“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