Roy Johnston reviews From the United Irishmen to Twentieth Century Unionism, Sabine Wichert (ed), Four Courts Press, ISBN 1-85182-811-7, 55 euro
THIS BOOK is a 'festschrift' in honour of the 75th birthday of historian ATQ Stewart, author of numerous scholarly studies ranging from The Ulster Crisis (1967) through his 1981 Carson biography, his 1993 analysis of the origins of the United Irishmen The Deeper Silence to his recent Shape of Irish History.
It could in a sense be said to be a celebration of basically unionist scholarship, representative of a reflective and intelligent unionism, which however has not yet come to terms with the 'greater unionism' of the rest of Irish scholarship, which now tends to look to the European Union, thereby differentiating itself from the micro-unionism of post-colonial Britain.
Stewart's unionism however is full of interesting paradoxes. There is a lurking suggestion that the Presbyterian republicanism of the 1790s was at heart unionist, in that it was part of republican movements in England, Scotland and Wales, which if they had succeeded would have led to a federal republic of these islands. Wolfe Tone would have been familiar with this aspiration.
Stewart himself, however, according to Arthur Aughey (University of Ulster, Jordanstown), rejected the label 'unionist', dismissing ideological labelling as over-simplification, never being concerned whether what he writes might please Hume or Paisley. He argues that "there is no misunderstanding between Protestant and Catholic... they know each other only too well, having lived alongside each other for four centuries... it is not a clash of cultues, it is a culture in itself..". Stewart's profound skepticism about the applicability of rational Enlightenment culture under Irish conditions presents a challenge needing to be taken up creatively by those trying against the odds to build Irish democracy.
We have some interesting insights into the relationship between the radical Belfast merchants of the 1780s and 90s and the slave trade, from Nini Ridgers (Queens). Mary O'Dowd (Queens) concludes that elite women in Ireland in the 18thC had more access to the mechanics of political influence that their counterparts in England or colonial America.
From Marianne Elliott (University of Liverpool) we have an analysis of the Kent 'treason trials' of 1798 which enables some evaluation of the potential of 'federal union' republicanism, and throws light on the complexities of the French connection, in which context Wolfe Tone was far from being the sole operator.
Allan Blackstock (University of Ulster) gives an insight into the relative roles of the conservative Anglican clergy and the radical Belfast Presbyterian businessmen, using a comparative biographical treatment of two examples, respectively William Richardson, who claimed to be in on the foundation of the yeomanry with Orange collusion, and William Tennent, an active United Irishman who was imprisoned at Fort George in Scotland.
Blackstock follows their subsequent careers; the former became a crank agricultural innovator, the latter a stalwart of the Chamber of Commerce and the Linen Hall Library. These contrasting careers represent "..a paradigm for the divisions within Protestantism: rural anglicanism is set against urban New Light Presbyterianism..".
We have an analysis by Peter Jupp (Queen's University Belfast) of the life and times of Patrick Duigenan, an ultra-Protestant ex-Catholic MP, who was a source of many parliamentary arguments against Catholic emancipation, on various grounds related to intrinsic disloyalty, "...mostly specious or wrong..". One can see here the roots of Protestant insecurity based on the perceived need to defend a baically indefensible ascendancy situation. From George Boyce (University of Swansea) we have the life and times of AV Dicey, a 'moral force' unionist with a sense of European-style nation-building, who found himself ill-at-ease with the processes that led to the Larne gun-running.
Diane Urquhart (University of Liverpool) gives us the life and times of Theresa Lady Londonderry, who with her London salons was a significant channel of influence beween Carson and the Tory Establishment, in the lead up to Larne gun-running time.
This leads on to a somewhat rambling discourse by Owen Dudley Edwards (I can almost hear his voice when reading it) on Carson, Marjoribanks (his authorised biographer) and Oscar Wilde. The connection is of course Carson's role in the first of the Wilde court-cases, and conflicts between Marjoribanks' hagiography and the work of subsequent more critical biographers. This chapter deserves close study, again for the embedded paradoxes in the Protestant relationship to the emergent Irish nation. There is a 'what if' hint: might Carson have emerged as a Parnell successor but for the role of the Bishops? Carson had a good relationship with Redmond. Marjoribanks, who was gay, committed suicide in 1932. Here is much food for thought, and trails to be followed by scholarship.
Paul Bew (Queen's University Belfast) revisits some ideology issues related to the 1912-14 Ulster crisis. He devotes much space to the perceived problem of Catholic hegemony, on the basis of local government experience; there is also a perceived Irish language dimension. This chapter is broadly based on Steward's Narrow Ground 1977 publication.
Alvin Jackson (Queen's University Belfast) analyses the history of militant loyalism subsequent to partition, including the problems faced by O'Neill in the liberal reforming context. Carson got his state funeral in 1935, having attended the unveiling of his statue at Stormont in 1933; the hawks of 1914 were celebrated as the founders of the state. Yet the 50th anniversary in 1964 was celebrated separately by O'Neill and Paisley.
According to Jackson, "...Paisley's commitment to the militants of 1914 was more than rhetorical.." and he goes on to suggest a shadowy link between him and the current generation of loyalist militants. He goes on to deal with Vanguard, the UDA, the response to the Anglo-Irish Agreement and then finally the current Belfast agreement of 1998 (by which the Good Friday agreement is known in Unionist circles, such being the need for differential perceptions and associated labelling).
Marc Mulholland (Oxford University) attempts to answer the question "why did Unionists discriminate?", under headings 'triumphalism', 'anti-Catholicism', 'social prejudice', 'populism', 'cabals', 'security' and 'sectarian electoral geography'. This chapter confirms all we were aware of when we attempted to develop the non-violent civil rights approach in the 1960s.
His 'cabals' section records episodes which I personally witnessed and interacted with: the diversion of the University of Ulster from Derry, and the resignation of the distinguished town planner Geoffrey Copcutt over the imposition of sectarian political geography on Craigavon.
The 1965 Irish Association Whitsun meeting was planned for Derry on the theme 'Planning a New University', and I was present. The Coleraine university location came as a bombshell; the conference was planned as a welcome for the development of Magee College. Many people subsequently associated with political developments were present, icluding John Hume and Ivan Cooper. Later, on the Craigavon issue, I remember encountering Copcutt at an event organised by the Dublin Wolfe Tone Society.
There is no question that the unionist discrimination was the basic fuel for the 1960s attempt by the republican movement to 'go political'. Missing from the analysis however is the main factor which nipped this process in the bud: the August 1969 armed pogrom by the B-Specials. Was this a 'cabal' job? Who organised it? Was its primary motivation to stimulate the re-invention of the IRA in military mode? Was there a relationship with the group which organised the 1964 Silent Valley job, with similar intent?
August 1969 succeeded brilliantly, and triggered decades of mayhem. I look forward to future insights into who comprised this cabal, or these cabals. Were they, perhaps, the fire behind the smoke that obscured Sean McPhilemy's ill-fated Committee (Roberts Rinehart 1998)?
A final chapter by Richard English (Queen's University Belfast) attempts to set an agenda for unionist intellectuals in Northern Ireland, developing a secular and inclusive unionism, transcenting ethnic and religious boundaries. This attempt, to my mind, founders on the rock of the problem of what is meant by Britishness. He fails totally to project any sort of vision appealing to Protestants living in Ireland. An obvious one is on offer, and I can commend it to him: to develop the Irish dimensions of Protestant culture, in the context of the European Union, and forget about the type of imperial intellectual garbage embedded in the British label.
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Copyright © 2004 Roy Johnston