Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: If DUP was able to speak for the majority about Brexit, it would be more difficult to ignore them

The party could have made the case that EU exit would threaten the Union, but didn't

Captain Terence O'Neill
Captain Terence O'Neill

By Malachi O'Doherty

One of the great unanswered questions in the political history of Northern Ireland still resonates strangely in my brain. I was 17 years old and I watched Captain Terence O'Neill's broadcast to the people, calling for calm with as little sense of the rest of us of how great the coming storm would be.

He spoke in plummy tones that sound absurd now. No one I know ever speaks like he did. No one I know is a captain, though we have had a few of them.

Nowadays, people with PhDs are embarrassed if you address them as "Doctor". Back then, separating yourself from most people around you seemed a viable political strategy.

O'Neill's question was: "What kind of Ulster do you want?" Answering that is tricky on a number of points.

The first response of a lot of people today would be: "Are you speaking to me?" Only unionists call this place Ulster, appropriating the name of a province to a region.

That doesn't offend me in the same way as it does some nationalists. Ulster, after all, was given its boundaries by Elizabeth I. Her conception of Ulster is no more indigenous than O'Neill's.

No, what I think unionists do when they call Northern Ireland "Ulster" is inflate their sense of the territory they hold. It's like that title "Captain". It puts a gloss on a broken province and a dodgy project.

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The partition of Ireland grew out of a unionist confrontation with Westminster, a rejection of Home Rule, which actually left them with Home Rule for their patch while the rest of Ireland went on - not immediately, of course - to become a sovereign republic.

"Ulster" was a pig in a poke. It was never enough territory to be dignified by the word country (pace Stephen Nolan). Its legitimacy would always be challenged and its security rested on a Protestant majority.

At least, that is what Protestants believed. The eventuality that large numbers of Catholics would be content inside "Ulster" was a bit of good fortune the unionists did not anticipate and which they did precious little to bring about.

The other embarrassment for unionists is that partition was a sop to them from a Westminster government which had shown itself to be anything but a friend.

Unionists had rallied to threaten war against Britain in order to remain British. A bigger war came along to distract everybody and out of their horrific losses at The Somme they rewrote that period as being more about Britain's gratitude than a desire to be shot of them.

Throughout my lifetime, unionism and Orangeism proclaimed a Britishness which Britain did not recognise. England was no longer Protestant.

Orangemen who wore bowler hats to proclaim their Britishness were as absurd as Americans who wore floppy green top hats in order to appear Irish.

The other problematic word in O'Neill's question is "you": "What kind of Ulster do you want?"

Who did he mean by "you"? Given the time and the circumstances, growing tension around civil rights parades and Paisleyism - as it was then called - the "you" was probably the people he saw as the more extreme elements in society, the ones who could tip it over the brink. This was before Burntollet, the first major sectarian clash of that period.

The difficulty with the word "you" in that question, when the question is so direct, is that there is no one coherent "we" who can hear ourselves being addressed.

"Ulster", as he called it, was divided within itself and still is; not like England on class lines, but on identity. About a third of us now say we are Irish and will vote for Sinn Fein, or the SDLP. A similar number say they are British and will vote for a unionist party and another third say the old squabble is redundant and will vote for Alliance or the Greens and, even occasionally, for other parties without intending to shore up any barricades for them.

For unionists, that's a fairly desirable spread. Protestant unionism can't hold back nationalist designs, but a liberal, secular middle ground can. The trade-off is that it won't have much truck with British chauvinism, either, but it potentially puts the national question aside.

If there was a status quo, most people would settle for it. But then along comes Brexit.

Unionists have been reminded, after their ridiculous support for Brexit, that Great Britain regards them as expendable - now, just as in 1912. Now, it is perfectly possible that nationalists would find themselves similarly cold-shouldered by the Irish Republic.

A day might well come when those in the north who hanker for Irish unity would be as disdained there as the DUP is in London.

And where would that leave us? It would leave us where we have been for four centuries - together and still in need of a relationship with each other.

The humiliation of the DUP has lifted a lot of hearts, not just of nationalists, but British Labour hearts and others', too.

And the wonder of it all is that the DUP apparently did not see it coming, while from the start there was an obvious compromise for Britain to make.

But what kind of Ulster do you want? Or what kind of Northern Ireland/Six County statelet could you put up with?

Surely, one in which unionism does not self-identify now as disgruntled and put upon, rebellious and surly?

I have been arguing in this column that the unionism I knew in my youth is already obsolete.

I remember in my youth seeing a lodge official on a parade up Royal Avenue come out of the body of men to order two young soldiers in uniform to stand to attention.

That's how touchy they were. And that tells you how vulnerable they were.

And that vulnerability is now exposed, as in 1985 and 1912, when Britain reminded unionists how powerless they were. So powerless, perhaps, that they really didn't have an option of not backing Brexit.

The risk was in backing Remain when England had a majority for Leave and being conspicuously out of step. Or they could have made the case then that Brexit would threaten the "precious Union". They didn't. And now it does.

But we would be in less danger of being patronised, or ignored, by our patron nations if we were an actual "we".

If the DUP had been able to speak for a majority voice in Northern Ireland, it would have been harder to ignore.

It must reflect on that failure.

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