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.

Newton recently wrote about the persistent attraction for some Unionists of Ulster independence – Remember the third tribe of Ulster.

Newton’s starting point – and it must be the starting point of anything to do with Unionism – is a paradox. It is remarkable, he thought, that unionists would ever indulge the opposite of unionism. Emerson resorted to Ian Paisley, that fount of Unionist contrariness, for an explanation:

“Ian Paisley expressed it more positively in 2007 when he told Bertie Ahern he was a proud Ulsterman and a proud Irishman in that order, adding he did not need the English telling him what to do.”

Emerson’s thesis, based on the solipsistic ego of the former leader of the DUP, is that independence is a sort of Promised Land which explains much about the history of Scottish Presbyterianism in Ulster.

“When they made common cause with the Irish in the 18th century, true republicanism seemed possible. When they sided with the English in the 19th century, Ulster unionism became possible. If they feel denied either option, it is no surprise they might cast around for a third.”

An independent Ulster/Northern Ireland is that possible third option. Emerson is wise enough to understand that it is not a viable option but he identifies its well-spring for ‘the Scots’.

“What the Scots want is some sense of a homeland; a place apart. An independent Northern Ireland may be a political non-starter, but a viable, functioning Northern Ireland is an entirely realistic proposition…[and the] key to this is devolution.”

A newspaper article imposes certain limitations. Emerson’s task is not to write an academic treatise but to capture attention and possibly make people (especially a Southern readership), stop and think, if only momentarily. He has succeeded (otherwise there would be no post such as this one). So the framing of the argument in terms of Ulster Scots, Ulster English and the Irish can be taken as a convenient hook rather than a conceptual truth.

There is however another paradox to be considered: that Newton’s insight is correct but that his vision is wrong. To put that another way: he brilliantly captures a particular truth of Ulster Unionism, but that truth does not capture the larger truth of Ulster Unionism.

First, what does Newton get right?.

Though he is not mentioned by Emerson, the spectre of David Miller’s Queen’s Rebels hovers over the Irish Times article. As Miller famously put it:

“Few aspects of the contemporary Ulster problem are more perplexing to British and other outside observers than the ‘conditional’ character of the loyalty professed by those known as ‘loyalists’.”

By ‘loyalists’ Miller meant more than paramilitaries. He meant the wider Unionist electorate ‘loyal’ to the state (or Crown) but frequently ‘disloyal’ to the Irish policy of Her Majesty’s Government. The expression ‘conditional loyalty’ captures well the mentality which Emerson is claiming to be distinctive of the complex political culture of the ‘Scots’. According to Miller, they had:

“…quasi-national feelings of attachment to Ireland, to ‘Ulster’ and to a Britain which was less the real Great Britain than to a vague concept of a Great Britain which somehow the Empire might come to embody.”

The way in which this unfolded in the history of the last century, Miller argued, revealed how the old Scots covenanting tradition informed the behaviour of Unionist resistance as well as the shape of its collective organisation.

Miller’s book was an insightful contribution to understanding Unionism. But there is much that is wrong with it when it comes to explaining the bigger picture.

An excellent corrective to its reading of Unionist history, especially in the 19th century, is John Bew’s The Glory of Being Britons. Bew identified the key flaw in the Miller thesis: that Unionist politics in Ulster (and later Northern Ireland) was/is inauthentic to the British tradition and that its identity was/is also not really British either.

Miller’s essentialist interpretation of identity (as political theorists would define it) simply excludes far too much even when it acknowledges the complex nature of Unionist thinking.

Indeed, one can go further and argue that Miller’s view that Unionist politics was peculiar, unique and outside the norm of British behaviour contributed to those old distinct but related myths: that Unionists suffer from a ‘crisis of identity’ and/or ‘false consciousness’.

The additional myth (which Emerson mercifully avoids) is that crisis and falsehood will be resolved whenever Unionists realise that they are really Irish nationalists!

The implication of Miller’s contract theory is that Unionists are only ‘instrumentally’ British because their real loyalty is not to the UK but to themselves. That’s what conditionality means. Their anxieties come about because of a fear of not belonging (especially in England, where they are another type of Paddy). Unfortunately, they have cut themselves off from their natural home and their natural belonging to the Irish people. Bew’s book shows how misconceived is that implication.

Here is another Unionist paradox.

If on the one hand they are not really British –Miller has them looking from the outside in to a Britain which was imaginary and which the real British do not recognise (cue those tropes about the Tory Party/DUP deal recently) – how then on the other hand are Unionists also the only ‘primordial’ British as McLean and McMillan put it in State of the Union: Unionism and the Alternatives in the United Kingdom Since 1707.

It seems like Unionists can’t win in that definitional Bermuda Triangle. Fortunately, there is an alternative, and that alternative establishes where Emerson’s formulation of the matter takes him down the wrong path.

The old myths of crisis of identity and false consciousness now seem so very dated.

Who now doubts that individuals and groups have ‘multiple identities’ (which makes the old certainties of Irish nationalism appear very much out of time)?

Who would imagine multiple identities as some sort of primitive condition that requires remedial action? When it comes to being British, who now thinks of it in our devolved times as excluding being Scottish or Welsh or English or…yes, Northern Irish or Irish? Only nationalism, of course, for whom anything other than strict conformity between cultural identity and political allegiance is logical deformity (except when it comes to the European Union, apparently).

Here is a paradox with which Unionists should feel comfortable. It might be their first response whenever the identity bullies set about browbeating them with their ‘crisis’.

It is the paradox of ‘elective affinity’, a term associated with the German sociologist Max Weber.

The word ‘elective’ suggests agency and deliberate choice; ‘affinity’ implies that individuals and systems are related by something other than choice. In short, the component nationalities of the UK elect to stay in constitutional relationship with one another and this relationship exhibits affinities which give continued substance to the term ‘British’.

This a constitutional relationship which embraces, and does not deny, the identities of Scottish, English, Welsh, and Northern Irish – more broadly British constitutional framework also embraces cultural identities however the individual self-defines.

Elective affinity captures well the intersection of self-understanding and self-interest in the history of the Union. It takes the form of shared institutions, formal and informal arrangements, similar policy objectives and common commitments, all of which involve a sense of ‘election’.

Indeed, the Royal Commission on the Constitution (1973) defined being British in precisely this way: representation at, and taking seats, in Parliament at Westminster.

Affinities are more complex and not necessarily uniformly shared. Some may feel affinity with the Royal Family, other not. Some may feel strong affinities with things culturally Scottish and others not. Some may feel very much at home in London, others may not. Some hearts swell at the Last Night of the Proms while others feel completely cold. The list could go on indefinitely.

Two things can be said of the outworkings of ‘elective affinity’.

First, someone from Northern Ireland would be no different in the diversity of their affinities than would someone from Yorkshire.

Second, it is not the particular affinities which are important but the larger sense of affinity with the life of the state – that what goes on culturally, socially, imaginatively is not alien to one’s own life but affects what one is.

The contrast in this affective sense with the European Union illustrates the point. One may elect to remain in the EU but those real European affinities that one feels are unlikely to have little to do with the life of the Union.

A British identity – or an Irish identity for that matter – requires some intimate connection between statehood and selfhood; it is what it means to belong. For Paisley to reject the English telling him what to do would be no different from Ruth Davidson rejecting the English telling her what to do. That rejection would make neither of them less of a Unionist – because Unionism is not synonymous with Anglo-centric dictation.

Colin Kidd demonstrated this truth in his highly acclaimed Union and Unionisms: political thought in Scotland 1500–2000. For Kidd, Unionism was a Scottish invention and not an English imposition. And like its Ulster variant, it spoke in political idiom that did, and does, rub the English up the wrong way.

Yes, but what of the claim that even if Ulster Unionists express affinity with things British, the British have no reciprocal affinities with them? As we noted in a previous post about the latest ‘inevitability of Irish unity’ argument has made this a central proposition. Kevin Meagher, ‘Why reunified Ireland offers best outcome for North’s future’ states:

“Successive generations of British politicians have longed to jettison Northern Ireland, but at critical points they lacked the will and the choreography to do so. Now things are changed. Changed utterly, in fact. The turn of the historical wheel presents new opportunities…and asks: In fact, beyond the unionist tribe, is anyone in British politics bothered about maintaining the link to Northern Ireland?”

Aside from the implied racism (no blacks, no dogs, no Ulster Unionists) that position is such a pathetic understanding of the United Kingdom as to rule out of court anything else he may claim.

Is there a proper Unionist response? Yes there is and it is one which puts Unionists firmly in the camp of liberal piety. It is the response of the novelist Andrea Levy born in London to Jamaican parents who, when her right to belong in England was questioned by racists responded:

“If Englishness does not define me, then re-define Englishness.”

If Meagher’s meagre Britishness does not include Unionists, then we should ask him to re-define his understanding of Britishness.

So there is no deadly contradiction in the stories, no fatal paradox in the experiences, which Newton recounts. He has done Unionism the service of raising them again and making us think.

There is a clear response to the Meaghers of this world, and one that stands up with confidence in our sense of Britishness.