English academic Tonge on why Orange march sparked interest in unionism
'As a kid, if someone had told me I'd spend seven or eight years working with the Orange Order, DUP and Ulster Unionists, and really enjoy it, I'd have said you've got the wrong bloke'
Jon Tonge, Professor of British and Irish politics at the University of Liverpool, is co-author of a major new book on the UUP. He tells how, as a Catholic boy in England, he was fascinated by the sight of an Orange parade.
Q. As a politics professor at the University of Liverpool, you've conducted major studies on the DUP, the Ulster Unionists and the Orange Order. You're a regular media commentator on Northern Ireland. How did an English academic become such an expert on this place?
A. Blame the Orange Order! I grew up in the pleasant, sleepy seaside resort of Southport, where nothing much happened. But one thing it did have was lots of Orangemen marching on the Twelfth of July. As a Catholic family, we stayed out of town on that day. But once my school bus drove right into an Orange march, on the way to a swimming lesson. Apart from Red Rum winning the Grand National, this was the most memorable event of my childhood.
I was gobsmacked by the size, the noise and the fact that these people of another religion were marching in my town. It sparked a huge interest in Irish history.
Q. Tell me about your childhood?
A. I was born in Bury, 10 miles north of Manchester, in 1962 to bright, working-class parents who didn't have the chance to go to university. I was the middle of three children. My mum was the dinner lady in my primary school. We moved to Southport when I was seven.
We have Irish ancestry going back a few generations to Galway. Mum is a very devout Catholic. Dad was a Protestant who converted - eventually. He went from years of denouncing the Pope to being part of the Church of Rome. I was an altar boy and am still a Mass- going Catholic.
Q. Did you always want to be an academic?
A. Gosh, no. In a bout of minor rebelliousness I left school at 16, against everybody's advice. I was itching to work and earn money. I joined the Civil Service and ended up in a really boring job.
After three years I realised my foolishness and went to night school to do A-levels. While still working full-time, I managed to get a first class honours degree at Liverpool John Moores University. Being a mature student worked brilliantly for me. I immersed myself in education in a way I wouldn't have done had I been younger.
Q. So returning to education changed your life?
A. Totally. It sounds corny, but I loved the film Educating Rita. It inspired me and underlined the value of education more than any careers adviser.
Eventually I had to choose between doing a PhD and my Civil Service job. It was a big decision. I was now middle-management and, if I played it safe, I could look forward to retiring on a comfortable index-linked pension.
I knew in my heart of hearts that wasn't the life I wanted, and I'd hate myself for choosing it, so I took the plunge. I did my doctorate on the anti-Poll Tax movement. Two years into it I was very lucky to get a job at the University of Salford. I reckon I was successful because it was a very hot day and I was the only candidate willing to go out with the head of politics for a pint. Salford was an unfashionable university, but I loved it. It was there I started teaching Irish politics.
Q. Were English universities interested in Northern Ireland?
A. No, and that really annoyed me. Very few touched it, and if they did it was as a bolt-on - a one-off lecture stuck at the end of the syllabus. Here was this grizzly conflict on our own doorstep being ignored or taught badly while we happily talked at length about any other conflict in the world.
I cover British politics as well in my job, but Northern Ireland remains my first love, my sweetheart.
Q. What approach did you take to teaching students about this place?
A . I decided to take them on study tours to Belfast and Dublin. I organised the first one for spring 1996. Just before we were set to go, the IRA ended its ceasefire and bombed Canary Wharf. That caused panic at the university.
Taking students over to meet the political representatives of the IRA, UVF and everybody in between was politically sensitive anyway. Now concerns were raised about their safety. But I always felt it was important for students to visit the place - it brings the subject alive.
Q. What's the main difference between politicians in Northern Ireland and those in Britain?
A. They're far more thick-skinned in Northern Ireland because they've come through a conflict. They lost loved ones, and some were even injured and nearly killed themselves. In Belfast there's Nigel Dodds (above) who survived an IRA attempt on his life. In Derry, Raymond McCartney nearly starved himself to death on hunger strike in the H-Blocks. Politicians from those backgrounds are a far hardier breed than their counterparts in Britain.
Q. That sounds as if you like our politicians.
A. Well I do. I find them all friendly and remarkably open to the academics in our team conducting research. We're constantly surprised at the lack of barriers they put up and how co-operative they are. Not once have I been asked my religion or politics.
As a kid, if someone had told me I'd spend seven or eight years working with the Orange Order, DUP, and Ulster Unionists - and really enjoy it - I'd have said "you've got the wrong bloke!".
I've always been sympathetic to the idea of Irish unity. While I've written about Sinn Fein and the SDLP, I think I've subconsciously chosen to focus more on unionists to challenge any lingering prejudices I may have.
Q. What insight did you gain into unionist leaders personally?
A. You could tell Peter Robinson was a man in control of his party. You wouldn't want to cross him!
Arlene (Foster) had a more direct and personal experience of the conflict than her predecessor, which maybe makes her more instinctively combative. When she was at the DUP book launch she was arguing with Katy Hayward (Queen's University academic) who had made some critical points.
I really liked Mike Nesbitt. He was a joy to work with. You could see his exasperation and frustration from trying to shift his party and the unionist electorate. He was a lovely guy who I think was often wondering: "What the hell am I doing here?" Mike was an excellent broadcaster, but he wasn't cut out for the dark art of politics.
Q. Are you optimistic about the future for power-sharing at Stormont?
A. No. It's a model that I'm not convinced will ever fully work. I don't see Northern Ireland ever being truly stable. Since the Good Friday Agreement power-sharing hasn't been running 40% of the time.
Stormont has never operated as a fully functioning joined-up government. The two big parties' constitutional aspirations are just too different.
Q. If a border poll was held this year, how would you call it?
A. I'd say 60-40% for Northern Ireland staying in the UK at the minute. But if Brexit goes ahead, it could provide a decisive momentum for Irish unity. Economic and political unionists, who have until now marched in step, will diverge more.
Economic unionists will start thinking they'd be better off in a regime closely aligned with the EU. But if Irish unity happens, it won't be in the old 32-county sovereignty model. It will involve some form of joint London-Dublin sovereignty or devolution for Northern Ireland within a unitary framework.
Q. What's your Brexit prediction?
A. I love to bet on sports and politics. A while back I'd a modest wager on a second referendum but that now seems a receding possibility. I believe there'll be a Brexit deal with a bespoke UK-Irish relationship in terms of the border.
Q. After 34 years as Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams handed over to Mary Lou McDonald last February. What do you make of her?
A. I rate Mary Lou McDonald. She's smart and savvy, and was a great choice for the party. She can hold her own against Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin in the Dail. She has a clear idea where she wants to take a post-conflict Sinn Fein. Some keep throwing up the party's past at her but it doesn't stick. People aren't daft. Sinn Fein will continue to make electoral progress under her.
Q. What is the SDLP'S future?
A. It mightn't be a marriage made in heaven but Colum Eastwood has no choice but to join with Fianna Fail. His party needs to operate on a 32-county basis if it's to survive.
The SDLP should have merged with the Irish Labour Party years ago but it seemed too caught up in self-congratulation after the Good Friday Agreement to map a way forward.
Fianna Fail's dithering over the merger is embarrassing. I remember speaking at a Fianna Fail conference 15 years ago when they were debating coming up North. I told them the initial response from nationalists would be: "Where have you been for the last 70 years?" But once they overcame that, they would have a chance. Yet, rather than embracing the opportunity, Fianna Fail are still taking baby steps. For a self-styled republican party, it's a curious state of affairs.
Q. With the demise of the SDLP, do you think the Alliance Party's vote will grow?
A. No, I don't think so. Naomi Long has produced fantastic results in East Belfast. She is very capable but I don't believe Alliance will get over the 10% vote hurdle in elections. The centre ground isn't expanding. As laudable as Naomi's efforts have been, I can't see the party moving beyond comfortable middle-class Belfast.
Q. What could be the big news story from May's council elections?
A. The future of the Ulster Unionists. They're under huge pressure. Less is at stake in a local government poll than a Stormont or Westminster one, so people tend to vote in a less sectarian way.
The RHI report will possibly be published before this election. If the UUP don't make inroads in those sort of conditions, things look bleak.
Q. Who is your political hero?
A. Former Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee for setting up the NHS, for which we are eternally grateful.
Q. Tell me about your family life. now.
A. I'm married with two young children. I have also a grown-up son, who has just finished a politics degree.
Q. If you weren't an academic, what would you want to be?
A. A journalist. I worked on a student magazine with Tom Watson, who is now Labour's deputy leader - I canvassed for him when he ran for Students' Union president - and with Martin Hickman, who went on to be the Independent's news editor. I love writing and the buzz and pressure of deadlines.
Q. You have a high media profile, is that appropriate for an academic?
A. When I started out in the 1990s some academics had a sniffy attitude to media work. Now we're measured by the impact we make on the wider world, and that's wonderful. If you're a professor, you should profess something.
The public are paying for your work so it shouldn't be wrapped up in a university library with only a limited number of people having access, it should be out there.
I get far more nervous in a live TV studio than in a lecture theatre. One wrong word could be disastrous in our social media era.
Q. What do you do on your days off?
A. I go to see my team Bury playing in League Two, and I like cricket. I used to play both sports but I was pretty rubbish. On the football pitch I was a clumsy centre-half. Although I was the opening bat for school at cricket and played in the local amateur league, you wouldn't have labelled me a high-scoring batsman.
I also listen to a bit of cheesy pop. I was a scooter riding mod in my day. I'm too old for that music now, although students would certainly find it interesting if I rode into work on a Lambretta sporting a Parka!
Q. What sort of relationship do you have with your students?
A. A really good one, I hope. I always remember they're paying my wages. Every one of them is coughing up £9,000 a year in fees. I genuinely like the vast majority of them. Of course, there are some wasters, but you get those in every walk of life.
At the end of term I host a free bar for my students. The last one was meant to be for an hour and it ended up lasting three. The biggest drinkers were from Northern Ireland.
Q. Would you ever consider entering politics?
A. Not in a million years. I'm not partisan enough to toe a party line. I admire and like politicians enormously. It's infuriating when people say they hold them in contempt. Those complaining about politicians would be crying if they were doing the job for even a day. MPs work extremely hard - I'm not sure about MLAs at the moment - and they do it for less money than a university professor.
The Ulster Unionist Party: Country Before Party? by Thomas Hennessey, Maire Braniff, Jonathan Tonge and Sophie A Whiting, published by OUP, RRP £60, is available for £34.99, No Alibis Bookstore, Belfast