Current Affairs Irish Republican Politics

British Unionism In Ireland And Its Tea Party Moment

Over on the Slate journalist Reihan Salam has an interesting examination of the electoral demographic which forms the backbone of the Donald Trump campaign in the presidential primaries for the Republican Party:

“…in an analysis of the Iowa counties in which the various Republican counties fared best, Patrick Ruffini found a striking contrast between the counties that went for Rubio and for Trump. While the counties that went for Rubio tended to have a higher number of households with incomes greater than $200,000, more new home construction, and more adults with post-graduate degrees, the counties that went for Trump tended to have higher rates of unemployment and a higher share of adults who identify as Scots-Irish, or simply as “American.” This fits neatly with Nate Cohn’s analysis of the Trump coalition, which he finds is concentrated in counties across the country with a low proportion of college-educated adults. Trump is strongest not in the metropolitan corners of America, where he’s spent most of his life. Rather, his strongholds are the mostly overlooked sections of the South, Appalachia, and the rural and semi-rural North.

Many have been struck by the overwhelming whiteness of Trump’s campaign, not least the small number of self-identified “white nationalists” who’ve rallied around his campaign. I would argue that the Trump coalition illustrates how whiteness as a category is so expansive as to be almost meaningless. The Scots-Irish or “American” whites who see Trump as their champion are profoundly different from the metropolitan whites who dominate the upper echelons of U.S. society—so much so that the convention of lumping them together as “white” detracts far more from our understanding of how they fit into our society than it adds to it. J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, a forthcoming book on the place of Appalachian whites in modern America, estimates that roughly one-quarter of whites belong to the Scots-Irish tribe that has embraced Trump. If we were to separate out these Americans as a race or ethnicity unto themselves, Vance writes, we would finds rates of poverty and substance abuse that would shock our national conscience. But we don’t generally collect detailed statistics on the Scots-Irish. We don’t have a clear sense of how their labor force participation or disability rates compare to those of other Americans, including other white Americans. And so their experiences and their collective traumas blend into whiteness, where they can be safely ignored. Whites are privileged, after all.”

Contrast Trump with the runner-up in the New Hampshire primary, John Kasich. Kasich has at least as much of a claim to speaking for the Scots-Irish whites who have been central to Trump’s success. Though he’s of eastern European descent, Kasich grew up in working-class western Pennsylvania, where he lived among the descendants of Appalachians who fled rural poverty for jobs in the region’s booming industrial cities. Yet Kasich seems incapable of playing the role of class traitor. Before becoming governor of Ohio, Kasich had parlayed his political renown into a job as a managing director at Lehman Brothers, a storied bank that went down in flames when the 2008 financial crisis hit. Kasich is an admirable figure in many respects, and he’s forgotten more about the workings of government than Donald Trump will ever know. Yet in the eyes of many Trump supporters, Kasich is the more compromised figure, as Trump has been quick to own up to his gleeful participation in political corruption.”

As I pointed out before, there are British unionist (and supposedly “Scots-Irish”) areas in the north-east of Ireland that in political, religious and socio-economic terms bear more comparison with parts of the southern United States than they do with places elsewhere on this island nation. The phenomenon of militant “flaggers” in both regions, whether supporters of the Union Jack or the Dixie Flag, is not an isolated example, and the confluence of right-wing politics and Protestant evangelicalism has shaped the history of both countries for at least the last two centuries. Of course independent-minded regions can have national effects, whether it is violent opposition to the implementation of Home Rule or violent opposition to the emancipation of slaves. Both Ireland and the United States have experienced separatist rebellions. In the case of the former the racist and sectarian secessionists won a pyrrhic victory of sorts, with the partition of the island and the establishment of the para-colony of “Northern Ireland” in the rebel zone. In the case of the US the racist (and occasionally, sectarian) secessionists were defeated, America was not partitioned and the establishment of the “Confederate States” in the rebel zone was overthrown.

While some may claim to be witnessing a resurgence or renewal of political unionism in Ireland the reality is closer to the experiences of the conservative or rural “Scots-Irish” communities, self-identified or otherwise, in the United States. The rise of Donald Trump, like that of the broader-based Tea Party movement before it, does not represent an assertive self-confidence or renewed strength among a certain, formerly majority demographic. Rather it is the raging of the few against the many, of stultified political tradition being subsumed by modernist political progress. Likewise, ideological unionism in the north-east of Ireland is changing not through choice but through necessity, one brought about by the same changes in population as can be witnessed in the US. Just as Latino-American and African-American communities have shifted the politics of the States, so too has the Irish nationalist community in the “Occupied North”. As a new generation of Hispanic and Black voters demand admission to the great, middle swathe of American society, an entire generation of nationalists have sought and achieved entry to the institutions of society and politics in the Six Counties.

However in the United States the political, social and economic ambitions of most Latino- and African-Americans begins and ends at the borders of their federal republic. In contrast the ambitions of Irish nationalists in the north-east extend to the borders of the island itself and in the long term they will not be satisfied with anything less.

5 comments on “British Unionism In Ireland And Its Tea Party Moment

  1. Lord of Mirkwood

    I’ve always hoped that the people in the Trump coalition could be coaxed into supporting Bernie Sanders. A Sanders presidency would actually benefit them and people like them enormously. The problem is that they’ve been exposed to the wrong propaganda, I think. As Bernie said, they have a right to be angry about the state of the economy, but they’re channeling it to the wrong place. Trouble is, I don’t know what it would take to switch their sympathies.

    Also, this is sort of off-topic, but I’ve always experienced some cognitive dissonance with the term “rebel.” When the term is applied to Ireland, I generally think it to be good, because it denotes those who rebelled against British tyranny to free the island. But when I look at U.S. history, the term “rebel” refers to the Confederate States, and is the epitome of evil. I have to do a little mental switch with the word “rebel” every time I go between the U.S. and Europe.


  2. Sharon Douglas

    Someday I must tell you the history of my Scots-Irish family. 😉


  3. I would be more than a bit sceptical about these people in certain Iowa counties who claim to be “Scots-Irish.” The figures I’ve seen assert that the state with the most descendants of Scots-Irish settlers is North Carolina, but even there the percentage of the total population is only 2.9%. Iowa doesn’t even figure as a state with any measurable Scots-Irish population. As there are so few of them it’s difficult to sustain the assertion that they are responsible for Trump’s success, or the conversion of certain states to red Republican strongholds.
    I’ve come to the conclusion that the very term has become almost meaningless, as Scots-Irish ancestry seems to be claimed by many people with only a very tenuous connection with that ethnicity, who are more likely to be of predominantly English, German or Dutch ancestry. The label seems to be regarded as romantic by some, or applied as a kind of general catch-all for those perceived to be ill-educated, socially backward, or economically dis-advantaged, though there are, no doubt, some few remaining in the Appalachians who do fit that stereotype. One wonders how so many of these people made it to the White House, became involved in founding educational establishments like Princeton, or, like the Mellons, established themselves as industrialists, if they were so ill-educated. Irish Presbyterians of Scottish origin were more likely to be literate than their Protestant Anglican, or Catholic, counterparts, perhaps their descendants just decided to become illiterate ignoramuses on the other side of the Atlantic.
    As to the “supposed” Scots-Irish areas of N.I., the Scottish influence on language and general culture is obvious to any visitor to districts like North Antrim and manifests itself in the Catholic/Nationalist community, as well as the Protestant/Unionist one. When Justin McCarthy was imported from the south to manage the Antrim Hurling team, an onerous task at the best of times, he subsequently commented in a book on the strong Scottish accents/dialect of the non-Belfast players in his squad. And, of course, the “fleg” protests were a largely Belfast phenomenon, orchestrated by Loyalist paramilitaries, and achieved no traction in the traditionally rural “Scots-Irish” areas.
    Andrew O’Hehir makes some good points in his article. I recall watching a B.B.C. documentary way back in the 70s about the busing of black children into the predominantly “Irish” area of South Boston. Those opposed to this policy asserted that their district was Irish and that they didn’t want any “niggers” being bused in. As a youngster at the time I was shocked by these attitudes which I had imagined were restricted to the Southern states.


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