Before Donald J Trump, before the politics of the alt-right in the United States, there was Sir Edward Carson and the politics of British unionism – or ethno-sectarian separatism – on the island of Ireland. Like the New York real estate mogul, the Dublin-born lawyer rose to power by adopting and encouraging a malevolent ideology based upon a resentful hatred of the “other“. At the start of the 20th century he posed as the chosen defender of the historical rights and privileges of a ruling class and ethnicity under supposed threat from the upstart ambitions of its social, cultural or racial inferiors. Like Trump, the tactics of Carson were antithetical to normal democratic values. The judicial persecutor of Oscar Wilde understood and appreciated the subversive efficacy of alternative facts and post-truth, of repeatedly saying that something is so to make it so.
In the 1910s and ’20s Edward Carson, a default member of the British parliament for the University of Dublin since 1892, publicly led a political campaign – and surreptitiously encouraged an armed revolt – against successive attempts by the majority of the Irish people to gain autonomy from the United Kingdom by peaceful and democratic means. He opposed and undermined the pro-independence outcomes of four plebiscite-elections held in the country during this period through violence and the threat of violence. He sought to overturn the results of the general election of December 1918, the urban area local elections of January 1920, the rural elections of June 1920, and the general election of May 1921, all of which yielded substantial nationalist majorities, led by Sinn Féin, the Irish Parliamentary Party and the Labour Party. He refused to accept that pro-UK unionist parties and candidates were heavily defeated in the polls right across the country, relying on consolidated constituencies in parts of Ulster and Leinster for their representation. Instead of accepting the results of the ballot box, however objectionable to him personally, Carson became the figurehead of a separatist rebellion on the island, turning the north-east of the country, the Six Counties, into a mirror image of what Vladimir Putin would create in Crimea and eastern Ukraine during this century.
Given his dreadful, undemocratic career one would imagine that no modern politician of any background would hold him up as a figure of admiration. Would a mainstream American politician seek to emulate the record of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America? Yet, here is Mike Nesbitt, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), speaking in the union-supporting Newsletter.
“Unionism must return to its founding values and approach power-sharing with nationalists as beneficial not a necessary evil, Mike Nesbitt has said.
He claimed his main unionist rivals, the DUP, had reneged on principles espoused by one of the Province’s founding fathers Sir Edward Carson.
“If you go back to Carson, in 1920 as this country was being developed, Carson stood up in the Commons and said ‘you’ll only succeed if there are no factions, no sections’.
“You’ll only succeed if you have got good government, fair government and honest government for all the people.
“And if we don’t do that, that is the existential threat to Northern Ireland – if unionism fails to live up to the values that were established nearly 100 years ago by Edward Carson.”
The values of Edward Carson were repugnant in the 1910s and they are even more repugnant in the 2010s. There should be no place for him or his beliefs in the modern lexicon of democratic politics in western Europe. We no more need unionist alt-democracy than we need that presented by the American alt-right and its offshoots.