Tag Archives: Unionism

Our Island Histories?







Consider the following quotations:

“I happen to belong to a minority who hold that the breakup of the United Kingdom may be imminent”.

“It [Northern Ireland] pays a heavy fine every day for keeping its distance from a prospering Republic. In the long run, its destiny can only lie in a united Ireland, perhaps as an autonomous Province”.

From Norman Davies’s book, The Isles: A History, p. 881 and p. 882.

One thing I did during the tail end of the Christmas and New Year Holidays was re-read a book that was first published in 1999; Norman Davies 2000, The Isles: A History, Papermac (all my page references relate to that edition).

Davies is a one time History Professor at London University and a Fellow of Wolfson College Oxford. His various works on the history of Poland are, rightly, very highly regarded.

Even 19 years on from its publication this book is still worth considering. This is partly because it may be the pre-eminent representative of a group of books which appeared in the 1990s which cast doubt as to whether the UK will long endure. This is one reason why those who want the UK of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to continue should read this book- as Andrew Robert’s review said of the book:

“This is a dangerous book, written at a dangerous time”.

(It is not the only reason for reading Davies – if you are familiar with his recent books – Europe: A History (1996), Rising’44 The Battle for Warsaw (2003), Vanished Kingdoms (2010) – you’ll know he has a particular way of presenting and doing history.)

About the book: What was Davies trying to do?

To write a history of these isles (Davies objects to the use of the term “British Isles”) which is genuinely all encompassing: not one which is really a history of England but under another name.

He used the following periodization:

  • From the end of the Ice Ages to about AD43: the “original” inhabitants plus some later Celtic tribes (he writes it is an open question just how many Celts did arrive- p. 41).
  • About AD43 to 410: the Roman Empire, though in the long run any lasting Latin influence was limited.
  • About 410 to 800: the “Germanico-Celtic isles” when the contest between the Romano-British and the Anglo-Saxons initially hung in the balance but eventually the former were pushed back into Cornwall, Wales, Cumbria and Strathclyde.
  • About 800 to 1154: “Isles of the West”, a period of increasing inter-dependence with Scandinavia- first through the Vikings and then the Normans.
  • About 1154 to 1326: England and parts of Wales and parts of Ireland were part of a dynastic conglomerate which also included much of what would become modern France.
  • 1326 to 1603: An English nation-state began to develop- incorporating Wales and parts of Ireland (though not Scotland).
  • 1603 to 1707: The three kingdoms- England & Wales, Ireland and Scotland- were united but only in the form of a personal union of crowns.
  • 1707-about 1922: “Imperial Isles”- after the 1707 England-Scotland Union, a British state developed in parallel with the British Empire.
  • About 1922 to present: “Post-Imperial Isles”- not just a retreat from Empire but, argues Davies, a time when most of the props of Britishness suffered substantial and rapid decay.

There is a challenge in all of this for pro-union people

Many of us will have had the irritating experience of encountering people who use the term England to refer to (Great) Britain or the UK. One of Davies’s achievements is show how this way of thinking is extremely common and deep-rooted.

We should be realistic and accept that historically the two Acts of Union, 1707 and 1800, were often regarded in England not so much as the creation of a partnership and more about England continuing on pretty much as before though with some “Celtic” appendages. That said, regardless, of the how the modern UK came into being, there is still the argument that in practice it did largely work and still works for the mutual benefit of its component parts. That is something Davies’s book never really considers.

Mistakes in the book

This book includes 1,040 pages of text and appendices. Some typos and debatable points are to be expected but it is necessary to point out that there are quite a few mistakes/very questionable statements about Ulster/Irish history. My reason for listing these is not pedantry but because they may evidence a failure to understand, or perhaps try to read more widely about, unionists in Northern Ireland:

  • p519, the Duke of Bromberg (Schomberg, presumably).
  • p609, representatives of the Ulster Free Presbyterian Church were found in nineteenth century Glasgow (a confusion of the older Scottish Free Presbyterian Church with the one founded sixty years later by the Rev. Ian Paisley).
  • p664-5, p803, and elsewhere, he strongly implies that the pound sterling was about to collapse into the Euro (the pound has remained outside the Eurozone and there is now almost no support for joining the Euro).
  • p759, a British Army armoured car drove onto the pitch at Croke Park and machine gunned the crowd during one incident of the Anglo-Irish War (14 Irish civilians did die in Croke Park but the armoured car did not drive in; except as shown in the Hollywood film Michael Collins).
  • p770, the Northern Ireland protestant community is divided between Anglicans and Free Presbyterians (the Free Presbyterian church has always been one of the smallest denominations).
  • p772, the “non-sectarian” SDLP (it may claim to be, though it doesn’t manage to live up to that pretension).
  • p773, at the time Davies was finishing his book devolution in Northern Ireland was being delayed largely because of unionist failures to the implement the 1998 Agreement (there is almost no recognition of the importance of the IRA’s failure to decommission).
  • p880 nearly 60% of British trade was with the EU (in 1999 55% of exports went to the rest of the EU, declining to 44% by 2015).
  • p882, “the glory” of Patrick Pearse was in his, “…preaching of religious tolerance” (there have been some analyses of Pearse’s reduction of (Catholic) Christianity to the “blood sacrifice” and such analyses have certainly not highlighted his tolerance).

Davies rightly provides lavish detail on some of the smaller or forgotten “cultures” of the Isles – Welsh or Irish speaking, lowland Scots (Lallans), the Manx and Cornish – but one culture is largely invisible, the pro-British community in Ulster, or those who live, “…in the retarded time capsule of Protestant Ulster” (p769). Davies writes from a particular perspective and is too ready to repeat ‘accepted’ belittlement of Unionism as fact; facts that too readily fit a singular political narrative.


To be fair to Davies, as an historian he does put his head on the block by being willing to make “predictions”.  His history of Europe in 1996 was specific – the collapse of the UK could well happen before 2007. In this book he described the break-up of the UK as “imminent”.

There is an irony in all of this. Davies’s histories of eastern Europe have in effect championed the cause for Poland as against the historical expansionism of Russia (whether Soviet or Tsarist). However, when it comes to his own islands, Davies relapses into the sort of historical inevitability which so disfigured the thinking of Hegel and Marx – and seems an inherent touchstone of nationalism of whatever hue across our islands.

Today, of course, a reader of The Isles in 2018 does have the benefit of knowing what happened between 1999 and 2017. That a clear majority of Scots voted for the Union in 2014 and that a majority of the UK voted for Brexit in 2016.

Davies’s response might well be that the patient is still in poor health – the body politic could be felled by a heart attack at any time.

There isn’t much evidence for that.

Even so, for sure, those of us who wish to promote the case for the United Kingdom have our work cut out.


Dr Esmond Birnie – Economist


On Human Rights







Over the holidays the Irish Times carried a review of Omar Grech’s book on Human Rights and the Northern Ireland Conflict by Brice Dickson, first Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, who notes:

“Grech reminds his readers that during the Troubles, human-rights abuses were committed not just by the State but predominantly by unlawful paramilitary groups, especially the IRA. Most human-rights NGOs came relatively late to this realisation and even today some activists and politicians are reluctant to describe, say, the “punishment” shooting or beating of alleged juvenile delinquents as human-rights abuses.”

“Human rights are entitlements we claim not just because various international treaties require states to protect those rights. Their protection is the fundamental rationale for criminal justice systems worldwide and for civilised interaction between individuals within every society.”

Not spooked






Alex Kane increasingly sounds like the elderly Auntie who is forever telling everyone in the family how what they are doing is not the right way of doing it; and if we have heard it once, we need to hear it over and over again – maybe different words, same message.

Alex’s most recent piece in the News Letter “Why the leaders of Unionism should be well and truly spooked” is a case in point.

What goes up…?






On this site we have argued on a number of occasions that the last refuge of a weak political argument is the argument according to inevitability. In the case of Irish nationalism it is often the first refuge because there is little else to say.

The same trait has informed much of the superficial self-confidence Scottish nationalists, proudly proclaiming the inevitable end of the United Kingdom since Tom Nairn’s Break-up of Britain published 40 years ago. However, on the subject of inevitability consider the result of the recent Survation poll for the Scottish Daily Mail published recently.

Dreary Option of Joint Authority Emerges Once Again






In April 1994 the Cadogan Group published a pamphlet JOINT AUTHORITY AND THE NORTHERN IRELAND PROBLEM.

It was written to challenge an idea which was being touted as the logical ‘solution’ to the ‘Northern Ireland problem’. It has re-emerged not as a ‘solution’ but as another of the present Irish Government’s – unhelpful – ‘non-negotiable demands’.

Of paradoxes






Newton Emerson is a journalist whose articles are always worth reading. His unique contribution is to engage honestly and intelligently with Irish politics without indulging those liberal pieties, that all too often provides thin cover for ancestral voices. He is all the more refreshing when found in the Irish Times which particularly lends itself to liberal piety, thinly covering ancestral voices, conveyed in the tone of smug Southern self-righteousness.

Has nationalism over-reached?





There have been two interesting articles in newspapers this week. Both address the current ‘Condition of Scotland’ question.

For Northern Ireland unionism, which always likes to consider its situation unique and exceptional, there were clear commonalities with its own indulgence in a distinctive perilousness of its condition; though these articles suggest that that indulgence is overwrought.

Both articles touched on matters familiar to those who have been keeping abreast with posts to this site – cultural pessimism, historical inevitability and (alleged) superior nationalist political strategy.

Opportunity knocks





We don’t yet know how Brexit will affect Northern Ireland exactly, but the referendum result certainly revived the nationalist trope that Irish unity is ‘inevitable’.

The Republic’s national parliament recently published plans for a forum “to achieve the peaceful reunification of Ireland”, Sinn Fein blithely assure unionists that the “British identity” will be protected in a thirty-two county state and newspaper columnists rush to tell readers that the fourth green field will soon “bloom again”. One particularly excitable author, Kevin Meagher, a former special adviser to Shaun Woodward, (remind me again why unionists didn’t trust that former secretary of state), even called his book “A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable”.

In response, unionists have challenged nationalism’s “self-regarding, single certainty” in a series of astute articles.







The news that the talks at Stormont, aimed at kick-starting the Northern Ireland Executive, are to be put on hold until after the summer break does not really come as any surprise.