Current Affairs Politics

Unionist And European In A Time Of Brexit

“Sure hasn’t it always been that way”

A couple of years back, in a throwaway comment to a close friend, I railed against the attitude of the likes of Johnston, Farage, Rees-Mogg, and the DUP to the implications for Ireland of Brexit: “Those fuckers couldn’t care less about the impact this will have on Ireland.” My friend, from a strongly republican area of Northern Ireland, but little more than vaguely political herself, smiled and replied, “Sure hasn’t it always been that way.” She didn’t realise it at the time, but those few words of hers had quite an effect on me. They helped coalesce a lot of niggling thoughts, doubts and emotions that had been playing for some time on the outskirts of my mind.

A one-eyed reading of history

Now, I’m no stranger to Irish history. I’m well aware of what, in tribal terms, we have for centuries been doing to one another and what has been done collectively to all of us. Still, the power of history to enlighten depends entirely upon the prism through which it is read. It is remarkable how even the best of us can dismiss with a little more than a euphemistic shrug what “the other side” has suffered, yet feel enraged and personally bereaved by the suffering on “our own side”. Occasionally our empathetic defences will be breached by an outrage against the other; but only occasionally, and the effect soon wears off. My reading of Irish/British history, up to and including the recent past, had been largely of the one-eyed kind. To reap the benefits of history, the trick – easy to identify but very difficult to accomplish – is to approach it from a determinedly neutral standpoint. Or better still where we are concerned, from the perspective of the “other side”. The latter is the position my friend’s simple reply helped me finally to reach.

Trump and Paisley

What few doubts I ever had about the unionism that I was born into and to which I fully ascribed were put to rest with the Good Friday Agreement. To quote from my first article here on AN SIONNACH FIONN: “As a ‘small u’ unionist, from a Protestant background, I was more than content with the situation in Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement. We had peace, were full-blown citizens of the EU, and able to choose how British or Irish (or neither of those) we wanted to be. What was there not to like about that?”

I had never fully realised what unionism meant to many outside our tribe. I realised and understood to a degree how we were perceived by others, but I had never felt what they feel. That was until Donald Trump came along. I had mostly ignored Trump until he was elected, when it became impossible to do so. From the outset of his presidency, Trump reminded me so much of Ian Paisley I sometimes wondered if he had modelled himself on the firebrand preacher: the extreme narcissism and raw lust for power; the demagogic populism and playing to the lowest common denominators within his support base; the public evisceration of anyone that dared disagree with him and the plausible deniability cunningly adhered to when inciting violence; the imagined elitism and constant denigration of minorities.

The parallels are not absolute, of course. After Paisley achieved his lifetime ambition and claimed the most politically powerful position in Northern Ireland, he tried to reinvent himself as a benign, grandfatherly type of character. Whereas Trump’s lust for power seems insatiable, and he becomes ever more dangerous the more power he grabs to himself. But that is a side issue. I felt (and feel) a level of disgust – a repulsiveness – for Trump and his followers similar to what others must have felt for Paisley. Much more importantly, I realised that Trump’s extreme right-wing worldview is scarily similar to that of the unionism I have clung to all my life.

As something of an aside, I was raised in a family that would never vote for Paisley or the DUP, but, if there was no Ulster Unionist standing, neither would we go against him by voting for the SDLP or even Alliance. In this respect, I feel we were no better than Trump’s enablers in the Republican Party and its support base – they may find him repugnant, but not enough to oppose him. Our attitude to Paisley and his party was along similar lines to the Franklin D Roosevelt maxim: “He might be a bastard, but he’s our bastard.”

“…to see oursels as others see us”

Which brings me back to Brexit and Ireland. The immortal Rabbie Burns famously wrote: “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us, to see oursels as others see us.” The connections between Donald Trump and Steve Bannon and leading Brexiteers such as Boris Johnston and Nigel Farage are extremely worrying for many reasons, but they are incidental to the Brexit/Ireland situation. Except, from a personal perspective, in one important respect. After Trump manifested as the “Power” that helped me begin to “see oursels as other see us”, there was no stopping me. I began to – subconsciously, as I now realise – question not just the integrity of unionism, but its central tenet of Britishness that “oursels” hold so dear. When my friend replied as she did after I complained about Brexiteer attitudes to Ireland, in an instant the subconscious in me arose from its slumber. It struck me immediately that she was absolutely right. History, if read with both eyes open, never mind from the other’s perspective, tells us that this is how it has been for centuries. The British establishment doesn’t give a damn for the welfare of the people of Ireland, and never has. We (all of us) are to them a second-class people. We exist to be exploited or ignored, used or abused, whenever it suits their purpose.

Time to call a halt

I have come to ask myself some difficult but liberating questions. What have we unionists ignored or made excuses for? What have we colluded in? What have we denied about ourselves and others? And I have arrived at some painful conclusions. No matter how liberal I and many thousands like me are in every other sphere of our lives, there is no denying that we have enabled, either through our actions or inactions, the very worst type of “politics” to hold sway in this part of Ireland. Sometimes there have been extenuating circumstances, but not very often.

For me at least, it is time to call a halt. If a border poll were to be held in Northern Ireland tomorrow, I would be amongst the first in the queue at my local polling station to cast a vote to end partition. It is time to cut the apron strings of colonialism. Time to take our chances with the rest of the people of Ireland – our fellow countrymen and -women. I am still a unionist, but nowadays only of the European kind.

A guest article by Elizabeth Cady Stanton

7 comments on “Unionist And European In A Time Of Brexit

  1. terence patrick hewett

    A great deal of moral superiority going on there Elizabeth: let’s hope yr hopes are not dashed.


  2. Alan Gordon

    I fervently hope that more pre planning go into the after effects of a border poll than the cluster bùrach that is brexit. A pre negotiated transition period for a kick off.


  3. Your post is fascinating and very positive, but what are your thoughts on how to engage with those who haven’t taken this same journey or are adamant they never will, or those who are likely never to take it? For example, would you feel comfortable in an NI that was part of a larger united Ireland (in whatever form) but still had certain links East West to Britain? Or can you envisage what would be a congenial stepping stone for those who couldn’t yet make the journey? Or do you feel that it should be a more traditional UI? And do you think there’s going to be a cohort who feel similarly to yourself? Apologies, that’s a lot of questions and perhaps a post is a better way of addressing the next steps as it were.


  4. WBS. You can’t please all of the people all of the time and so it will be with unionists.

    Not all of them will come to welcome a united Ireland but enough of them will to make it happen.

    Once however a United Ireland is established it is difficult to see how the stridency of the unionist tendency can continue. Bereft of their UK backing they will have to start to integrate. Not the easiest of tricks to accomplish in an area with a legacy of UK supported division, but something that can be achieved. Politics can then take on a more normal complexion.

    That said, the current tidal wave of hostility that is Brexit will I hope accelerate the process.

    At a relative stroke it is showing in clear focus the benefits of a United Ireland. No one in their right mind wants to go back to the division of a border, with all of the implications that that has for trade, travel, rights of passage and etc.

    A similar thinking applies in Scotland where the soft unionists are now questioning if there is any benefit in remaining in the UK.

    Scotland didn’t vote Tory, didn’t vote for Brexit, hates and opposes the Johnsons and Farages, but is getting them and their policies against its wishes.

    Stripped of democratic choice and the illusion of the fabled union dividend, it is maybe no wonder that polls are now indicating that a majority are now in favour of independence.

    Brexit however still has a long way to play out. Not least in the streets of England where the fire of division in an ever increasingly divided society is yet to burn.


  5. I wonder how many other Unionists feel like Elizabeth? And why to hell they don’t speak out like her? I don’t think their grandchildren will thank them in the future for there silence.


  6. Pat Murphy

    In those famous words of Cameron, we are all in this together. As time goes on and Johnston and his Etonian bum chums tighten the noose around our necks everyone in this country will unfortunately realise it. By then it will be time to cut the apron strings. At last.


  7. Narratives similar to your own can be found in the decolonization processes in South America, Africa, Asia. Despite the variations in geography, culture and time the fundamental dynamics at play in a colony, and its end, are the broadly the same. Looking at these other examples from history can help illuminate the path Unionism will inevitably trod, the end of the colony play has few variations, despite the radical differences in the cast and production.

    Césaire’s Discourses on Colonialism is a monograph that can be found for free online and is a great jumping off point for at least a piece of the quest you now find yourself upon. Keep pulling on that thread and you’ll end up reading James C Scott’s Against the Grain (the wiki page gives a great overview).


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