Thursday, March 06, 2008

On Paisley and the Union

It'll be the end of an era when Ian Paisley retires in May as First Minister, but more importantly as leader of the DUP - the party he founded when traditional Unionists were getting too cosy with Catholics.

Although Protestant, most of my family and friends viewed Paisley as a bigot and an embarrassment, but he was a useful embarrassment when the IRA was shooting Fermanagh farmers like dogs in their tractor cabs. Like him or loathe him, though, you have to admire a man who held so much public goodwill for so long.

In Ireland, where church leaders are often political as well as pastoral, Paisley pointed the way to Heaven and provided an almost physical guarantee of constitutional rule. He was, in short, the Planters' Pope.

Yet he was not unassailable. His church's right wing rejected him as leader when he shared power with Sinn Féin, and many press reports claim his party rejected him for nepotistic employment practices and for failing to criticise his son's dubious property dealings. The bigger they are, the harder they fall.

The fact that Paisley lasted so long at the top of British-Irish politics may, however, be less down to his undoubted political ability and more a function of the utter hopelessness of the Unionist prospect. He was a strong, loud, uncompromising voice during an era when the tide finally turned and Irish Unionism found itself, ultimately, isolated by Downing Street. He did what he prevented Trimble doing ten years before because he had one big advantage over all previous Unionist leaders - he didn't have Ian Paisley standing in the wings shouting "sell-out!".

To that extent Paisley was personally responsible for slowing down the normalisation of Ulster society. Seamus Mallon was right when he labelled the GFA "Sunningdale for slow learners". I go further. If Terence O'Neill had shared power with Gerry Fitt in the 60's we'd have been spared 30 years of terrorist genocide, the DUP would be the TUV, England wouldn't have tired of us and the Union would be no less (or more) secure than it is with Scotland. The phrase "armalite and ballot box" would never have been coined, people would wonder who Bobby Sands was, the Miami Showband would still be playing, Sinn Féin would be a benevolent association for ageing anti-partitionists and, much more importantly, social division in Northern Ireland would by now have experienced the first forty years of healing instead of merely the birth pangs of an uncertain future.

However, we are where we are and must deal with present realities. Paisley's late-career realpolitik was unavoidable and, in the end, the right thing to do. It was right to recognise Sinn Féin's electoral mandate, and it was right, for Unionists, to get the best possible deal while still able to negotiate.

You see, the writing's been on the wall for Unionism for forty years, indeed arguably for 100 years. The following statement may surprise those aggravated by my rejection of Irish terrorism, but partition is neither natural nor sustainable in the long term. Even die-hard Unionists know this to be true and waste no effort on optimistic thoughts of the future. They know there's nothing to gain, only things to give up. Indeed "siege unionism" is now the norm, especially in the West, where every dagger-blow hurts and the golden age is a feature of fading memories, not future dreams. Young Unionists, especially, find this atmosphere so depressing whereas, in the mind of Shinners, the golden age is still to come, bringing a dynamism Unionists find so perplexing and so threatening.

In 50 years' time, Paisley's retirement will be seen as the end of popular Unionism - not because of weak successors but because the job of Unionism was largely completed. Unionism may have served the Irish Protestant during the dark days of the birth and establishment of the Irish Republic, but now that it has matured as a democratic state largely free of the influence of Roman Catholicism and the Gaelic ascendancy we may well see that Ulster Protestants find themselves increasingly attracted to the idea of a borderless Ireland, albeit - I stress - under the right political and social circumstances and in an atmosphere of growing friendship between Ireland and the UK.

That's a transition I've made in my own political outlook, and it's one worth exploring. Our grandchildren may thank us for it.


At 4:10 p.m., Blogger Chekov said...

No offence but this post is a lot of rambling, ill thought out, counter factual nonsense that actually becomes quite contradictory. Partition is not more unnatural or inevitably doomed to failure than any other ordering of a state. Why is Ireland a natural political entity? Just because it is an island? And if partition is not natural or sustainable then how could it have been copperfastened forty years ago? If this is an example of your 'big ideas' I'm bound to say they're speculative and not very thorough.

At 4:21 p.m., Anonymous Reg said...


Your 6th paragraph is a fantastic piece of writing.


"Why is Ireland a natural political entity? Just because it is an island?"

No. Come on, you can do better than that.

At 4:31 p.m., Blogger Chekov said...

The sixth paragraph is counter-factual, worthless, naive speculation.

At 4:39 p.m., Anonymous Reg said...

Well, power-sharing wasn't on the table in O'Neill's time nor did the SDLP exist but the points made expressing regret re the missed opportunities of the late 60s are very well written, in my opinion.

At 10:25 p.m., Blogger B.U. said...

Power-sharing was a possibility long before Terence O'Neill, and Gerry Fitt was a formidable representative long before the SDLP.

Rather than an attempt at a holistic coverage of Northern Ireland history I wrote this to give a vision of the future. Unionism had its uses and its reason in the past, but that does not mean it will serve Ulsterfolk best in the next 50 years. If that apparent dichotomy fascinates you so much you fail to grasp the vision you may find yourself fighting dead men's battles.

At 12:14 a.m., Anonymous bill said...

Well done b.u. A nice bit of work. I do think that Unionism actually banefitted les anglais and the rich protestant ascendency rather than any Ulsterfolk. Short of that, there was probably no need for the border in the first place.

At 11:40 a.m., Blogger O'Neill said...

Even die-hard Unionists know this to be true and waste no effort on optimistic thoughts of the future. They know there's nothing to gain, only things to give up.

A peaceful Northern Ireland, a closer relationship between the ROI and the UK, closer economic links between NI and the ROI, those are all targets worth aiming for, all things to gain, all things which can be achieved and actually helped by NI remaining within the UK.

What would I as a Irish Unionist, who nevertheless considers himself British and is proud to be a part of the secular liberal democracy that is the UK , gain from being shunted into an "United" Ireland?

Three immediate questions come to mind:

Would my Britishness be strengthened by such a move?

Would the Religious Establishment of the new state be dictating less on matters of social conscience(ie abortion)?

How about my economic well-being, would I be better off than I am now?

You and noone else is delivering any objective answers on those questions, instead you seem to be relying on the "Ah sure, wouldn't it be grand" school of political thought.

Also, why do you think it is important to stress your religion? It should play no part in politics generally and this question in particular. You would be able to practise your faith in both a UI or a continuing UK so it is an irrelevant point to throw into the argument.

At 12:58 p.m., Blogger Fakey said...

B.U. I think this is a fantastic, honest post and shows not just bravery to 'utter the un-utterable' but looks at how the two states can come together around NI.

I'm no nationalist in the NI sense of the word, I'm a Irish Protestant from Dublin, a proud citizen of our Republic, a progressive and certainly not an anglo-phobe. through my youth had many encounters with NI protestants that left me feeling cold and as if my identity as a protestant and an Irish citizen was somehow the wrong choice.

Close to visionary.

Delighted to have found your blog.

At 1:46 p.m., Anonymous craig said...

always took paisley as a bad irish joke, sorry

At 8:02 p.m., Anonymous perci said...

You've the imagination to SEE.
Very impressive indeed.

At 8:38 p.m., Anonymous Tony said...

>>If that apparent dichotomy fascinates you so much you fail to grasp the vision you may find yourself fighting dead men's battles.<<

Impressive and succinct sentiments.

I don't envy you even mentioning positive words regarding a united Ireland in Unionist circles BU. You will know this far better than I, or is it your opinion that things are beginning to change?

At 5:02 p.m., Blogger Mac Gille Uidhir said...

Good on you BU. It's time we protestant united Irelanders made our opinions known.

At 5:22 p.m., Anonymous kensei said...


Would my Britishness be strengthened by such a move?

It would be unaffected. The Britishness of the State would end, but not necessarily all of the things that make that up.

Would the Religious Establishment of the new state be dictating less on matters of social conscience(ie abortion)?

There isn't support for abortion within the six. If anything, that is more entrenched than it is in the Republic. The religious establishment in the South is a spent force. Unification would probably kill it unless it unites with Prodiban on certain issues.

How about my economic well-being, would I be better off than I am now?

Short term: hard to say. Long term: unquestionably.

At 10:12 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting post BU and, to any objective reader from outside of Ulster, very logical and true.

But let's be honest; the politics of many in Irish Unionism isn't based on logic. For many, too many, it's about anti-Catholic, anti-(gaelic)Irish rhetoric. True though it is that there are many ordinary modern thinking Unionists who could fit in easily into a unified Irish state, there are also many East of the Bann born and bred to despise everything gaelic on their native land.

You can see the mentality of Unionist posters like Checkov, who are ignorant to the fact that nearly 80 per cent of the population of an island called Ireland, which is smaller than the state of New York, have the same political beliefs and yet the island is partitioned at the behest of a 20 per cent minority in the North East.

Yet to him partition is not at all unnatural. You cannot expect logic there.

At 4:34 a.m., Anonymous bill said...

Unification would already change the nature of the Irish State. There would now be a very large, voting, influx of protestant based people into an already largely secular state. It would tend to influence which laws were passed, etc. as well further secularising it. Northern protestants and catholics would no longer feel forced to defend, what is to my mind, indefensible. Ditto, the IRA. No border, no raison d'etre. The real bigots and diehards would emigrate. Sounds good to me.

At 12:05 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

How can Nationalist voters encourage the thrust of this post? Would we be better voting FF/SDLP and abandoning SF?


At 6:40 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

The UK is 85 per cent Englishmen. So the term "British" is talking about 85 per cent English people and 15 per cent Scots, Welsh, and Unionist Irish.

If I get a glass of Vodka with 85 per cent pure vodka and 15 per cent water and it's called something else and not vodka, the reality is essentially what you're getting is vodka. The English have a bit of a complex about their colonial history so they like to share the blame around these islands by promoting the term British.

Irish Unionists are PRIMARILY Irishmen; they have a long and proud history in Ireland. Many of the greatest Irishmen have been Protestant Irishmen, like most Unionists are. So it's time to embrace that history in your own island and stop trying to cling to England. Because the UK is 85 per cent English.

The relationship between Dublin and London is now as close and genuine as any neighbouring countries in the world. This is how things should be; but NI is a scar that needs to be healed through unification.

At 3:15 p.m., Blogger B.U. said...

To "logical" Anonymous: agree, that's the way it is. Uphill battle, I know.

To Bill: usurption of NI into the Republic wouldn't work without a degree of federalisation, but I like the idea of the hotheads getting out or, better, cooling. Maybe the vodka above might help.

To "Nationalist" Anonymous: I'd welcome a strengthening of the SDLP and can see them merging with FF. You cannot believe how distasteful it is for Prods to hear SF glorifying terrorists at every turn. SF's extremism may have delivered politically for the ordinary peace-loving Catholic, but it's time for rapprochement on all sides, and I can see no signs that SF is able to adjust. Their electoral failure in the Republic just feeds that view.

At 12:40 a.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sinn Fein/IRA must love this Blog. There is nothing worse than garden centre Prods. You should read up on the history of the Ulster people and discover why we have our own identity and why we are part of the UK. You disgust me. It would be better if you go across the border now and live with your Nationalist friends in the Republic because you are no friend of Ulster.

At 9:41 p.m., Blogger B.U. said...

Anonymous, thanks for giving your view. No idea what a garden centre Prod is, but it sounds a laugh.

I have read up on the history of the Ulster people, and if you can bear to come back and read other posts you'll see we've had a special, unique identity for 500 or 1,000 years. It's an identity I'm proud of. In fact, I'm so proud of it I think we deserve far better than being England's lickspittle. It's an identity shared by Ulster Catholics too, which is why I'm pleased they've finally got a democratic voice, even if it's through Sinn Féin (for now, at least). I am no friend of Marxist republicanism, no friend of terrorist murderers and no friend of resentment, which is why your attitude strikes me as so unworthy of the kind of Ulster we need to build now.

It's an attitude you're entitled to, though, but I hope you'll stik around and mellow with age, because our great-grandchildren are so much more important than perpetuating the sectarian evil we've all inherited.

At 6:12 p.m., Anonymous Welsh Unionist said...

I hope your wrong, but if you are I should hope at least that Britain be involved strongly with the cultural life of Northern Ireland, and have better links with Ireland as a whole. Whats more the Irish would have to respond better to displays of British cultural heritage and pride (not neccesarily exclusive to a sense of Irishness) than they did at the Dublin Love Ulster march. I'm not convinced the Irish are anywhere near ready to have people sitting in the Dublin government who are proud of their British ethnic connection.

On other hand of course, theres no reason why the Unionsist should even have to accept that. You've survived 40 years of terror and violence, and now finally the IRA have renounced the use of force. Few unionists seem to realise, but this really constitutes a great victory for the Unionist people. Maybe your too exhausted to realise this fact; a generation of resiliance has paid off, there is now no more reason for Northern Ireland to secede than there is for Scotland, that is to say its feasable, but will occur through democratic means. And being democratic, you have a choice. You are more than capable to choose to maintain the Union til humanity meets extinction if you so please (and I hope you do), or you can join the Republic. There is no force or coersion to push you either way, there is no inevitability there. The future hasnt been decided, and if the unborn generation of Ulsterfolk develope a taste of Britishness, then there is no reason why they should not remain British.


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