It’s sometimes difficult to remember that there is a distinction to be drawn between unionists as an ethno-national minority in Ireland and unionists as a political caste, a body of men and women promoting an ethno-national and separatist ideology in the north-east of the country. Admittedly, the politics of the latter are shaped by the identity of the former, and both believe in a sense of continuity with their British colonial forebears (perceived or actual) coupled with an ongoing loyalty to Britain itself. However, a crucial part of that sense of Britishness is a rejection of any sense of Irishness, at least in terms of nationality or citizenship. Such things of course are never black and white, and there is much muddled greyness where conflicting and complimentary notions of self and community overlap.
Over a century ago a majority of unionists on this island regarded themselves as both Irish and British, content that their country was an annexed – if turbulent – territory within the so-called “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland“. The notable exception was the concentrated pro-union population in the northern province of Ulster, some of whom chose to see themselves in regional terms only: Ulstermen first, British second and Irish hardly at all. These were people who still acted like settlers on a wild frontier, homesteaders carving out an enclave of civilisation while fending off the barbarous natives. They saw their little world in terms of colonists and their descendants, an incoming community divided by language, culture and religion from the aboriginals they had displaced or usurped. Even when, in reality, the lines of ancestry between old and new ran crooked and diverse.
Antipathy to Ireland’s indigenous ethnicity, or any manifestations of it, has been built into political unionism since the 18th century. No matter the complexities and plurality of that ethnicity, unionist leaders have largely insisted on its rejection. Despite a few notable exceptions, very little has changed over the last two or three hundred years. So much so that even the politics of Irish nationalism displays an ambiguous relationship with the native language it supposedly represents. The legacy of eight centuries of colonial racism – where Irish was an identifier of the Gaelic other, of the figurative slave within and the actual enemy without – pervades pro-union politics in the Six Counties.
From the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) on the far right to the Alliance Party (APNI) on the centre-right, encompassing the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) in between, mainstream ideological unionism is incapable of moving beyond a settlerist mindset. It is still waging a Wild West struggle, playing at Cowboys and Indians, opposing the native language and culture of “West Britain” at every turn. This report from the news and current affairs website, the Detail, illustrates that fact:
“New questions are being raised over the actions of DUP ministers towards the Irish language while in government.
Documents have emerged showing the extent to which Arlene Foster and her special adviser intervened in a policy row over Irish language tourism signs.
It has also emerged that the outgoing DUP Communities Minister Paul Givan did not carry out a key government equality test before ordering a controversial cut to the Líofa Irish language scheme in December.
[Foster and her former ministerial adviser Andrew Crawford] …are shown to have intervened in requests for Irish language tourism signs from two local councils while Mrs Foster was at the helm of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), advising the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) to refuse to fund the signs and adhere instead to its policy on using English.
The information on both issues was secured by civil liberties group, the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) and comes as equality issues are central to the political crisis that has forced the collapse of the Stormont Assembly.”
Mainstream political unionism at its most extreme and militant is irredeemably hibernophobic and sectarian. Its bigotry cannot be assuaged any more than one can assuage the ideological obsessions of the far right or alt-right in Europe and North America. The politics of the former are as poisonous and divisive as the politics of the latter. Yet the appeasement of ultra-unionism has been a doctrinal policy pursued by successive Irish governments and by the country’s political class as a whole for the last century. Instead of modifying or ameliorating the problem, repeated concessions have made things worse. It has given rise to a generation of pro-union Trumps in the electoral politics of the Six Counties, personified by the DUP leader and now defunct first minister, Arlene Foster.
We simply cannot reason with those who seek to wind back the clock to some fabled imperial golden age, a quiescent era when the supposedly homogeneous “Ulster-British” were masters of the fertile lowlands and industrial towns, while the resentful Irish natives knew their place in the barren highlands and sodden bogs. If we reject the anachronistic vision that Trump and company has conjured up for the United States of America, then let us be consistent and do the same at home, here in Ireland, with our very own Orange Trumps.
In the run-up to the March 2nd election for the cross-community assembly at Stormont let us demand equality not appeasement!