The recent gunning down of 29 year old Lyra McKee in the northern Irish city of Derry once again focused widespread attention on that province of the British state. Few would be impressed by her killers’ claim; sorry, we really wanted to shoot a police officer and not her. Lyra was a journalist, writer and LGBT activist.
Northern Ireland was already in the news over issues emanating from the British state’s protracted maneuverings to leave the European Union (EU). When Britain leaves the EU, the border between the Republic of Ireland and Britain will be its only land frontier with the EU.
So far the collective heads gathered together in the British parliament haven’t been able get around the idea of how to do that. Fears of a return to the 30 years of bloody conflict that plagued the British part of Ireland, also known as Ulster, jockey for position with fear of Ulster’s loss of sovereignty as part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Beware the dreaded word, Republic!
There’s a lot of fear about and it’s not only in Ulster. There is considerable intestinal twitching within the ranks of Britain’s governing – even if only just –Conservative and Unionist Party. Without a clear majority it relies on the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to stay in office.
The DUP holds 10 seats in the British parliament. Its support for the shaky Conservatives comes at a price of around 1bn pounds sterling (1.3bn US$) paid into the coffers of the Northern Ireland Executive. According to an article in The Independent (23 January 2016) using data from the UK’s Office of National Statistics, workers in Ulster are the lowest paid in all the UK.
Unionism has been a force in Ireland, particularly the north eastern counties for some time, since before the partitioning of Ireland in 1921, leading to today’s politically independent republic and British enclave of Ulster. Once there was only one party calling itself unionist. Now there are many but the DUP, just now, is the best organised.
In a country where religion strongly colours political attitudes and affiliations the 2011 consensus showed 45% of the population identified as Catholic and 48% as Protestant. The DUP, in a book published this year, is said to have only 0.6% of its members Catholic.
It has a strong base among what remains of the traditional, industrial classes, city dwellers and evangelical communities in and beyond the major towns. It is conservative and noted for exercising opposition to same sex marriage and abortion rights, which exist in the rest of Britain but not in Northern Ireland.
One of its major, probably its major achievement, over the decades has been to maintain a high degree of hegemony over the various class divisions of Ulster’s Protestants. Nowhere is this more revealed in the claim that seventeen USA presidents carry Ulster ancestry.
And of course any flag waving of Ulster unionism wouldn’t be complete without mention of British World War Two generals with Ulster connections. Top of the list are generals Alan Brooke, Bernard Montgomery and John Dill.
Ulster has absorbed influences that have not impacted on much of the rest of Ireland. That’s hardly surprising since the shortest distance between Scotland and the north of Ireland is only 12 miles (19.3 Km.)
But the real thrust started in the early 17th century and gathered momentum with what has come to be known as the Plantation of Ulster a few years later. When Scottish King James relocated to London to assume the English crown he decided to clear the English /Scottish border region of its Border Revers, who for centuries had been a thorn in the side of both Scottish and English monarchs.
These cattle thieves, kidnappers and general purpose marauders, including my ancestors, were forcibly shipped off to the nearest piece of land that was not their home. Their enforced destinations were the Irish counties of Antrim and Down.
More transfers were to follow, taking over land vacated by Irish aristocrats, during the Fright of the Earls (1607), mostly to Spain. What accompanied these migrations was an influx of rebellious, religiously non-conformist Scots and some English. On the face of it that looks like seed corn material for a people with a critical attitude to the world they landed in. Indeed many kept on the move, eventually going on to the south east of British North America.
What went wrong? Did anything really go wrong? Or is it more a case of there being some things we don’t talk about in polite Unionist company?
Even before the words unionist and republican entered the political language of Ireland there existed challenges to the emerging status quo. In 1694, the same year as the Bank of England was formed to bolster up England’s national credit worthiness and five years after the unionist icon, the Dutch protestant Prince William and his English wife Mary jointly assumed the English throne, Francis Hutchison was born.
That was near Saintfield, county Down, in the northeast of Ireland. He was part of a Scots Irish/ Ulster Scots tradition, strongly rooted then as today in the Presbyterian tradition. This was at a time when mercantile capitalism had the wind in its sails and Britain was acquiring overseas territories, most notably in the Americas. In turn this wind was driven by the Atlantic slave trade which plundered Africa of its people.
This did not rest easily with Hutchison. He was to write, “To extend civil power over distant nations, and form grand unwieldy empires, without regard to the obvious maxims of humanity, has been one great source of human misery.”
Hutchison moved to Scotland, lecturing at Glasgow University, influencing the philosophers Adam Smith and David Hume among others. It was there that he became an influential figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. Some would say European Enlightenment and others the even move inclusively, simply, the Enlightenment.
Two women who Unionists would rather we didn’t mention are Betsy Grey a county Down Presbyterian peasant woman, immortalized in W G Lyttle’s book, Betsy Grey or Hearts of Down: A Tale of Ninety Eight. She was killed following the failed 1798 uprising, inspired in part by the American and French Revolutions.
Protestant Mary Ann McCracken (1770–1866) was the sister of Henry Joy McCracken, an executed leader of the same uprising. She went on to become a noted social reformer, champion of the poor and girls education, as well as an anti-slavery campaigner. Mary Ann was both of her time and ahead of her time. She was known to visit Belfast docks, leafleting those immigrating to the USA, extoling them not to become involved in slavery on reaching America.
By the end of the 19th century mercantile capitalism had had its day. The republicanism that emerged at the end of the 18th century and took root in North and South America did not affectively challenge the dynamic of capitalism. It embraced industrialization though the factory system of producing goods. Upstream these factories of Europe demanded raw materials; essential metals and chemicals as well as cotton, timber and rubber. Colonialism served this purpose.
Roger Casement was born into a middle class Protestant family near Dublin but was brought up in northern county of Antrim. During a career in the British diplomatic service he gained notoriety, and a knighthood, speaking out against the treatment and living conditions of indigenous people in the Belgium Congo (now Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo) and the South American Putumayo region in today’s Colombo.
Later, in 1916 during World War 1 Sir Roger Casement had been in Germany, seeking but not gaining, support for the Easter Week rising against British rule in Ireland. On his return to Ireland, ironically, to advise Irish republicans against the rising which he calculated was doomed without German support.
Captured and taken to England, he was tried and hanged there. Well known personalities from the English literary world campaigned for his life to be spared. But so called Black Dairies were released into the public domain. These, it was alleged, showed Casement as a homosexual in sexual relationships while on his travels in Africa. In 1916 that helped seal his fate.
His dying wish was that he be buried at Murlough Bay, in county Antrim, close to where he spent his childhood. So far that has not been realized. Although today some herald him as the founder of modern human rights.
Another unlikely, and as far as Ulster Unionists are concerned, unliked Ulster man was Jack White. He too was born in county Antrim, into an Anglo Irish family. Initially he followed his father Field Marshal Sir George White and joined the British army and saw service during the Boer war in South Africa.
During that war he developed a dislike for the British Establishment and later embarked on a personal and political journey that increasingly led him in a leftward direction. He supported the Home Rule movement for Irish independence. He helped train the Irish Citizen’s army of trade unionists which took part in the Easter Rising of 1916.
Later, during the period of the Spanish war against Franco’s fascism he embraced anarchism. But perhaps his most telling comment was given at a Home Rule meeting when he identified, conservative, protestant Ulster unionism with “bigotry and stagnation.” That day he shared a platform with Roger Casement.
Also on that platform was the Reverend James Armour, a local Presbyterian minister and champion of local tenant farmer’s rights and an Irish Home Rule supporter. He flavored the teaching of the Irish language in schools and advocated advances in catholic university education.
Louis MacNeice was born in Belfast, the son of a Church of Ireland minister. He was sent to the elite English public school, Marlborough College and later Merton College Oxford. There he associated with the 1930s poets, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood, and C. Day Lewis.
Always something of an outsider, it would have been easy for him to allow himself to be identified as English. After all he did write that, “I have always had what may well be a proper dislike and disapproval of the North of Ireland.” For personal reasons as much as anything he said, “The north was tyranny.”
But he retained his Irish identity, albeit with irony more than passion. That might go some way to explain his popularity and esteem with today’s generation of young Ulster poets.
Silence, denial and avoidance are all part of the sword and shield, the word and deed, of Ulster unionism. Their daily bread is to feed their British nationalism from the republican plate of Sinn Fein, the main nationalist party in Ireland. Without that their leadership it has little to offer the people of the north.
Like a defrocked priest, a religious mediator stripped of authority to go between mere humans and god, Ulster unionist leadership becomes naked before the eyes of an Ulster denied enlightenment. The men and women mentioned above enjoy a celebrity kind of status in some quarters. But ordinary, less well known were their numerous supporters.
Therein lies the challenge for today’s Left. How to break through the obscurity of ages with an open mindedness to today’s challenges, both historic and contemporary. A shared, new look at class self-interest would do for starters.