Editorial from Irish Political Review August 2017:
Ulster Unionism has come to the attention of the mainland. It is maintaining in Office, by support from the backbenches, a Tory Party that failed to win a General Election. It is feeling important because it is playing a part in the political life of the state, instead of sitting on the Westminster backbenches as spectators. But, if it has any sensibility at all, it must now be realising that mainland British politics, having been obliged by an electoral accident to take notice of it, regards it as essentially bizarre and alien. That is how it is seen, even by the Tory Party which it keeps in Office.
British political life is conducted within the familiar routines of a long-established party system, and its familiar party banter. It was shaped over hundreds of years as a system of two parties, with a third trying to break in. (The third party before the Great War of 1914-19 was the Labour Party. The Liberal Party, which launched that War, broke apart under the stress of it. Labour took its place as the second party of the state and Liberals have ever since been vainly trying to get back to where they were in 1914.)
In an attempt to include Ulster Unionism in the family, it has been said that the Tory Party used to be called the Conservative and Unionist Party, and that Ulster Unionism was part of it. But that story doesn’t sell—firstly because it is a tall story.
Go back a hundred years, and there was no Tory Party. From 1893 until 1922 what existed was the Unionist Party. The Unionist Party was a merger of the Tory Party and the social reform wing of the Liberal Party based in Birmingham and led by Joseph Chamberlain. The Liberal Party, Gladstone’s Liberal Party, was a laissez faire capitalist party, a free trade party. Social reform began in earnest in the 1890s under the merger of Tories and social reform Liberals in the Unionist Party after a Liberal split. Ulster Unionism was taken under the wing of that British Unionist Party but was never a leading influence in it.
The major reforms carried out in Ireland during the entire period of British rule were done by the Unionist Government of 1895-1905. Ulster Unionist resistance to some of these reforms were easily brushed aside by the Party.
From 1915 to 1922 there was Coalition Government in Britain. In 1915-16 it was a Coalition of the Liberal Party and the Unionist Party with some representation of the Labour Party. In 1916 the Liberal Party split again. The Prime Minister, Asquith, was thrown out and Lloyd George, left with a Liberal rump, became the figurehead Prime Minister of what was essentially a Unionist Government.
In 1918 this War Coalition, minus the Labour Party, fought the General Election as a unit. It won by a landslide, but it soon ran into trouble in its attempts to consolidate the expansion of the Empire gained by the defeat of Germany and Turkey. In the face of an effective defiance by the Turks in 1922 there was a revolt on the Unionist back-benches. The Coalition was brought down. Party politics resumed. From this point onwards the Unionist Party began to be called the Conservative Party, or, occasionally the Conservative and Unionist Party. But Ulster Unionism ceased to be part of it.
A new Government of Ireland Bill was published in 1920. It provided not only for Partition but for the setting up of a Home Rule Government in the Six Counties that were to remain within the British state (with a similar provision for Southern Ireland which remained a dead letter).
Up to this moment it was taken for granted that the part of Ireland that remained within the United Kingdom would be governed on the same basis as the rest of the state. The Ulster Unionist leader protested against the change. He said they had no wish to govern Catholics, but wanted all to be governed impartially within the political system of the state. The Unionist Government in Whitehalll paid no heed. Northern Ireland was set up in 1921 and the Ulster Unionists undertook to govern it, no longer as a region of the Unionist Party, but a separate Party. It was put to them that this would facilitate the anti-republican campaign in the rest of Ireland, and they agreed to it as a “supreme sacrifice” in the cause of Empire.
From that moment onwards Ulster Unionist Northern Ireland was a strange creature on the fringe of British politics, shunned by the re-born Tory Party and by the newly-born Labour Party.
The Tory Party acted as its protector at first, while keeping it at arm’s length.
However, there has never been any connection between the populist Democratic Unionist Party and the Tories. The connection was with the Ulster Unionist Party.
The Labour Party said it supported a United Ireland, and that was its excuse for boycotting Northern Ireland (refusing to accept members), but in Office the Labour Party promptly forgot its United Ireland policy.
The Ulster Unionist Party governed the strange Northern Ireland constitutional construct in the only way that such an inherently bad system could be governed. It was an undemocratic system in the basic sense that the election in it could play no part in the election of a party to govern the sovereign state. And it was profoundly aggravating and provocative towards the very large Catholic minority which was daily humiliated by a Protestant communal sub-government with the Orange Order at its core. (The Protestant community had no alternative but to operate this system if it wanted to maintain “the British connection”—so it was decreed by Britain.)
Eventually, under extreme provocation in August 1969, the minority rebelled, and there was a war. The war, latent in the system for half a century, was precipitated by Ulster Unionist action, but it was fought between the nationalist community and the Government of the state, despite attempts made by that Government to reduce it to a local Catholic/Protestant war.
This journal, during the 1970s and 1980s, took part in an attempt to bring the Six Counties within the operations of the British system of democratic party politics. It was opposed by the Ulster Unionist Party which had become accustomed to—addicted to—the role of local communal dominance organised by religion. It was also lobbied against at Whitehall by Dublin Governments, which opposed Partition but supported the local system of Six County Protestant dominance in preference to the British system of party government in which all in the Six Counties might play a part. (But Whitehall needed no persuasion from Dublin to maintain the system which it had established for its own purposes.)
We read in the London Times of June 28th that—
“David Trimble was a man of vision and courage who sacrificed himself and his Ulster Unionist Party to bring about the Good Friday Agreement… It was Trimble’s dream that mainland political parties would stand for election in Northern Ireland and give voters a real alternative to sectarianism, but though the Conservatives did, the Labour Party to this day refuses on the spurious grounds that the nationalist SDLP is the sister party…”
The writer of this article is Ruth Dudley Edwards, who was a nationalist historian forty or fifty years ago, and an admirer of Patrick Pearse, who is now generally regarded in British/Irish circles as a fascist. Edwards went on to become an Establishment figure on the British political scene, through political affinity combined with marriage. She is now best described as a British political commentator of Irish origin.
Trimble played no part whatever in the campaign to bring the Six Counties within the sphere of British party-politics. He began his political career as a Vanguard militant. Vanguard was a kind of fascist movement developed by William Craig, the Home Office Minister in the old Unionist regime, who came down heavily on the Civil Rights protesters in 1968. Craig asserted that the Northern Ireland system had, through custom, acquired a sovereign status of its own, independent of Westminster. In this he was supported by a group of senior Unionist barristers. When Britain decided that the subordinate governing system it had established in the Six Counties had become too much of a nuisance to tolerate any longer, it paid no heed to Craig’s argumentation. A Tory Government abolished the Stormont Government with the stroke of a pen in 1972. (If it had followed this up by taking the Six Counties back into the system of politics by which Britain was governed, the Republican war-effort would very probably have gone into decline.)
Craig responded to the abolition of the Stormont Government in 1972 with his Ulster Nationalist Vanguard movement, which was of a kind with the nationalist movement of the white colony in Rhodesia which had unilaterally declared its independence of Britain a few years earlier when Britain showed signs of negotiating with the black majority.
Trimble was the most prominent of the Vanguard militants.
Vanguard, after a great rally in Ormeau Park, went into decline when James Molyneaux and the Rev. Martin Smyth threw the weight of the Orange Order against it.
Trimble then became active in the Unionist Party. He next came to political prominence when he danced a jig with Ian Paisley after some little victory won in the great siege of Drumcree Church.
When he replaced Molyneaux as leader of the UUP this journal, which rarely predicts, predicted that the consequences for the party would be bad.
Trimble did not, in any meaningful sense, “bring about” the Good Friday Agreement. He submitted to it under duress applied to him by Prime Minister Tony Blair, and then, as a party to it, he prevented it from becoming operative. He might have gained advantage either from supporting and implementing it, or from opposing it outright and defying Blair. By submitting to it formally, in order to obstruct it from within, he got the worst of both courses and none of the benefits. His party was shredded by Paisley who opposed the Agreement, and who then made the Agreement operative when he had undermined the Unionist Party.
We don’t know whether Edwards made up the story about Trimble supporting the introduction of British politics to the Six Counties, or whether Lord Trimble, in his long retirement in the prime of life, has been dreaming of what might have been and spun her a yarn. But Trimble did not support British party organisation, and support of it was grounds for expulsion from the UUP.
It is also not the case that the Tory Party now functions in Northern Ireland. In the mid-1980s a group of Tories took the point that Northern Ireland was undemocratically governed because it was excluded from the party system of the state. The Party leadership let them understand that they would have no career future in the Party if they persisted in this view, but it offered them the face-saving gesture of admitting Northern Ireland residents to individual party membership. In real political terms this was an empty gesture.
More recently the Party has allowed its Northern Ireland members to contest elections, but the whole thing is treated as the empty charade that it is by the electorate. (Northern Ireland Conservatives felt particularly betrayed when Cameron established an electoral alliance with the UUP for an election some years ago.)
The Democratic Unionist Party began as a party organised around a Church—Dr. Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church. In any other part of the UK this would have been an absurdity. And it would not have happened. It happened in Northern Ireland, and it flourished, because the region was excluded from the political life of the state.
The purpose of Ulster Unionism was to be part of the UK. But it already was part of the UK. There is not much political mileage in the aim of being what you already are, to the extent that you already are it. It might have taken on the purpose of dissolving itself into the party system of the state and making Protestant Ulster once again what it had been when the Home Rule crisis began in 1886. But the Unionist Party wouldn’t hear of that.
Dr. Paisley did briefly take up that position in the seventies. But he dropped it. We assume that his reason for dropping it was that Whitehall persuaded him that this was something it would never allow to happen.
Sinn Fein had two substantial purposes that gave it political momentum. What fuelled the campaign was the profoundly undemocratic and provocative arrangements under which the Catholic community was compelled to live. On this ground it demanded an end to majority rule under the devolved system, and it won a fundamental restructuring of the devolved system after its military wing had fought a long war. And now it has the purpose of using its base in Northern Ireland to make progress towards the political unification of Ireland.
The reformed ‘Northern Ireland’ cannot settle down. It is inherently unstable. It is different in kind from Scottish devolution. Whitehall interferes with it in ways that it would not attempt to interfere in the Scottish system. It is incapable of internal evolution. Sinn Fein has a political purpose beyond it. But Ulster Unionists have locked themselves into it, and all they can do is try to delay the erosion of their position.
Ruth Dudley Edwards, who supported the demand for political normalisation of the North as little as Lord Trimble did, raged against new Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney in her Sunday Independent column (July 23) for supporting an Irish Language Act in the North. She added to her unreasoned animosity against Sinn Fein the argument that it would be bad for the Irish language to have State support. She takes this to be demonstrated by the decline of Irish in the Republic. She maintains that enthusiasm for it was killed “by turning it into a political weapon”—or so her mother thought. And the language revival was already subverted in 1915 by “infiltration from the IRB”.
The headline on her column some years ago was “Brave Israel Has Every Right To Bomb Hamas”. How did Brave Israel come to be in a position to destroy Palestinian “cockroaches” (as they were described by a Government Minister) with an attrition rate of 100 to 1. By being given, a hundred years ago, the title deeds to a Palestine which the Jews had vacated two thousand years before, by the British Empire—which was extending itself into the Middle East—and by enforcing a Hebrew language policy. Insofar as there was a spoken Jewish language in 1917 it was a variety of German called Yiddish. Yiddish was suppressed and was replaced by a dead language in the Jewish nationalist colonial conquest of Palestine.
Irish is an official language of the EU, but it seems that there is an under-supply of applicants for well-paid translator’s jobs. But “when post-Brexit English ceases to be an official EU language, the Irish will have to speak Irish”, says Ms Edwards. Well, if that happens, the Irish will be authentic European again for the first time since the 18th century.
With regard to Irish in the North: Edwards tells us that Lord Trimble now wishes that it had the normal political life of the state, but she doesn’t seem to have ever given a moment’s thought to the reality of living as a national minority outside the normal political life of a democratic state, in the era of universal nationalism and democracy, in a region of the state that was turned into a kind of Reservation, with no political life of its own, under the policing supervision of your sworn enemy. Or does she think that is an exaggerated description of what Britain made of the Six Counties in 1921?
There was nothing British for the Irish to be. The British dimension in public life was waving the Union Jack, loving the Crown, and standing for the National Anthem at the end of cinema performances long after the English had stopped doing it. So the Irish concentrated on being Irish. They will not now undo the development that was forced on them.
Edwards’ Official Republican colleague on the Sunday Independent, Eoghan Harris, also comes out strong against Minister Coveney on July 23rd. And he sings the praises of a forgotten man:
“Conor Cruise O’Brien was a prophet without honour in his own country… He correctly preached that John Hume’s pan-nationalist policy of using Dublin and London to pressurise unionists would end with the Sinn Fein/IRA wolf rampant inside the Irish Republic fold.
“Telling the truth has never been welcome in nationalist Ireland.”
James Connolly said that the only true prophet was the one who carved the future he announced. But O’Brien’s prophecy was one of doom and his obligation was to do something to avert it. What did he do? And when did he make the prophecy? Only late in the day, after he had helped the course of events along the line which he came to see as the path to doom.
After O’Brien became a prophet of doom we were described as O’Brienites in certain quarters. But he never agreed with us. He never had any contact with us. And he particularly rejected the proposal we made in 1969 that the Ulster Protestants should be regarded as a distinct nationality rather than as a sulking part of nationalist Ireland.
In the 1960s he was a professional anti-Partitionist. He was a specialist in French literature and saw the Ulster Protestants as colons, like the French in Algeria who declared UDI, and who might be repatriated. He gradually came to terms with the reality that the Ulster Protestants were here to stay, but it was a grudging concession, and was not accompanied by any realistic policy for dealing with the Northern situation.
He became a TD and, almost immediately, a Labour Minister in Coalition with Fine Gael and Government spokesman on the North. In 1974 the Faulkner Unionist/SDLP Power-Sharing Government was set up under the Sunningdale Agreement. The Unionists participated on the understanding that the Dublin sovereignty claim over the North had been withdrawn. Boland brought his legal action against the Agreement as being in breach of the Constitutional claim on the North. The Government pleaded that the Constitutional claim stood because there was no recognition in the Agreement of the legitimacy of Northern Ireland. But it emerged that there were two different forms of the Agreement.
The Power-Sharing Government at Stormont had been functioning for a couple of months at this pint, and it was not challenged. But an accompanying Council of Ireland body was due to be established three months later, in June. A group of Protestant shop-stewards responded to the Dublin Court action by demanding that the setting-up of the Council of Ireland should be delayed pending clarification of the sovereignty issue, or until the Agreement was ratified by a fresh election in the light of the Dublin Court action. And it gave two months’ notice that, unless one of these things was done, it would call a General Strike in mid-May against the Council of Ireland.
No heed was taken of the demand. The SDLP Ministers in the North met with the Dublin Cabinet for a photo-shoot. And a leading member of the SDLP said that the Unionists would be trundled into the Republic by means of the Council of Ireland.
The General Strike happened in May. There was a crisis that might have been resolved by deferring the Council. But Minister O’Brien came out against this. He said that too many concessions had already been made to the Unionists.
The SDLP too stood firm for the Council.
Support for Faulkner’s Unionist Party collapsed, and Power-Sharing with it.
The War continued and intensified. A quarter of a century later another Agreement was made. But this was not for Power-Sharing under a system of weighted majority in which Ministers were members of a Government headed by a Prime Minister and responsible to Parliament. It was for a system of division of Government Departments which were allocated to parties by a mathematical system proportional to their vote, and Ministers were not under the authority of a Prime Minister or responsible to Parliament: and Parliament was in effect two Parliaments in a kind of federal arrangement.
Helping to bring down Power-Sharing in 1974 was one of O’Brien’s major political actions on the North.
The other was banning nationalist culture on RTE in order to dry up support for the Provos. It was a remarkable exercise in totalitarian fantasy. Its predictable effect was to make Irish nationalist culture Provsional IRA culture.
After 1974 O’Brien quickly became little more than a British propagandist of the backwoods kind—a futile prophet of doom, whose only remedy was a total security clampdown on the Northern Catholic community that was obviously supporting the War.
He was idolised by a certain stratum in the Republic for about a decade, but when he joined a fringe Ulster Unionist Party, and was jeered at by rival Unionists as a cuckoo in the nest, they went off him.
But it is understandable that Harris, his identical twin in many respects, should remember him fondly.
The importance of the DUP in British politics is that it is enabling the Tory Party to continue in Office after failing to win an Election. Redmond’s Irish Party did that with the Liberals from 1906 to 1915.
Redmond got the illusion of a Home Rule Act in return. The Government was unable to implement the Act, and didn’t really want to, but the affair had profound consequences. The expectation of Home Rule enlivened nationalist feeling. The failure to implement the Act after it was passed, and the Army recruiting by Redmond for the wars on Germany and Turkey, in the hope that the Act might be implemented after the War, fuelled the Irish Insurrection of 1916.
It is unlikely that the DUP alliance with the Tories will change the course of events in the North as Redmond’s alliance with the Liberals changed the course of events in Ireland. It is a trivial alliance. Redmond’s Home Rule Party was closely involved with the Liberals in internal British party battles for two years before the Home Rule Bill was brought in in 1912, and during the next two years it became virtually a part of the Liberal Party.
The relationship of the DUP with the Tories is a piece of superficial opportunism. The DUP is not a continuation of the old Unionist Party, whose leadership continued to be Tory in sentiment after organic connections were broken in the 1920s. It is a product of the Paisleyism that destroyed the Unionist Party.
When the UUP collapsed under the leadership of Lord Trimble and his Official Republican advisers, many of its leading figures jumped across to the DUP which they had previously held in disdain. Much of the present DUP leadership comes from those UUP defectors and they have been busily trying to remake the DUP into what the UUP was.
The UUP might be described as imitation British in its attitudes. The DUP was forged entirely out of Northern Ireland materials. The UUP did its best to put a gloss of pretentious sophistication over the system of religious domination that Britain required it to operate. The DUP began as an uncompromising assertion of religious Protestantism, and it grew steadily from that source. Dr. Paisley did his own thinking on his own ground and dealt realistically with the surrounding reality. And, after he broke the UUP he made the 1998 Agreement functional by dealing with Sinn Fein as the other real element in the situation.
This was resented within his own party but he had the prestige to carry it through. The resentment was encouraged and supported by UUP defectors. Paisley retired in the face of growing opposition, but devolution based on a functional division of power was established as the normality of the system.
DUP intransigence over the Irish Language Act is in the UUP spirit. But the Paisleyite residue in the DUP, in the form of Edwin Poots, has begun to express itself on the issue. Poots says that “anyone who speaks and loves the Irish language is as much a part of Northern Ireland life as a collarette-wearing Orangeman”.
In the DUP relationship with the Tory Government there is nothing comparable to the Home Rule demand that the Redmondite/Liberal alliance was based on. The DUP has no constitutional demand which the Tory Party might satisfy—or the Labour Party for that matter. It might wish for some reassuring Guarantee, but it has no demand which might be legislated, as Redmond had. The UUP agreed in 1921 to be excluded from the political life of the British state, and to dominate a large nationalist minority in a makeshift Northern Ireland, in order to help Whitehall against the elected Republican Government in Dublin. It made “the supreme sacrifice” of itself to the Imperial interest. Self-sacrifice is not a political virtue in the democratic era.
There is no going back: that must be the message that Dr. Paisley got from Whitehall in the early 1970s when he proposed reintegration of the Six Counties into British political life. He never explained why he dropped the proposal. But very soon after, in the mid-1970s, he called a meeting of leading Loyalist militants and told them that evolution towards a united Ireland was now inevitable. It might be delayed, and certain developments might be brought about in the process, but there must be no attempt at a repeat of the 1912 stand: no armed resistance. That was our information from a reliable source at the time, and it was confirmed by Paisley’s subsequent conduct.
We were involved at the time in an attempt to bring the Six Counties within the sphere of British party-politics. A fair amount of headway was made for about fifteen years by the CLR and CEC in exerting pressure within both the Labour and Tory Parties. It was strongly opposed by the UUP, Dublin Governments, and the Official IRA, and was brought to nothing by elements who joined the movement for the purpose of changing it into a mere Ulster Unionist ploy. The main work of destruction was done by Labour MP Kate Hoey and her assistant, Jeffrey Dudgeon OBE, now a UUP Councillor.
A shadow of that moment still persists, maintained as a hobby by some of those who broke the CLR. Individual membership of the Labour Party for Northern Ireland residents was brought in as a meaningless concession to CLR pressure. The movement has been boosted by the Corbyn enthusiasm which is reinvigorating the Labour Party. Last month one of those individual members, knowing nothing about all of this, went on hunger-strike in support of a demand that the Labour Party should establish a proper party presence in the North. The event was ignored as a piece of eccentricity. Not even the CLR past is recoverable.
Seamus Mallon, a voice from the past, has accused Sinn Fein of failing to deliver on the 1998 Agreement. He says Sinn Fein doesn’t understand that its purpose was to bring about a reconciliation of Nationalists and Unionists.
We reported on the GFA in 1998, and analysed it closely. What we saw was a carefully arranged system of division and separation. The pretence that there was “a Northern Ireland community” was discarded, and arrangements were made for the reality of two communities, each of which was to have the status of a separate body politic. What it provided for was polite separation.
But Mallon, who took over the leadership of the SDLP from John Hume, did act in a spirit of reconciliation. He had opposed Hume’s hard-nosed negotiation of an Agreement in which Sinn Fein might function. He “reconciled” with David Trimble, and was led by the nose by him for a couple of years as Trimble prevented the Agreement becoming operative, and both their Parties went into decline.