You don’t have to agree with Robert Ramsay’s politics to recognise his “insider’s view of the crisis in Northern Ireland” as the most intriguing treatise on the future of unionism to have emerged in recent years. Not, mind you, that the competition has been fierce.
Ramsay closes Ringside Seats, his account of 40 years as a senior civil servant in Belfast and Brussels, with a call to unionists to recognise that they might best find salvation “in embracing the opportunity to define (themselves) as one of the ‘European peoples’ which feature in the EU treaties... This would put them on a par with the Catalans, Basques, Corsicans, Bretons and South Tyroleans, and other ethnic groups”.
Certainly, it flags up new possibilities. Ramsay was successively Brian Faulkner’s principal private secretary during the final tumultuous years of the old Stormont administration, deputy secretary of the Northern Ireland civil service, European director of inward investment, PPS to Secretary of State Roy Mason, chief of staff to Henry Plumb during the Tory grandee’s stint as president of the European Parliament, and has occupied a series of other significant positions along the way. The CV suggests the perfect model of a modern Euro mandarin.
But, although it’s evident he remained ardently loyal throughout to the community he came from, he’s no mandarin Orangeman. The British institutions which traditional unionism has historically idealised and identified with, the monarchy, the reformed faith, the majesty of British law, are all now diminished, demystified, he observes. “The average unionist now views GB in a very different light... Psychologically, the union is over on both sides of the Irish Sea. The unionist community needs to acquire a post-union identity.”
The fact that unionist loyalty to Britain is no longer reciprocated — if ever it was — had become clear to him early in his career, at Faulkner’s side when the British Government’s ‘liaison office’ was set up at Laneside, Cultra, in 1971, preparing the way for direct rule. The Cultra facility, he recalls, was “more like an embassy of the Soviet Union in a satellite state than an administrative liaison office within the United Kingdom.” Its staff reported only to London and “spent most of their time plying their basic trade of snooping and spooking”.
Ramsay was a close-up observer of the perfidious behaviour of the Heath Government towards Faulkner, personally and politically. “‘The rumours of direct rule?’ said Heath. ‘I’ve told you, Brian, we are in this together, however long it takes.’ With that, he put his arm around Faulkner’s shoulder in friendly, man-to-man fashion. (Thankfully, he spared us the kiss.)”
It is that experience of British establishment attitudes to the North and specifically to unionists which, filtered through high-level involvement in EU affairs, appears to have prompted Ramsay’s plea to unionism to find a new context in Europe for its future.
He sees Ulster Scots as the key to acceptance of unionists among the ‘European peoples’. From a linguistic point of view, he’s sharply sceptical of Lord Laird’s dialectical project. But, he points out, Ulster Scots is already accepted by the EU, along with Irish, as a ‘lesser-used language’, a factor which he suggests could hugely strengthen the credentials of unionists as an authentic ethnic group.
True, he concedes, the concept of Ulster Scots is by no means coextensive with unionism. Many who identify themselves as unionist are not, on any definition, Ulster Scots. But “literally no ethnic group is ‘pure’... Statistically, the match between ‘Ulster Scots’ and ‘unionists’ is as good as any ethno-political group in Europe...
“To me, the most important aspect of the development of the Ulster Scots identity is that it would take (unionism) out of the internationally damaging context of religious division, into one which is not only understandable, but is even fashionably in harmony with the zeitgeist of today’s European Union.”
Fashionable — whatever about harmony and the zeitgeist —would be new territory for unionism. But, considering the dismal discourse evident in the dreary opening exchanges of the European election campaign, its friends might agree that the shock of the new would do it no harm.
Ramsay’s prescription won’t be seen as a remedy for the ills of the North by those of us who want to shift the axis of local politics away altogether from communal concerns and who, anyway, take a sceptical view of EU beneficence. But he has envisioned a way of locating unionism in a context in which it would neither be threatened nor threatening, which has to be an advance. This could be an idea whose time is about to come.
The other attraction of the book is that it’s a terrific read. Ramsay has a wicked way with words and a cute eye for the telling anecdote. Dinner at the home of Army GOC Sir David House, senior officers and high MoD officials in dicky-bowed attendance, with wives: “The evening was unexceptional until the moment Lady House and the ladies ‘withdrew’, at which point Sir David flung open the French windows and led out the male guests to join him in a ritual urination over a giant rhododendron bush at the bottom of the garden. This was all performed with public schoolboy jollity.”
Right enough, what group of any colouration or provenance would want to be lorded over by the likes of that?
Ringside Seats by Robert Ramsay, Irish Academic Press, £19.95