Category Archives: This Union

Why History Matters

The Policy Exchange “History Matters Project” which is to be chaired by Trevor Philips is a hopeful sign of an intelligent response to the historical literacy in public education and, on the streets, in social media, to the deeper impact on democratic legitimacy and the rule of law sometimes underlying the intention beneath those challenges.

In a new paper entitled ‘History has still to be written’ a number of writers have collaborated on a broad view on the nature of ‘history’ and how the UK Government’s ‘casual disregard for history’ and ‘an intellectual and political incapacity to engage’ within the public discourse runs contrary to Minister’s protestations that ‘we won’t allow the rewriting of history’. The topic is of the moment as many try to use a view of history or ‘the past’ as a justification for a singular cause, proposition or agenda. That is why a full understanding of ‘history’ has never been more important, though not new or novel.

David Hackett Fischer in his book Historians’ Fallacies (1970) stated the problem of this sort of ‘objectivism’ for the political, agenda-driven activist.

It is no easy matter to tell the truth, pure and simple, about past events; for historical truths are never pure, and rarely simple. And the process of historical truth-telling itself is never more intricate than the truths which historians tell. Every true statement must be thrice true. It must be true to its evidence, true to itself, and true to other historical truths with which it is colligated. Moreover, a historian must not merely tell truths, but demonstrate their truthfulness as well.”

The paper separates ‘history’ from the other purposes that seek to reformulate and capture history for a cause:

“The issue of the moment is not that ‘history’ is being ‘rewritten’. It is that the past (the recent past a nebulous idea of ‘memory’, the distant past a story of ‘oppression’) is being recruited to serve an agenda and historical thinking dismissed if it prevents one – and only one – moralising political whippet winning the race and becoming the undisputed champion.”

The paper History has still to be written” may be downloaded on a new publishing website:  

This first paper from publishing website is timely. Those involved considered what might be the best approach to widening public discourse on topics. The process of curation of a paper, bringing together contributions from a number of people from different backgrounds is intended to offer something new. It is hoped this process will reveal the working out of ideas and arguments, with each paper written over time, through many drafts, not the quick blog piece of a spare hour.

Scottish and Irish nationalism feeds on a sense of inevitable, that is misplaced.

Floodstop Prevention Barriers

Economist Graham Gudgin has addressed two key issues for Unionists in recent weeks.

First a robust call for the UK Government to take the task of preserving the Union more seriously, particularly in respect of Scottish Nationalism. Graham notes the challenges:

“The task now for unionists is to face up to the realities of the problem and to avoid superficial remedies and soft-soap talk. These include avoiding a reliance on throwing money at the problem. Just as in Northern Ireland, the flow of cash from England does little to soften nationalist sentiments. Money is accepted without gratitude. Feelings of financial dependence can just as easily foster resentment as generating a need to ‘cling to nurse for fear of finding something worse’. In Scotland, the majority have never heard of Rishi Sunak, the saviour of their economy during a global pandemic.”

Though Graham has a number of constructive responses that he suggests would start the process of meeting those challenges:

“So, what is the case for the union. The core case is that three-hundred years of successful union should not be lightly tossed aside. The UK has been a force for good in the world through this period and can continue to fill this role. As a nuclear power with a seat on the UN Security Council and at the centre of a multi-racial Commonwealth of nations, its global reach is immense. The SNP’s alternative of a future inside the EU may yet backfire if the UK secures a satisfactory deal with the EU and demonstrates that, like Switzerland, Norway and Iceland, economic life outside the EU can be quite satisfactory. A slogan of ‘Give Back Control (to the EU)’ would hardly help the SNP. An EU border at Berwick would be a nuisance for everyone but especially the Scots.”

Worth a read for a broad set of first steps.

Following up on his observations in support of the Union, reference Scottish Nationalism, Graham then turns to the clarion calls for Irish Unity that have become ever more shrill in recent years because Brexit.

Graham rightly notes the constant theme of the increased flow of articles is that Northern Ireland will inevitably become part of a united Ireland, and then shows just how such a  prediction is both wrong and self-serving.

“One of the burdens that Ulster Unionists have to bear is the constant pressure to remove their UK citizenship and transfer them and their homeland into a united Ireland even as we approach the centenary of Northern Ireland’s existence in 2021. Commentators in Great Britain and the wider world greatly underestimate the damage wrought by this constant political harassment. “

In a national context, Graham places a finger one of the greatest Unionist challenges:

“British public opinion has always preferred to view the conflict in religious terms rather than as the clash of national identities that it really is. Although nationalism is normally viewed negatively by liberals, Irish nationalism has usually received what the unionist writer Professor Jack Wilson Foster refers to as a ‘chit from matron’.”

What Graham points out, sharply, is that with little credible polling showing any significant interest in a United Ireland, the fall back is ‘demography’ – or more crudely that Protestants with a lower birth rate will be ‘our-bred’ by Catholics, a long-standing trope. Yet:

“The 2011 Census clearly showed that the percentage of the population who described themselves as Catholic had peaked among those born almost two decades ago and has subsequently slowly declined.”

On the future, Graham believes:

“The likelihood is that Northern Ireland may be around to celebrate its second centenary in 2021.”

Even with Brexit:

“Nationalists will no doubt claim that a need for customs declarations and occasional checks from GB to NI will weaken the union, but few people will be aware of this. Northern Ireland’s economy will continue to flourish. Dublin economists John Fitzgerald and Henry Morgenroth estimate that living standards in NI are higher than those in the South, partly due to strong financial support from GB for public services. There is little reason why this should change.”


Dr Graham Gudgin is honorary Research associate at the Centre for Business Research, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge. He was Special Advisor to the First Minister in Northern Ireland 1998-2002.

Two major uncertainties for Northern Ireland unionists going to polls this Thursday.

Nearly one hundred years since its establishment, Unionism faces two significant threats to its place in the United Kingdom: Boris’s Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union, which will draw a border down the Irish Sea; and an Irish Language Act in exchange for the restoration of the NI Assembly.

Debate in the media currently, has focused on Boris Johnston’s Withdrawal Agreement; or ‘Betrayal Act’, as it has been dubbed. The EU expectation is that the deal will make a sizeable step towards frictionless cross-border trade, while hampering trade within the United Kingdom on which Northern Ireland is most reliant.

Under Article VI of the 1801 Act of Union a customs union was to be founded, resulting in zero tariffs and frictionless trade. Unlike the Government of Ireland Act 1920, which was repealed as a result of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Act of Union, albeit not including the now Republic of Ireland, remains on the Statute Book. It isn’t clear how the Prime Minister will square this with the proposed Withdrawal Agreement.

The idea of Northern Ireland being treated differently from the rest of the UK in a post-Brexit world has caused outrage amongst grassroots Loyalists, resulting in meetings being held across the Province. These meetings, or rallies, on the face of it, appear to mirror many meetings at times in history when the Union appeared to be under threat, including the Ulster Crisis, 1912-14, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, 1985, and opposition to the Belfast Agreement by Unionists in 1998 as part of the ‘No’ campaign.

While there is outrage is expressed by some, it is the most public expression of a wider if quieter disquiet and unease across all shades of Unionism.

While Boris’s deal presents a serious threat to the economy of the United Kingdom, there is another play which seriously threatens the cultural fabric of Ulster unionism which lurks in the background as talks continue over the restoration of the NI Assembly. This relates to an Irish Language Act, seen as a key demand made by Sinn Fein for the restoration of the NI Executive, power-sharing, in Northern Ireland. The very real danger has been well argued by John Wilson Foster in the Belfast Telegraph, 2017.

Sinn Fein’s ambition (unchallenged by any shade of nationalism) is that an Irish Language Act would see Irish promoted in parallel with English in public spaces and services. At present residents of Newry, Mourne and Down District Council are forced to see street signs erected in English and Irish, with Irish given prominence over the main language spoken across the ‘community divide’. This example offers a glimpse as to how Sinn Fein would imagine Northern Ireland as a whole, if an Irish Language Act is introduced.

The persistence of Sinn Fein in pushing an Irish Language Act is part of its long-standing stragegy of waging a cultural war against all aspects of the visible manifestation of Britishness: one which seems reality accepted by the NIO and London as opposed to violent conflict – rather than actually dealing with paramilitarism and the “threat” of violence from within the republican community.

Of course this Republican strategy is platformed on the word ‘equality’ and utilised (to break Unionism) as a means of the continual process of Nationalists seeking equal rights since 1968 (as opposed to grievances over housing and employment rights, which were the focus at the time of the ‘Civil Rights Movement’).

Thursday 12th December will represent a significant day the history of Northern Ireland if the Conservative Party is returned with a handsome majority. A win for Boris Johnston will mean that the Withdrawal Bill would pass as a Act and become law, taking the United Kingdom out of the EU by the end of January 2020, though at this point leaving Northern Ireland with an uncertain economic future until the out-workings of the ‘Boris deal’ are clear; what the Prime Minister claims the Agreement to mean and what the Agreement actually says seem to diverge substantially.

It is already been made abundantly clear that with a substantial Conservative majority pressure will be brought to bear on the DUP to once again roll over and provide concessions to Sinn Fein in order to restore a Northern Ireland Assembly, the price being an Irish Language Act.  The ability of the Conservative Government to actively facilitate legislation in Westminster on ‘devolved’ social issues while refusing to intervene on ‘devolved’ health issues that are impacting on patient life expectancy shows the priorities in place and direction of travel.

Unionists in Northern Ireland need to go to the election box with a clear understanding that without strong voices at Westminster significant aspects of our Union will be scarred, perhaps irrevocably.


Dr Andrew Charles: political historian.

The UK’s forgotten frontier?

When we think of devolution, it is not unusual for the Scottish independence referendum or the bloody struggle over Northern Ireland to spring to mind. Wales, by contrast, is often treated as an afterthought – nudged towards an Assembly when Scotland was getting one, and subsequently overshadowed in national debate by Edinburgh and Belfast.

Devolution is not the Solution

The biggest challenge facing the next generation of unionists will probably not be a direct separatist challenge to the Union.

Scottish capital-N Nationalism has stalled as Brexit pulls the rug from beneath ‘independence in Europe’; Welsh separatism remains a very minority pursuit; and whilst the situation in Northern Ireland is more precarious it’s economic circumstances are such that it would likely take the active collusion of the British Government to make any merger with the Republic viable in the decades ahead.

The task facing unionists of my generation is an internal one: shaking off the decaying intellectual orthodoxies of the devolution movement.

The Emotional Case for The Union is Just as Important as the Economic Case

The Brexit imbroglio has encouraged separatists in Northern Ireland and Scotland to intensify their attacks on the Union, as fundamental constitutional issues have become the focus of UK politics.

A little ironically, their short-term goals have coincided increasingly with the short-term goals of the most adamant remain-voting liberals, who were dismayed and disorientated by the referendum result, and are instinctively suspicious of any assertion of national sovereignty. Scottish and Irish nationalists believe they can dilute London’s influence by pursuing a closer relationship with Brussels for these regions, and therefore boosting their own visions of nationhood, while their liberal allies see the EU project as a means of containing all forms of nationalism.

Lessons from elsewhere.

I have had the privilege to live and work in one of the presently most vibrant and exciting cities in Europe, Budapest. It is not only now apparently “Party Central” for every Northern European waif and stray but it is also a place absolutely dripping in history, admittedly most of it melancholic.

Of course, like everywhere else there were aspects which I found difficult to cope with (more on that anon).

One of the indirect advantages of being there was that I could indulge my travel fetish for the obscure and “off-the-beaten track”. Ever since I left Belfast at the age of 18, I have wanted to visit places that you are unlikely to find in the typical travel brochure; places that even today where you are unlikely to access accommodation on Airbnb or For example, last year I was lucky enough to fly the 45 (!) minutes to Sarajevo, a place and people that have left a very real lasting impression on me.

The Case for the Union – A Personal Perspective.

The union for me has always been defined by what is best for the people of Northern Ireland. And one can at least measure this practically.

The United Kingdom offers Northern Ireland the best advantages in terms of economic, military and diplomatic standing on the world stage. Its greater links to trade and investment all over the world provide opportunities for job creation both here and in the rest of the UK. The whole shape of the world economy will change over the next two decades – robotics, artificial intelligence, new technologies – and I see the UK (post-Brexit) being well-placed to adapt to this change. The fragility of the Irish economy and its narrow dependence on foreign subsidiaries was demonstrated clearly in 2008.

This Union

Next Generation Series

A while back This Union asked for articles from younger or newer writers/commentators, the next generation. Rather than have established(ment) political statements on repeat, we want to try to gauge a range of views from younger writers and commentators. Contributions have been stored ‘on file’ for a while, trying to find a gap in the endless Brexit headlines to break out onto a more fundamental track that will remain on the political agenda past Brexit (if Brexit ever ends….).

Next week, starting Monday 19th August, we will post a series of five articles that provide individual perspectives on The Union.

The five articles offer personal perspectives and make different arguments, reflecting the individuals’ particular background and experience.

Where we might be, or not. Who knows?





Brexit, of course.