nationalists and republicans should berate the Irish for purportedly being driven by hate.

Anglophobia serves a second function. As part of the book’s generally contemptuous view of Irish nationalists, it helps to diminish and dehumanize those who wish to end British rule in Ireland. It is a prelude to and justification for the book’s support of a political regime of unionist supremacy and nationalist subordination in the north, which is the subject of the next section.

Third, Anglophobia is an easy and lazy explanation of Irish and northern politics. It’s another form of victim blaming—akin to Kennedy’s version of MOPE—that both holds the Irish primarily responsible for all difficulties and minimizes or erases the substantial unionist contributions to conflict and division. Smith, for instance, identifies Dublin’s Anglophobia as the major cause of regular breakdowns in relations between the Irish and British states (p. 405). Many authors point to Anglophobia as the primary driver of Irish support for the protocol (Bassett, Foster2, Polley, Roche & Barton). For Foster, Anglophobia has specific effects that shape a destructive republican separatism and distort Irish-English relations (p. 30). But it also has general effects that are evident in every corner of Irish life: “the national narrative which is the Republic’s Story of itself, and which infuses every important aspect of society, is sadly still anti-British and anti-unionist” (p. 17).

I can’t emphasize enough how generic and empty is the book’s use of Anglophobia as an explanation. Anti-English sentiment is by definition a dominant cause of every Irish, nationalist or republican initiative that unionism opposes. It is so well established as a ubiquitous root cause that there is no need to provide concrete evidence of how it actually works or to weigh the relative contributions of other explanatory factors. Simply saying the word “Anglophobia” completes the explanation.

Supremacy and Subordination

The book’s unionism is ultimately founded on a supremacism that relegates nationalists and republicans to a subordinate social and political status.

Many scholars of unionism tend to minimize the supremacist elements of unionist politics and ideology. They point to unionism’s wide diversity of beliefs and practices to disprove the narrowing stereotype of a supremacist core. They also argue that regular displays of triumphalism, what Colin Coulter calls “swaggering supremacism,” are fuelled more by a profound sense of disempowerment than by self-satisfied feelings of superiority (Coulter, 1994, p. 14). In this section, I’m not directly concerned with such swagger or its reputed causes, although sound-and-fury unionism is related to what I address. I’m looking at a form of supremacism that derives from and links together various chapters of The Idea of the Union.[11] It may not be as openly provocative as triumphalism but it is no less real and no less pernicious.

There are at least five interconnected variants of unionist supremacism that appear in The Idea of the Union. British and unionist culture is superior to Irish and nationalist culture; the British conception of citizenship is better than its Irish counterpart; unionist identity in the north must have a privileged status denied to nationalists; nationalists must curtail their advocacy rights; and unionists alone must have a superordinate set of voting rights.

Culture and Citizenship: Ascendancy still

The first two variants of supremacism—centred around culture and citizenship—are most evident in the chapters by Foster and Aughey. Foster is primarily interested in making a cultural case for the union, although his notion of culture is intimately linked to politics. Aughey defends the union in political rather than cultural terms, but he is not averse to becoming an officer in the culture war, as we saw above. For the most part, the book’s other contributors follow these two authors in conceiving of the union and unionism as some combination of cultural-political elements.

Foster believes that unionism is not merely a political phenomenon; it is “a deeply embedded cultural identity and allegiance.” He describes this allegiance in personal terms: “the constitutional union . . .  best expresses the historic and contemporary realities of my cultural and ethnic kinship.” Further: “I am a unionist because unionism is my culture” (pp. 79 & 78). But Foster’s unionism is not simply a cultural orientation based on ethnic affinity, social solidarity or shared history. It is a socio-cultural hierarchy grounded in ascendancy. His study of Irish literary culture convinced him “of the superiority of unionism over republicanism” (p. 87). British culture ranks above Irish culture because it is bigger, broader and has more intellectual capacity. The south “does not have enough cultural storage space” to accommodate unionists (p. 83).

Aughey prefers a political to a cultural definition of unionism, calling it “a very pure political doctrine” (p. 238). He explains: “The idea of the Union is the willing community of citizens united not by creed, colour or ethnicity but by a recognition of the authority of the Union. Its relevant concept is citizenship and not nation” (p. 226).[12] Aughey creates a political hierarchy mirroring Foster’s system of cultural stratification. Aughey’s argument in support of the union is that the British notion of citizenship is inherently superior to the Irish notion. British citizenship is rational, modern, inclusive and based on equality. Irish citizenship is romantic, reactionary, exclusive and “deeply imbued with the spirit of racism” (p. 228).

Foster’s and Aughey’s portrayals are simplistic, their contrasts erroneous. But that kind of critique is not my main concern here. I wish to focus attention on both authors establishing their positions by unequivocally asserting British and unionist supremacy over Irish nationalism. We begin to see here an unmistakable congruity in the book’s general approach to unionism. Derogatory conceptions of nationalists, republicans and the Irish state produce direct formulations of the superiority of unionist culture and politics. And, as I examine next, this form of thinking culminates in support for a hierarchy of unionist privilege and entitlement in the contemporary politics of the north.

Identity: Reducing nationalism

The book’s third variant of supremacism explicitly champions an elevated status for unionist identity in the north. This form of unionist privilege operates at the nexus of culture and politics. The following schema is an abbreviated but accurate representation of the book’s unequal classification of unionist and nationalist identities in the north:

  • Unionism = Britishness + Union
  • Nationalism = Irishness – Unity.

Unionists must have their British culture plus their preferred constitutional arrangements: the north must remain part of the UK. Nationalists, in contrast, can have their Irish culture but not their favoured constitution: Irish unity is out of the question. These asymmetrical formulas, by their very nature, reduce nationalism relative to unionism. They define unionism as the indissoluble connection of culture to constitution, nationalism as the necessary separation of the two (O’Dowd, 1998). Nationalism cannot ever be unionism’s equal. 

The GFA notionally resolves the constitutional impasse between nationalism and unionism by a democratic vote in a border poll. The book resolves it by an antidemocratic decree, unilaterally claiming that unionism has constitutional supremacy over nationalism. I’ll return in the next two sections to the whole issue of unionism, a border poll and democracy.

The unionist schema outlined above has long been a central part of Foster’s thought. Reasonable and moderate unionists simply “desire to retain their Britishness in constitutional as well as cultural terms” (p. 12). Nationalists, on the other hand, must reconcile themselves to limiting their ambitions to those that can be met inside the constitutional framework of the union. Haslett explains the societal benefits of constraining nationalism:

With acceptance of Northern Ireland as an undisputed part of the United Kingdom, the threat (of Irish unity) would be removed and nationalist culture would become an enriching ingredient for everyone in a multi-cultural society. There never has been any impediment put in the way of the practice and enjoyment of Irish culture. If it were not exploited in pursuit of republicans’ wider political agenda it could become a source of pleasure for all of us and an important factor in building understanding between Northern Ireland and the Republic (p. 201).

Haslett’s argument, reprinted from the 1995 edition of the book, articulates what has become a conventional unionist demand for the development of a “non-political Irishness” that sees nationalism stripped of its constitutional aspirations (Kennedy, 1995, pp. 35 & 36).[13]

In demanding that nationalists drop a defining element of who they are, unionism refuses to accept nationalists qua nationalists. This refusal is a powerful declaration of supremacy. In this contrived universe, little if anything can be accomplished so long as nationalists continue to aspire to reunification. Constitutional nationalists must become constitutional unionists as a precondition for reconciliation and stability in the north and for understanding and normalcy in Belfast-Dublin relations. That is, all constitutional entanglements would be cleared immediately if only nationalists abandoned their goal of Irish unity. And everyone in the north and south could join hands to celebrate Irish sport, song, dance, theatre and literature.

It’s truly depressing that a book published in 2021 purporting to make a moderate and reasonable case for the union could regurgitate such a crude supremacism and prejudiced resolution.

Advocacy: Shut the fuck up about Irish unity

The book’s inegalitarian perspective on fundamental political rights is the fourth variant of supremacism. There is little likelihood that nationalists will entirely remake their identity by relinquishing their aspiration to Irish unity. Some nationalists even show a heightened inclination to pursue their constitutional goal, actively and peacefully. The book wishes to close down that pursuit by restricting nationalist and republican advocacy of a united Ireland.

The unionist narrative on nationalist constitutional expression can be usefully characterized as “shut the fuck up about Irish unity.” Foster captures the essence of this position: nationalists “should soft-pedal unification . . .  since not to demand unification is obviously the only chance for it someday to happen by consensus” (p. 87). I’ll unpack the full meaning of this quotation in due course, especially its duplicitous reference to unification by consensus. For now, I’ll concentrate on the unionist desire for nationalists to keep their constitutional mouths shut.

Unionist contributors to the book are not the only participants in this narrative. The DUP, UUP, TUV, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and other notable commentators in the north and south frequently adopt the same discourse. The SDLP employed it in the recent Assembly election campaign in an unsuccessful attempt to gain electoral advantage over Sinn Féin. I identify the narrative as unionist because it often proceeds from unionist sensibilities, serves the primary unionist objective of maintaining partition and connects to the book’s broader sense of unionist supremacy.

The narrative takes two forms. The first is the familiar story that a border poll is divisive; the second that constitutional change is a debilitating distraction from more important agendas.

Aughey, Foster and Smith equate a border poll with division, political instability and social tumult (Aughey2; Smith2; Foster1) . Talk of a border poll should cease, they urge, because it unsettles and aggravates unionists. This first form of the narrative is partial and partisan, capturing only the unionist tendency of the north’s constitutional dynamic. It emphasizes, almost exclusively, that there is no unionist consent for constitutional change. It says nothing about the equivalently significant fact that there is no nationalist consent for maintaining the constitutional status quo (Burke, 2021b). Humphreys captures the striking one-sidedness of this narrative: 

Generally, people who say that one cannot coerce hundreds of thousands of unionists into a united Ireland have no real problem with coercing hundreds of thousands of nationalists into a United Kingdom (Humphreys, 2018, pp. 84 & 85).

The glaringly conspicuous truth is that a border poll is divisive because the border itself is divisive. To be sure, the prospect of constitutional change disturbs those citizens who do not want change; but no prospect of constitutional change equally distresses those who desire change. To shut up about Irish unity in order to avoid division, as this form of the narrative demands, is to settle the constitutional divide in unionism’s favour. It is to say that keeping unionists constitutionally happy is more important than is allowing nationalists democratically to pursue their legitimate constitutional aspirations.

The second form of the narrative stresses that advocacy of Irish unity is a frivolous pursuit that diverts attention from the north’s pressing social and economic problems. It suggests that you cannot—at one and the same time—mobilize for constitutional change and address the rising cost of living, healthcare reform, income inequality, educational restructuring and the like. Again, the book’s solution is to have nationalists shut up about unity.

Aughey sets the overarching parameters of this type of narrative. Nationalists’ belief in the inevitability of a united Ireland pushes them to insist that preparations for unity must begin immediately. This kind of reasoning, Aughey asserts, takes the air out of other issues: “The policy agenda and political language will be determined by only one issue, how to achieve unity.” Pursuing a united Ireland reduces the complexity of the GFA “to only one idea” and makes reunification “the only priority” (p. 349). In short, advocates of unity have just one issue, one idea, one priority.

Others have picked up on Aughey’s conception of the suffocating oneness of Irish unity. The unionist Curatorial Group is so enamored that it reproduces Aughey’s argument in its own name (Curatorial Group, no date). Unionist commentator Alex Kane takes the same position as Aughey, arguing that “Sinn Féin now lives and breathes for a border poll . . . it occupies their every waking moment” (Kane, 2022a, n.p.).

The narrative of obsession gathers strength despite its manifest absurdity. That it was immediately employed against the Scottish National Party’s recent announcement of a second independence referendum suggests that the narrative is an unthinking ideological reflex mechanically applied (BBC, 2022). In the north’s case, there is no evidence to suggest that nationalists and republicans are preoccupied with Irish unity and a border poll. The SDLP constantly kicks the whole question further down the road. Sinn Féin, understandably, uses the opportunity provided by Brexit as a springboard for unity initiatives. But the party’s election manifestos, even since Brexit became a salient issue in 2016, do not give priority to unity; they routinely devote the same attention to reunification as to other matters.[14] And instead of pursuing just one issue, one idea or one priority, the party continues to publish policy papers on the full range of social and economic issues, north and south. Whatever one might think of such proposals, they are at least as detailed as any that other parties produce. Many different matters seem to occupy Sinn Féin’s waking moments. The civic nationalist group Ireland’s Future also has varied concerns. It conceives of reunification in the broadest possible terms, and hopes to encourage discussions of citizenship, rights, identity, and a host of socio-economic matters.

Nationalists and republicans are clearly capable of doing more than one thing at a time, advocating for unity and addressing other issues. But the purpose of the unionist narrative of obsession and suffocation is not to be historically accurate. It is to shove nationalists and republicans away from Irish unity by constructing a bogus and self-serving discourse of blame. Unionists are in effect saying to nationalists: “shut up about a border poll and roll up your sleeves so we may all work together on the real issues; keep talking about Irish unity and you will impede social and economic progress.” The narrative conveniently blames nationalism and obscures the heavy unionist responsibility for hindering progress.

The two forms of the shut-the-fuck-up narrative, that nationalist advocacy of a border poll is both divisive and distracting, are illustrations of what I term the law of constitutional inertia. The law states that “a constitution at rest tends to stay at rest, unless and until people actively mobilize to change it”.[15] For unionists, curtailing nationalist rights of constitutional expression helps to keep the constitutional status quo comfortably at rest. Taking away the means of change blocks the end of change. This narrative is not essentially about divisiveness or suffocation, but about ensuring that unionists get their way on the constitution. The narrative forms themselves are mere masks.

Democracy: My vote counts, yours doesn’t

The fifth and final kind of supremacism is the book’s claim to expansive electoral rights for unionists. One of the defining elements of modern liberal democracy is that the votes of all citizens are formally equal. Many contributors to The Idea of the Union wish fundamentally to undercut that democratic equality and introduce a system in which only unionist votes count.

The book destroys vote equality by demanding a unionist veto over constitutional change, although it shies away from using the language of “veto”.[16] It no doubt avoids that term because “veto” has such undemocratic or antidemocratic connotations. In fact, the book goes to great lengths to evade addressing what the unionist veto means for democracy in the north. Foster and Smith use many euphemisms for veto, suggesting that constitutional change occur by free consent, express consent, joint consent, parallel consent, collective consent or consensus (pp. 78, 405 & 87). Aughey resurrects John Hume’s idea of “uniting people and not territory” as a formula for constitutional change requiring unionist agreement (p. 352). Sloan employs the notion of “geopolitical realities” to ensure that the north forever remains part of the UK, just as unionism wants, regardless of majority opinion (p. 62). All these terms and phrases are pleasant-sounding substitutes for the grim reality of an undemocratic system of unionist privilege. A veto by any other name is still a veto.

The book’s unionist veto over constitutional change doubly disadvantages nationalists. It nullifies nationalist votes in a border poll and it negates nationalist opinion on the constitutional status quo.

Let’s examine first how the disadvantage works in a border poll. As we know, the GFA prescribes a simple majority of 50 percent + 1 as the threshold for winning a border poll. A unionist veto fundamentally contravenes the Agreement’s majority consent rule. Suppose that a border poll produces the following vote pattern:

  • an overall majority for unity
  • a nationalist majority for unity
  • a unionist majority for union.

This is the very kind of result that the book’s unionist veto is designed to subvert. Under the Agreement, Irish unity wins this border poll solely because of the overall majority, even if that majority is by one vote. But under a unionist veto, the exact same vote pattern yields the opposite constitutional outcome: unity loses and the union is maintained. Unionists win in defiance of overall and nationalist majorities, even if those majorities are substantial. In effect, nationalist votes in favour of unity do not count at all in the border poll result. Nor do the votes of other individuals who contribute to the overall majority by backing change. The only votes that matter are unionist votes; they entirely determine the outcome. If unionists votes are tallied first, there is no point in counting any of the remaining ballots. Better still, only unionists need go to the polls. Non-unionist votes are completely superfluous, whether they support unity or union.

The unionist veto in effect values unionist votes at 1 and nationalist/other votes at 0. It is a grossly biased scheme that rules out democratic constitutional change. I’ve yet to hear any reasonable or sensible defence of this kind of privilege. Certainly the book provides none.

The book’s notion of unionist veto carries a second major disadvantage for nationalists. The veto is unreciprocated. That is, the book offers unionists a veto over constitutional change but does not give nationalists a corresponding veto over maintenance of the constitutional status quo. Unity cannot happen without unionist consent; but the union carries on undisturbed without nationalist consent.[17] The unionism expressed in this book is so consumed by supremacism that it can’t even comprehend the deep unfairness and inequality in this lack of reciprocity. Nationalist constitutional preferences—either in support of change or against the status quo—hold no worth to supporters of a unionist veto.

In his critique of The Idea of the Union, Humphreys offers a comprehensive summary of the case against a unionist veto over constitutional change. Such a veto:

. . .  is a betrayal and a nullification of the most central core element of the agreement. A few obvious points:

1. Consent of 50 per cent plus one of the total valid poll is the only rule that treats both (unionist and nationalist) aspirations equally.

2. This is what unionism signed up to in 1998.

3. This is what a majority of the people of the region and of the island approved.

4. This is what the UK government on behalf of Northern Ireland solemnly agreed in a binding international treaty that remains binding.

5. It would be a parody of democracy to change the rules just because nationalism might succeed.

6. The notion of “parallel consent” [unionist veto] rigs the system, making the nationalist aspiration impossible because unionists by definition won’t give consent without ceasing to be unionists.

7. It also tears up the core concept of the agreement of parity of esteem by unfairly creating a double standard whereby the test for Union is different from the test for unity.

8. This makes nationalist votes effectively worthless, making unionist votes the only ones that count.

9. Such a negation of basic equality of civil and political rights is fear in the face of the democratic process masquerading as heroism.

10. If a majority for unity happens, unionist consent as the minority won’t be required, and that’s an inevitable feature of any fair, equal and democratic process. Britain, with all of its dignity and principle as seen from London, has had to let go of possession of a lot of territory over the years by yielding to democratic choice, and Northern Ireland would be no exception.

11. Every reasonable person would reject a mentality that would seek to impose a minority’s state on an unwilling majority, replicating pre-1994 South Africa on Northern Irish soil (Humphreys, 2021, pp. 13-14).[18]

The book’s brand of unionism rejects any democratic resolution of the constitutional question and instead decides the issue by calling forth discredited ideas of unionist superiority, privilege and entitlement. The north will remain part of the UK, just as unionists demand, even when there is no democratic basis for union.[19]

Distorting and manipulating history

In his introductory chapter, Foster promises that the book’s contributors will “set the historical record straight” in “the battle between historical truth and republican ideology and politics” (p. 17). The book’s back cover highlights this promise: “Irish separatist nationalism has had a fair innings. Now it’s time for reason and reality to go to bat.” These assurances describe a binary opposition between nationalist and republican propaganda on the one side, and unionist reason and truth on the other. They could and perhaps should be quickly disregarded as yet another tiresome illustration of the book’s supremacist unionism, another repetition of the same old imperialist trope. But it is worthwhile to explore how successfully the book establishes its claim to historical accuracy and truth. It is not at all successful.

Much of the book’s historical discussion is about apportioning blame for the conflict that erupted in the late 1960s. Let’s entertain a parsimonious model that the main historical agents in the north are nationalists (including republicans and the Irish state), unionists (including loyalists and the old Stormont regime) and the British state. Ben Lowry, deputy editor of the News Letter, explicitly identifies these leading protagonists, but many other contributors work with the same model in mind. If we were to express, as percentages, the causal weights that the book attaches to these various explanatory factors, the model of conflict in the north would look something like:

  • Northern conflict = 85%Nationalism + 14%BritishState + 1%Unionism.

The general model is that nationalism/republicanism carries by far the heaviest blame for conflict in the north; the British state shares some culpability mainly because it doesn’t always fully back every unionist whim; unionism and Stormont are relatively blameless. Our earlier discussion of Anglophobia as an explanation anticipates the imbalance of the causal weights in the general model. The book determines these weights ideologically, not empirically. Far from setting the historical record straight, as Foster promises, the book imposes an ideological explanation disguised as a scholarly one. And it projects this historical model into the present to conclude that nationalists and republicans are primarily responsible for contemporary division and dysfunction in the north, with Britain sharing some of the blame. As before, unionism is barely implicated.

Let me briefly illustrate how the model works. Barton’s examination of partition sets the causal weights that other contributors apply to the Stormont years and beyond. He emphasizes the republican rising of 1916 as a principal cause of partition. He minimizes the explanatory impact of naked unionist coercion that had the active and tacit support of the British state. He has next to nothing to say about the crucial parts played by unionist sectarianism and British duplicity in the placement of the gerrymandered six-county border. Roche and Barton sugarcoat the oppressive nature of unionist rule in the north. According to them, the south’s hostility to the new regime and northern nationalists’ refusal to embrace its parliament largely excuse any subsequent excesses by the northern state. Gudgin buries how the brutal loyalist, RUC and B Special responses to early civil rights protests set the north on a violent path (Gudgin1). Smith’s lopsided analysis of the crucial years from 1969 to 1972 faults the British state for betraying unionism by capitulating to republican terrorism and nationalist aggression (Smith1). Lowry plays word games, misrepresents the evidence and relies on sham statistics to conclude that state collusion in murder is not just a nationalist myth but a calculated lie. According to his analysis, security-force collusion is not responsible for a single conflict-related death.[20]

The misleading “explanatory” model is but part of the problem. The book also distorts the historical record to the point of completely inverting history. It turns history on its head by claiming that Britain is a cultural colony of Ireland and that the colonizing Irish are energized by the mission of bringing their superior culture and civilization to unionists and the British (Foster3; Aughey2; Neill). In this topsy-turvy world, the colonizer becomes the colonized; the oppressor, the oppressed; the superior, the subordinate. At the stroke of a unionist pen, Perfidious Albion transforms into Perfidious Hibernia. A similar reversal of the historical record that is remarkable in its sheer audacity portrays the civil rights movement using discrimination as a stick with which to beat unionism (Gudgin1).

In a final corruption, the book directly manipulates history to support the political and ideological campaigns of contemporary unionism. Aughey’s chapter on the constitution best illustrates this abuse of the past to assist the present. Aughey recalls fondly the years of Mary Robinson’s presidency of Ireland (1990-1997). It was a time characterized by several encouraging developments: a serious attempt to listen to and understand the views of unionists, an emerging ethos of cooperation, a new respect for the diversity of cultures in Ireland and a fresh appreciation of unionism’s constructive role in Irish history thanks to the work of revisionist historians.

This shining portrait of the 1990s that Aughey draws in 2021 is markedly different from the somber picture he presents in 1994, writing in the middle of Robinson’s tenure. In the mid-1990s, he does not sense any encouraging developments around him; he sees imminent danger everywhere. Recall that these are the years in which Aughey discerns an Irish kulturkampf—a concerted campaign by a narrow and sectarian nationalism to attack unionist and Protestant culture.

Aughey’s contrary depiction of the same period serves an important political and ideological function for unionism. Reimagining the menacing Irish kulturkampf as the benevolent Mary Robinson years allows Aughey to conjure the present as a serious deterioration. Robinson’s presidency is long gone, he warns; unionism really is in peril now. Many contributors join Aughey in representing a border poll as a major current threat from a resurgent and bigoted nationalism bent on sowing division and discord. The book’s brand of unionism needs a nationalist or republican “other” to despise and fear; it needs a powerful approaching enemy against whom to muster.[21] In Aughey’s hands, history becomes whatever unionism needs it to be. He gives unionism the same aggressive foe in 1994 and 2021, even though he has to remake history to do it.

Conclusion

Unionism is a much more diverse social, political and ideological force than this book suggests. In addition to the lack of civic unionist appeals, there is a dearth of working-class voices in the book’s sometimes proudly patrician focus on “the higher professions” (p.24). Perhaps unionists unrepresented or embarrassed by The Idea of the Union will share more fully their thoughts on the future of the north. Years ago, Norman Porter (1996) articulated a generous sense of civic unionism. More recently, the public statement of 105 civic unionists and others confirmed a strong commitment to equality, fairness and tolerance (Wilson, 2018). Currently, there are many grass-roots initiatives in which unionists work with other communities in a spirit of cooperation and mutuality. All these manifestations of unionism have infinitely more to offer to contemporary debates than does the book’s noxious project.[22] Unionism should move on from the retrograde attitudes, supremacist presumptions, undemocratic schemes and self-interested distortions that are the mainstay of The Idea of the Union.


Notes

[1] For some critical responses to Hoey, see Collins (2022), Murphy (2022) and McCord (2022).

[2] The names in parentheses refer to chapter authors. Some authors—JW Foster, WB Smith, Arthur Aughey, and Graham Gudgin—have written more than one chapter. I append numerals to an author’s name when it’s necessary to distinguish between chapters written by the same author. Smith1, for instance, refers to the first chapter written by co-editor WB Smith, starting on p. 168. Smith2 indicates Smith’s second chapter beginning on p. 389. I use the same notation for the other authors of multiple chapters. Sometimes, largely for stylistic reasons, I refer directly to page numbers to indicate which chapter I am examining.

[3] Neill and Nesbitt never get beyond the vaguest of platitudes in their generally well-meaning discussions of reconciliation. Haslett’s reference to reconciliation as “jabberwocky” and Dudgeon’s dismissal of it as “a dead letter” are sentiments that are all too common in the book (pp. 200 & 292).

[4] Brendan O’Leary (2022) makes the same argument as Humphreys, that the unionist position on the protocol’s incompatibility with the GFA is simply untenable. Gallagher (2022) finds that the British government’s arguments about the protocol, which mirror the unionist position, are a political construction that have no historical or legal foundation.

[5] Technically, Donaldson is calling for an amendment to the Northern Ireland Act, a piece of British legislation implementing part of the Agreement. His amendment of the NIA would materially alter the corresponding provisions of the Agreement.

[6] As Neill seems to recognize (p. 368).

[7] In an analysis that he admits “may well be too sympathetic to Trimble,” Dixon explains or explains away Trimble’s inconsistencies by examining the constraints and pressures the unionist leader faced (Dixon, 2004, 480).

[8] The British Government introduced the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill in the House of Commons on 17 May 2022. The Bill in effect bars prosecutions for Troubles-related offences. It also bars new civil claims, stops inquests that have not yet reached the stage of a substantive hearing, and prohibits any investigations outside of those conducted for information recovery under the Bill’s authority.

[9] Unionist historian Henry Patterson views northern politics similarly: “all areas of public policy are a battleground for republicans” as they pursue their insidious agenda of ethnic provocation and Irish unity (Patterson, 2004, p. 181).

[10] Michael Gove’s anti-Agreement tract is an example of the generic use of the notion of culture war (Gove, 2000). This nationalist war against the Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist (PUL) community is a recurrent theme on the Unionist Voice website. Interviews and focus groups with individuals involved in the flag protests in 2012-13 provide many other illustrations of the importance of culture war in mobilizing communities against what is construed to be a threatening enemy (INTERCOMM & Byrne, 2013; Halliday & Ferguson, 2016). Research by Paul Nolan and others shows that culture was one of six significant drivers of the flags protests (Nolan et al., 2014). Allison Morris examines how the current protocol protests by young loyalists are activated by perceived threats to their culture (Morris, 2022). The street politics of which culture war is a part reflect a deep and multidimensional dissatisfaction among some loyalists and unionists with the direction of politics in the north. The way in which the book uses culture war is a particularly cynical exploitation of that sense of deprivation. Neill’s chapter in The Idea of the Union is an exception to the general use of culture war as a means of closing ranks and preparing for battle. He frames part of his analysis in the discourse of a culture war but in the end suggests unionists must transcend that discourse by being generous, open and civic-minded.

[11] This supremacism is, however, not limited to the book’s contributors, as I examine briefly in the body of the paper. See also Burke (2020).

[12] Armstrong too emphasizes constitutional politics: “Unionism is, strictly speaking, a political allegiance to the integrity and membership of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” (p. 386).

[13] Dennis Kennedy leads unionism’s call for nationalists to develop a purely cultural or non-political Irishness (Kennedy 1999, 2005 & 2009). See also Roche (1995), Aughey (1996) and Walker (2017). In the book, Foster refers to “non-political Catholics or even nationalists” (p. 16). The conception of the “political” in Foster’s discussion is hypocritical and contradictory. As Foster makes clear, nationalists or Catholics who prefer unity are “political,” but those who prefer union are not.

[14] With the exception of the 2019 Westminster election manifesto, which has “Time for Unity” as its overall theme. Many party manifestos, including Sinn Féin’s, are available on the CAIN website (CAIN, 2022).

[15] With due respect to the Canadian “living tree doctrine” of constitutional evolution, which suggests that a constitution can grow and change over time. My law refers specifically to the constitutional change provisions of the Agreement. The Canadian doctrine is more general, referring to how developing social understandings can lead to expansions in the scope of human rights protections. In (partial) conformity with my law, the living tree doctrine still requires an active intervention—in the form of a judicial ruling—to inject new life into a constitution that is at rest (Centre for Constitutional Studies, 2019).

[16] In the book’s one use of the term that I noted, Aughey speaks ironically of “the unionist ‘veto’” (p. 347).

[17] The lack of reciprocity is consistent with the unionist narrative, discussed earlier, demanding that nationalists shut up about Irish unity because a border poll is divisive. Both “no reciprocity” and “no talking” devalue nationalist rejection of the constitutional status quo. For a more complete discussion of reciprocity and constitutional change, see Humphreys (2009 & 2018) and Burke (2021b).

[18] Humphreys is specifically critiquing Seamus Mallon’s notion of parallel consent to constitutional change, which gives unionists the kind of veto that the book endorses. Related to the concerns he expresses here, Humphreys directly challenges unionists to take “the democracy test” (Humphreys, 2021, p. 15). That such a challenge needs to be issued is indicative of the book’s highly questionable attitude towards democracy.

[19] Aughey is particularly brazen in his use of democracy as an argument of convenience. In the first edition of The Idea of the Union, he says that there is a democratic basis for the union as long as unionists are the majority in the north. But he is concerned that unionists could lose their majority status and that the north could be voted out of the UK. To counter this possibility, he suggests that unionists start thinking of themselves as a UK-wide minority and claim constitutional permanence as a right of minority citizenship. That is, even with no democratic basis, the union is to continue. For Aughey, democracy is simply an opportunistic argument to be employed or discarded as circumstances warrant. The important thing is to keep the north in the UK, on any basis (Aughey, 1995).

[20] Lowry continues to cite the woefully outdated and wildly inaccurate estimate that the state was responsible for 10 percent of conflict-related deaths (p. 313). Both Relatives for Justice and the Committee on the Administration of Justice pointed out years ago that the 10 percent figure is a serious underestimate because it does not take into account deaths caused by security-force collusion (RFJ, 2014; CAJ, 2015).

[21] Hoey encapsulates the book’s overall approach. In referring to the north’s centenary, she looks back on 100 years of threats and envisions even greater threats in the next 100 years.

[22] Three (perhaps four) of the book’s contributors signed the civic unionist statement. I leave it to them to explain how the statement conforms to the view of unionism expressed in the book.


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📚 John Wilson Foster and William Beattie Smith (eds), The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland—Realities and Challenges, 2021. Belcouver Press. ISBN-13: ‎978-0993560729

⏮ Mike Burke has lectured in Politics and Public Administration in Canada for over 30 years.

5 comments:

  1. This is a brilliant review, but rather depressing reading. I have a lot of respect for Jeff Dudgeon and was disappointed at his words.

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    1. I found it brilliant - forensic in the way Mike went about his task. I know a few of the unionists who contributed to the collection and I think they have left themselves marooned by their own discourse.

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  2. Mike refers to Richard Humphreys in the piece - his work on the Good Friday Agreementis in my experience without parallel.

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  3. Pretty damning assessment of the book, one to not read I feel. The idea of a similar book of 25 essays by us pleb PUL lot may be a little more illuminating, especially if it channeled the humour of the people rather than this dinosaur unionism.

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  4. Comprehensive as ever dissection from Mike of a failed polity.
    What could we expect but brays from assess and grunts from pigs!

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