Policy Papers

Ulster Unionism and a sense of history

John Bew |

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Executive Summary

  • Ulster Unionism has often been reduced to simplistic definitions. It has been portrayed as reactionary and dominated by a sense of 'siege mentality'.
  • An historical re-examination of Unionism indicates that it was a multi-faceted idea, in many ways detached from the historical fault-lines of Irish history. In theory at least, it professed to offer a means of transcending the war between the extreme factions of Orange and Green.
  • Unionism has strong liberal and internationalist traditions which are sometimes ignored. It was premised on a positive identification and engagement with mainland Britain as the best means for the advancement of Ireland. Unionists also shared a wider faith in the British Empire as the most effective vehicle of political and economic progress across the world.
  • Modern attempts to create a more constructive Unionism are thus based on much more than invented traditions. Further developed and refined, they offer a valuable contribution to the future of Northern Ireland as a devolved region within the United Kingdom.
  • At the same time, it should be remembered that one of the potential pitfalls in modern Irish politics is an excessive reliance on history as a source of legitimisation.


Both moderate Unionists and moderate Nationalists have put themselves on the line over the last decade in the attempt to find a political solution to the Northern Ireland problem. The nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) looks set to be further eclipsed by Sinn Fein at the forthcoming Northern Ireland assembly elections; David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party may also lose out to the exponents of a more extreme version of Unionism. Nevertheless, within moderate Unionism at least, the last few years have also seen a burgeoning sense of intellectual self-confidence. As much as this new departure is under pressure domestically, the formation of a more progressive and flexible idea of Unionism has given it renewed vigour in selling its case in mainland Britain and beyond.

Inevitably, both communities in Northern Ireland have reservations about shifts in political language, particularly as they rarely reflect events and sentiments on the ground. More often than not, such 'new departures' are equated with 'sell-outs' or betrayals. On the contrary, modern constructive Unionism has a substantial historical foundation which does much to reinforce its rationale. One prominent republican mantra is that Unionists are 'fighting against the tide of history'. The strongest argument against this is the rediscovery of a Unionist past which cannot be reduced to confessional, reactionary politics or simplistic and increasingly obsolete notions of 'siege mentality'.

Against the 'reductionist fallacy'

As recently as 18 April 2003 Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble claimed in the Times Literary Supplement that 'modern Unionists have a good direct claim to be considered the inheritors of the United Irishmen'. Trimble's argument was as much rhetorical as historical; it is, of course, impossible to know how the radicals of the late eighteenth century would have responded to the modern 'Troubles'. Nevertheless, his assertion draws us to the consideration of a serious point. The appropriation of the United Irish tradition solely into the Republican version of the past is symptomatic of the slogan-based history that permeates the Northern Ireland conflict.

The United Irishmen were a body of men of all creeds - although predominately Ulster Presbyterians - who came together in a political organisation in the early 1790s. Inspired by the success of the French Revolution, they were a radical group that demanded sweeping political change. Initially reformist in their intentions, government repression forced them underground and they became increasingly revolutionary. Many of the United Irish leaders even contemplated using French military assistance to achieve full independence for Ireland. Ultimately, their unsuccessful rebellion of 1798 was utopian and failed to gauge the extent of sectarian division in late-eighteenth-century Ireland: in some areas in the south, the banner of revolution became a guise for the settling of age-old religious resentments.

There is, nevertheless, little doubt that this tradition represents one of the more positive aspects of a shared Irish history. But while the stories of Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet and other United Irish rebels remain central to Republican folklore, the truth is that many of the descendants of the United Irishmen became the staunchest supporters of the Union within the first few decades of the nineteenth century. This has been seen as a defining 'transformation' in Irish history, and the emergent Unionism of former separatist and radical Ulster Presbyterians has often been explained by fear of resurgent Catholicism or the growth of evangelical Protestantism. But, in professing their attachment to the British connection decades before there was any hint of Home Rule, the liberals of Ulster - the sons and grandsons of those who had rebelled for independence in 1798 - felt perfectly vindicated in the consistency of their principles.

Evidently, it is necessary to dispense with what one writer has called the 'reductionist fallacy': the idea that the two traditions in Irish history can be reduced to a simple 'core' - often sectarian - which follows a direct historical route to the modern 'Troubles'. The Act of Union between Britain and Ireland was passed at the beginning of the nineteenth century. As such Unionism should be examined largely as a post-1801 creed. It cannot simply be seen as a further manifestation of the religious and political wars and sieges of the seventeenth century. These are, without question, vital to Ulster Protestant history, culture and identity. But taken on their own, they are far from helpful in understanding the complexity of Unionism as an idea. Moreover, isolated from contemporaneous changes in British history, they tell us very little about the growth of a 'British' - as opposed to an Ulster-Scot - identity over the following two centuries.

Unionism and liberalism

The famous Irish historian F.S.L. Lyons wrote that 'unyielding resistance to change had seemed for most of the nineteenth century the only course open for those who wished to maintain connection between the two countries'. But Unionism was far from a simply conservative or reactionary creed and should not be automatically packaged as either anti-Reform or anti-Catholic.

Just as Irish Nationalism purports to transcend merely Catholic considerations, so Unionism claims to represent more than Protestant self-interest. But what are the implications of this for notions of identity and nationhood? Ultimately, in the case of the former United Irishmen who became Unionists, attachment to the idea of 'nation' was defined by an understanding of common citizenship, liberty and progress. If local factionalism could not be defeated - the lesson which many drew from the botched rebellion of 1798 - it must be transcended. The strongest proponents of Unionism believed this would be best achieved through association with progressive forces in the United Kingdom. This idea was especially appealing for local liberals who often felt, and still do feel, marginalized in matters of politics, theology and culture. Through an attachment to the diverse forces of mainstream British politics, this sense of marginalization has often seemed less acute.

One of the peculiarities of early-nineteenth-century Ireland was that opposition to the Union was often more forthcoming from the Tory and Orange elements of the population. For example, it has been argued that the loyalty of Orangemen was often a conditional commitment, dependent on the maintenance of a sectional version of the Protestant constitution. Also, the Tories of the Dublin Corporation and the landed aristocracy had never been fully reconciled to the loss of local power they had suffered as result of the Union and the end of the old Irish Parliament in Dublin. In reality, this 'patriot Parliament' had been a corrupt, exclusive and conservative Anglican Establishment force. It had excluded both Catholics and Ulster's Presbyterian majority. Unsurprisingly, few in Ulster, of left or right, Catholic or Protestant, ever mentioned it with respect or expressed the slightest desire to see it restored.

The record of British government policy toward Ireland can be attacked from many angles. But at the most basic level, the Union opened up the prospect that the pace of change and advancement in Ireland would be on a parallel with that in Britain. This may have been a sobering and worrying prospect in some parts of the country, and for good reason. But it is easy to see why many in the industrial north-east of Ireland were much more receptive to the arrangement.

Support for the Union did not then entail support for the British government's policies in Ireland. But at the same time, it was 'necessary to discriminate between a nation and its government'; the cause of Irish complaint was best served by attachment to similar demands for reform in British politics. '"Brethren in calamity should love", and the cause of complaint is not of Irish against British, but both have a common cause to seek redress of grievances'. These were the words of Belfast Presbyterian radical William Drennan. Many know Drennan as the intellectual progenitor of the United Irishmen; not so many know that he was also the first articulate voice, perhaps the father, of Unionism.

From the early nineteenth century, the sentiments that fuelled mass Irish Nationalism - differences of race, religion, and levels of development - were just as likely to push the descendants of the United Irishmen towards the British connection. As the Young Ireland movement of the 1840s realised, such notions were more likely to accentuate the sectarian 'provincialism' of Irish political life, than dilute it. Drennan, writing from 1808 to 1814, came to espouse 'a FAITHFUL UNION, a real assimilation of the countries, in spirit as well as in form, not merely in virtue of parchment'. He envisaged a 'cordial inter-communion of a common country, a country in full development of the term, a paternal sovereignty, perfect identity of rights, equality under the law, and reciprocal utility'.

Early Unionists did not reject a sense of Irish nationality. They did however insist that it should not be defined on the basis of ethnicity, religion, or some distorted notion of historical wrong or destiny; Drennan, the man who coined the phrase 'Emerald Isle', was always insistent that, as an Ulster Presbyterian of planter stock, he had nothing to be ashamed of. Unionists of this mould shared many preconceptions with late-eighteenth-century American state builders and nineteenth-century Italian nationalists. Admittedly, there was something of Ulster-Scots pride in the fact that some of the most important men in American political history - Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan, Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley (who had an ancestor executed after the 1798 rebellion) and Woodrow Wilson - could claim Ulster descent. More notably still, Count Cavour's critique of Irish Nationalism - he doubted if separation was the best course for the advancement of Ireland - also struck a chord among Unionists.

Unionism and internationalism

The first few decades of the Union coincided with a changing role for Britain on the Continent. This fed into the emergence of a romantic Unionist attachment to Empire, centred on the universal notions of Enlightenment, liberty, and rights. In the area of Britain where ethnic and religious divisions were most pronounced, many preferred to look to what has been called the 'civilizational perspective' of the British identity. These ideas were best exemplified in the approach of Sir James Emerson Tennent (MP for Belfast, 1832-1846), a friend of both Byron and Dickens, who acquired European-wide literary acclaim for his espousal of international intervention on behalf of the Greeks in the 1820s.

In replying to Daniel O'Connell in the 1834 Commons debate on Repeal of the Union, Tennent's lasting achievement was to articulate a brand of Unionism - drawing on Burke and Grotius - completely detached from the 'siege motif', Protestant sectionalism and fear of Catholicism, often assumed to constitute the central elements of Unionist thought. If it had any precedent it was not 1641or 1690 but 1789. 'For my own part', he argued, reflecting on the recent abolition of slavery in the Empire, 'I shall never fail to regard it as a proud distinction that I have myself been enabled, during the course of the last twelve months, to contribute my own humble vote, to extend the blessings of freedom from the confines of India to the remotest shores of the Atlantic; to liberate the Hindoo, and to strike off the fetters of the African':

These are the triumphs beyond the reach of a 'Local Legislature'...toward which the highest ambition of an Irish Parliament could never soar; these are the honours which enable our birth-place as Irishmen, to add to our distinctions the glory of being Britons.

Initially, again, it was often the Tory or Orange journals that were much more uneasy about Britain's increasingly active role in the global political stage, especially as the harbinger of these ostensibly 'Jacobin' ideas. In fact, James Bryce, a prominent Liberal and later ambassador to the United States, was the more logical heir of this Ulster-born liberal Imperial tradition.

When examining the basis for a British identity among Irishmen, we are of course discussing a period in which there was little concern for the modern theme of post-colonial guilt. Just as Drennan believed he had nothing to be guilty of in coming from planter stock, only the Empire and the Imperial Parliament could satisfy Emerson Tennent's 'senatorial ambition' to be involved in the 'noblest fields of legislation'. This was the power, as Edmund Burke had described it in his theory of representation, of 'doing good and resisting evil'. Being attached to Britain was not to 'lose aught in individual dignity' but to actively contribute to 'the most enlightened and commanding nation of modern times ... extending the reign of liberty from hemisphere to hemisphere'.

'Ourselves alone'

Such notions still retain some currency, albeit in a very different context. The valuable contributions of both Unionist and Nationalist MPs to the Parliamentary debate over the Iraq question demonstrates that involvement in a political world that operates outside the barriers of the Irish question is still a highly valued facet of the British connection. Perhaps the recent, and long-awaited, decision of the British Labour party finally to organise in Northern Ireland will further facilitate the attempts of those who have always tried to restructure Ulster politics around wider issues and more secular concerns. After all, since the 1950s one of the strongest arguments for the Union in what is a run-down, economically weak area of the United Kingdom, has been the strength of the British welfare state.

Sinn Fein have bolstered their ideology by formulating an active approach to all-Ireland policy over the last decade, rather than just the conflict in the north. No one expects Ulster Unionists to make a similar electoral breakthrough in mainstream British politics. Nevertheless, it would be a logical, and indeed healthy, step to introduce further discussion and engagement with the contemporary issues in British politics, particularly the contentious question of Britain's future role on the world stage. And in tightening the East-West connection (between Westminster, and the devolved assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) secured in the Good Friday Agreement, there is nothing to be lost in further North-South engagement.

Whatever the outcome of the current political crisis in Northern Ireland the principle of consent, enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement, ensures that the Union between Britain and Northern Ireland is safe for decades to come. The recent census figures for Northern Ireland further demonstrate that predictions of seismic demographic changes - leading to a nationalist majority - have been much overstated. The Unionist response to such predictions had been to deride the 'sectarian head-count politics' that had invested so much in these changes. Therefore, it is perhaps more incumbent than ever upon Unionists to justify their support of the Union on more substantial grounds than simple majoritarianism or ethnic preference. The past era, to borrow from the words of former IRA prisoner Antony Macintyre, was one in which Unionism, to a certain extent, won by 'sitting on its hands'; now it is faced with 'the dirty business of rolling up its sleeves and defending its position'.

Tactical differences and policy disputes are inevitable among the exponents of any political creed and to be expected within any democratic society. On the other hand, others have questioned precisely what is 'Unionist' about the 'little Ulsterism' of some of the more extreme elements. That members of Ulster's militant vanguard movement in the early 1970s advocated an independent Northern Irish state, denouncing the 'London Lundies' who would dare to cross it, is a fascinating insight into seemingly 'un-British' preconceptions among some of those who walk under the Unionist banner. As David Trimble recently pointed out, 'ourselves alone' is, after all, the motto of Sinn Fein. Neither a resentful detachment from mainland Britain or the image of an inflexible dependency sits comfortably with the wider perspective of Unionism offered here. Unionism has always been at its weakest when allowing others to define it: something broadly amounting to 'siege mentality', sectional interests and ethnic politics. It is at its strongest when it periodically strives to justify itself by recourse to something other than the fundamental democratic right of self-determination.


Irish political life has a much more intimate relationship with history than its British counterpart. The discourse of local political parties is saturated with historical reference. The case made here is that history does have something to contribute to a more sophisticated and subtle understanding of the current context. Irish Nationalism has been largely accepted as a legitimate and natural abstract idea, in historical and contemporary terms. At the same time, it has been argued that there should be no automatic de-legitimisation of any alternative political idea in Ireland as inferior, illogical or 'unnatural'. There are constructive arguments against a simple 'map image' of Irish politics: the notion that one small island inevitably means one small polity.

In an article which has focused largely on the liberal Unionist tradition, it is perhaps best to conclude with Lord Brookeborough (Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, 1943-1963), generally thought to be one of Unionism's more uncompromising and bigoted exponents. Faced with the threat of Nazism in the summer of 1940, members of the British cabinet came round to the idea that, to defeat it, it would be helpful to convince Ireland to give up its neutrality and join the Allies. In return, the carrot dangled in front of the Irish was complete Irish unity and the end to the Northern Irish state. Brookeborough, deeply entwined in the Orange and Unionist tradition, was also willing to sacrifice the Union for a united Ireland if it contributed to defeating Nazism. In the event, the Irish stayed out of the war and the connection remained in place. But here was a realisation on the part of the leading Unionist of the period that, in some circumstances, the Union could and should make way for a wider ideal.

For all the intellectual lustre or rhetorical armoury provided by a closer examination of history, there must also be a crucial qualification. To some extent, a sense of history may allow Unionists to call for a better understanding of their creed but that is as far as it goes. In the course of making a particular political choice, there can be no dictation by a sense of historical legitimacy.

Further Reading

A. Aughey, Under Siege: Ulster Protestants and the Anglo-Irish Agreement (London, 1989)

D.G. Boyce and A. O'Day (eds.), Defenders of the Union: A Survey of British and Irish Unionism since 1801 (London and New York, 2001)

I. McBride, The Siege Mentality of Derry in Ulster Protestant Mythology (Dublin, 1997)

N. Mansergh, The Irish Question, 1840-1921 (London, 1965), [for Count Cavour's critique of Irish Nationalism, see pp. 68-75]

D.W. Miller, Queen's Rebels, Ulster Loyalism in Historical Perspective (Dublin, 1978)

H. Patterson, Ireland Since 1939 (Oxford, 2002)


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