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It's time hypocritical unionism took look in mirror

As Irish nationalism has revisited its past through the prism of the First World War and wider movements, Alex Kane argues unquestioning unionists must do same.

Published 01/04/2016

The Ulster Covenant and some of the signatures
The Ulster Covenant and some of the signatures
Fighting in the Battle of the Somme
Some of the destruction in Dublin in the aftermath of the Easter Rising

Speaking on Monday at a symposium entitled Remembering 1916, Irish President Michael D Higgins noted: "Of course, a critique of Irish nationalism such as it manifested itself at the turn of the last century is a task that many have already undertaken. By relocating the Easter Rising within the frame of the First World War, but also in the context of the wider currents of ideas that then stirred the world - movements such as socialism, feminism, but also militarism, imperialism and racialist ideologies - there has been a great deal of critical reassessment of aspects of the Rising and, in particular, of the myths of redemptive violence that were at the heart, not just of Irish nationalism but also of Imperial nationalism.

"My view is that the latter has not, perhaps, been revisited with the same fault-finding edge as the former. Indeed, while the long shadow cast by what has been called 'the Troubles' in Northern Ireland has led to a scrutiny of the Irish Republican tradition of 'physical violence', a similar review of supremacist and militarist imperialism remains to be fully achieved. In the context of 1916, this imperial triumphalism can be traced, for example, in the language of the recruitment campaigns of the time, which evoked mythology, masculinity and religion, and glorified the Irish blood as having 'reddened the earth of every continent'. But this is for another day."

It was like that moment from To Kill A Mockingbird when Atticus Finch tells his children that to understand someone you need to see life from their side of the fence, wearing their shoes and in their skin. Unionists still throw out the lines about the Easter Rising representing treason, but they never see it from the perspective of people who believed that they had been colonised and then had their dreams of independence put on hold again because England was preoccupied with a war against Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Unionists never seemed to get round to asking the question how they would have felt if the shoe had been on the other foot in April 1916. Actually, that's not entirely accurate: as the threat of Home Rule increased from 1912 onwards unionists did make it clear that they would resort to arms to defend their identity and nationality. It was because they didn't share the Irish nationalism of a majority of people in Ireland, in the same way that the majority of Irish didn't share their sense of unionism or Britishness: and both were ready to take up arms to promote and protect their own interests.

Interestingly, at that crucial moment we saw one of the key super powers, the United Kingdom, playing both sides of the field. The Home Rule Bill was given Royal Assent in 1914, leaving us with the question of how far the Government would have gone to push it through and how far unionists - and the Conservative Party - would have gone to stop it had the war not intervened. Yet in 1916 we saw how ruthless the British Government could be in dealing with the leaders of the Rising.

Empires (and this was a time when the UK 'ruled' a quarter of the world) protect themselves. They sacrifice one cause and then raise another. They send brutal, bloody messages - which is what they did in 1916: and what they may well have been prepared to do to unionists in 1914 had the World War not led to the suspension of the Home Rule Act.

So here are some questions that unionists could do with addressing. What would have happened had the World War not intervened? How far would Carson, Craig and the Conservatives have gone to protect their interests? Would Carson's UVF have turned their fire on British troops? Would we have ended up with a civil war across Ireland and a separate civil war involving unionists and the British? How far would the Conservatives have gone in their support for an armed, rebellious unionism?

President Higgins has a point, therefore: unionists do tend to focus on the 'physical force' tradition within republicanism while glossing over their own attitudes and responses at the time. They also tend to remain mute on the subject of the reach and swagger of the British Empire at that point in history: possibly because the collapse of that Empire from 1945 onwards had worried and spooked them. And there is precious little evidence of any significant voices within unionism raising concerns about the alleged British State sanctioned brutality in a number of colonies and possessions which were seeking independence in the 1950s and 1960s.

It's also worth bearing in mind that the unionist-dominated Northern Ireland was, from the 1920s to the late 1960s, run very differently to the rest of the UK. It was a one-party state that regarded non-unionists as the enemy and even viewed liberals within its own ranks as potential troublemakers. Again, that's a conversation unionists tend not to have with each other, let alone with anyone else.

In five years time unionists will be 'celebrating,' 'commemorating' and 'cheering' the birth of Northern Ireland. Perhaps it's time we looked at our own history. How have we run Northern Ireland? What does the rest of the world think when they think of Northern Ireland and of unionism? What is the nature of the relationship between unionism and our fellow unionists across the rest of the UK? Why do so many unionists still have difficulty when it comes to 'trusting' Westminster? Why, even though Northern Ireland is still (and reasonably safely so) in the UK, is unionism still so prone to bickering and division?

President Higgins finished his speech with this comment: "The passage of one hundred years allows us to see the past afresh, free from some of the narrow, partisan interpretations that might have restricted our view in earlier periods. We have a duty to honour and respect that past, and retrieve the idealism which was at its heart. But we have a greater duty to imagine and to forge a future illuminated by the unfulfilled promises of our past."

Unionists have a similar task ahead.

They need to understand their own history. They need to understand the causes and consequences of that history. They need to understand the nature of their relationship with Dublin, London, republicanism/nationalism and with each other. They need to understand and explain the idealism which underpins their beliefs and they need to begin to "imagine and forge a future illuminated by the unfulfilled promises of our past".

What we understand as 'Ulster' unionism was born and forged under very particular circumstances in the mid-1880s: yet that mindset still seems to determine many of our attitudes and responses today. Isn't it about time that mindset was challenged and adjusted for the post-1998 era?

Belfast Telegraph

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