Belfast Telegraph

So, who will speak up for the union?

The virtual disappearance of the professional and business classes from unionist politics has weakened Northern Ireland's position within the United Kingdom, says John Wilson Foster.

A downbeat Tom Waits rasps: "The ship is sinking," but "God's away on business". His ominous tidings come to mind when I ponder the state of the Union on this side of the water.

Once more, these are worrying days for those who wish to remain UK citizens. Pan-nationalism has suddenly returned, perhaps because the illusion that it had gone away was postponed by all-island EU membership.

The ship may not be sinking but there's a noticeable list and the crew is decidedly skeleton.

In the past 40 or 50 years abandoning ship has been a feature of frontline unionism, even if it was mostly executed in an orderly and muted fashion.

The gentry exited first, with remnants staying at their post until the early years of disgrace.

Some, like Lord Londonderry in the 1920s, had, like Othello, done the state some service. As first minister of Education, for example, he wished to introduce integrated education into the new Northern Ireland but was thwarted by the usual suspects. But the gentry were never as important in the north of Ireland as the linenocracy.

A handful of linen families wove this part of the world into being and the most die-hard northern Shinner is the beneficiary of their expertise and, at times, business genius.

The industrial families ran not just the economy but also municipal politics, unionism and then Northern Ireland.

There were among them, of course, philistines and bigots, Gradgrinds out of Dickens' Hard Times.

But there was also a strong streak of liberalism.

The Scottish historian Graham Walker reminds us how progressive someone like John Miller Andrews was (minister 1921-40, second Prime Minister 1940-43), with his "step-by-step" doctrine, which meant keeping abreast of progressive UK legislation.

The 1947 Butler Education Act (applying to Northern Ireland the 1944 mainland Act) liberated the cleverer among the working-class and indirectly made the civil rights movement possible.

Arguably it benefited, on balance, Ulster Catholics more than Ulster Protestants.

The city fathers leavened their business and the power it brought with a strong sense of civic obligation and philanthropy, something that has all but died out among us.

No Lady Pirrie, no Royal Victoria Hospital.

Then industry collapsed after the Second World War, a war in which members of the linenocracy distinguished themselves.

Some of the industrial families adapted and even prospered, but they largely withdrew from political life. The big names echo no longer in the chambers of government. Their descendants are away on business. And no one could have blamed businesspeople for ducking their heads below the parapet during the IRA onslaught and the loyalist backlash.

The Sinn Fein project, after all, was to render Northern Ireland economically impotent and businesses were thus "legitimate targets".

But times have changed, though the metal shutters still on our shopfronts are ugly reminders of how unsure we are of that. It would be refreshing to hear robust, articulate and generous promotions of the Union from successful people of the world, even if in a private capacity.

With a few politicised exceptions, the professionals - solicitors, barristers and physicians - have likewise decided against lending their verbal and intellectual skills in promotion of a polity without which their professional lives would be sea-changed. A foreign visitor would have the absurd impression that whether or not Northern Ireland remains in the Union is professionally and commercially a neutral issue.

Our two universities, publicly funded for the most part, house our greatest concentration of educated minds.

Until fairly recently, those minds regarded themselves as belonging to "gown", aloof from "town" and its politics.

But in an era in which "impact", "outreach" and "output" are the criteria by which academics live or die, curiously these do not extend to engaging with the body politic. Business elsewhere is detaining academics and administrators.

Yet there is an unspoken prevailing cultural assumption, even among our writers. "Be advised," Seamus Heaney told his London editors, "my passport's green./No glass of ours was ever raised/To toast The Queen".

Were you to read another Northern Ireland poet addressing his Dublin editor: "Be advised/My passport's blue", the slim volume would jolt from your hand. One sentiment is permissible, laudable, even thrilling. The other is naff, infra dig, counter-poetic.

Yet under other circumstances, the silent among us, writers or no, will smartly produce their blue passport.

Such silence has enabled hardline nationalists to assume that unionism is a door banging with diminished confidence. With many pro-Union educated away on business, it's easy to see why the smell of meat is in the air.

The stupefaction that Cuchulain the Ulster hero once suffered was called "the great enchantment" by Standish James O'Grady, the scholar who re-introduced the Iron Age hero to the Irish. O'Grady thought the phrase appropriate to political Ireland in 1903, "under a spell and its will paralysed".

I'm tempted to reach for the parallel myself when I consider political unionism. But it's both simpler and more complicated than paralysis of the will.

Simpler because the silence of absence is reversible: cut short your business and take care of your vital interests.

But the silence of tolerance is normally a virtue. It is what made our deeply divided society work in the main, as my social anthropology teacher at Queen's, Rosemary Harris, explained in her classic Prejudice and Tolerance in Ulster (1972).

"Whatever you say, say nothing" has been a modus vivendi with us. But as Heaney knew, it has its limits and there comes a time to speak out, ideally with the respectfulness of that poet.

But with everyone who could make a difference away on business, we are left with those minding the Union store who (with notable exceptions) have neither the historical and cultural knowledge, nor eloquence to earn our confidence.

This has allowed the cartoonish reduction of unionist culture to bonfires.

Unionist culture is bigger than bonfires, bigger than Sinn Fein, bigger than Ireland. One of my objections to a united Ireland is that it would return me from the larger to the smaller.

After a spell on an island in the Gaeltacht in the 1930s, writer Sean O'Faolain caught cabin fever. "Any sensible man naturally goes from smaller to larger islands. And ends up with continents, which are also islands within the popular definition."

I love Dublin but if London is my capital how could I shrink my civic horizons? If I'm a distant offspring of the British Empire (whatever one thinks of the empire) how could I dwindle myself to ourselves alone?

I suspect the Dublin intelligentsia feel the same way because they too are integrated into the culture of the archipelago. That is why they are panicked over Brexit: fear of being culturally separated from the UK.

And with all due respect, EU membership is not the answer to our Irish dilemma. (Though we must not have a hard border again.)

The European Union project is to shrink Europe to a stifling unitary bureaucracy.

Anyone who believes Brexit means by definition turning one's back on European or Irish cultures, is, frankly, a dunce. It's rather the desire for elbow room and fresh air.

An impelling vision of the Union would reset the relationship between the autonomy of devolved administration and the rights of UK citizenship. The latter should trump the former when it matters.

As it is, the DUP, refusing the "step-by-step" doctrine, are maintaining social planks in their platform that drive a wedge between us and the rest of the UK. They might prove the Achilles' heel of the Union.

I for one would welcome a return to the "step-by-step" doctrine. The DUP stand against same-sex marriage and abortion reform impairs the Union and alienates the unionist young into the bargain.

"It's all over. It's all over," chants Waits in "God's away on business". It's not yet, of course, where the Union is concerned.

But I'd like to see those away on business coming back and telling us why not.

Is it too much to ask for the Union to be reaffirmed with an informed sense of the past and not a little passion?

  • Two of John Wilson Foster’s books were published in 1995: The Idea of the Union (ed.) and The Achievement of Seamus Heaney.

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