Monday 4 May 2009

Thoughts on Unionist Identity

Deviating from strictly European topics, this will be a post with a few musings on Unionist identity based on a few things I have read, since Josef has asked me to after my last blog on Northern Ireland.

Given that I still have a lot of reading and work to do on the subject (1880-1925), and the fact that it doesn't really fit on to my course (it was sort of tacked on: we haven't done much on identity or on politics in Ireland pre-1920s) this is very much a work in progress, and if you see were I've gone horribly wrong, don't be afraid to say.

Unionism has changed as a political force and an identity over time:

- 19th Century unionism: the Union was the best way to improve Ireland. The focus was mainly on the material and cultural benefits rather than on a separate identity, though there was an emerging "Ulster" or a Protestant identity, it wasn't as developed as it is today.
- 20th Century: as unionism developed its identity and thought, its argument changed to that of bad London government was preferable to good Dublin government. If government was to be determined by sentiment, then the growing unionist identity wanted to be governed from London.

Unionism was a status quo political position, so before 1885 there was no separate unionist political force at Westminster. However, a number of changes before 1885 created political pressure for unionism to be represented more separately, just as nationalism was in the Irish Parliamentary Party. Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland (1869), the National League, Land League, Ballot Act 1872 (weakened landlords' influence over their tenants' votes). Though it should be noted that economics could play a bigger part than Protestant identity at the time - an agricultural depression led to many Protestants in what is now NI joining the Land League, despite it being seen as a nationalist movement, and despite a campaign of counter-demonstrations by the Orange Order starting in November 1880 (unrest only ended by the Land Act 1880).

A unionist group developed in Westminster when the Irish Tories felt that the Conservative leadership was sacrificing its interests for in its dealings with the Liberals over the Redistribution Bill (which could weaken the Irish Tory and Liberal Unionist position in Ireland through franchise reform and electoral boundary revision). An alliance with local Liberal Unionists, though weak at first, strengthened its position. (Parnell's IPP had grown to the extent it was wiping out the Liberal party in Ireland).

This would be an electoral division between unionism and the rest of the UK, which one strand of unionism wanted to reverse under direct rule (and was unsuccessful).

Though the Home Rule Crises of 1886 and 1893 lead to the formation of several unionist groups, these generally didn't last long or have a big enough following to be rivals to the Orange Order or the Irish Unionist Alliance (unionists in Parliament). Though the Orange Order was far from having universal Protestant membership, it did shape a unionist identity - with Orange songs, festivals, etc. and a story of the Glorious Revolution where Ulster was a launching pad for taking back the rest of Ireland.

Unionist identity was divided, mainly between a landed (more southern) class, who favoured Anglicization yet also had an Irish-British identity (like a Scottish-British identity), and a more Ulster-based identity, which existed in the lower classes in Ulster. The Irish Tory/landed tradition had financial and political resources were allied with the numerically stronger Ulster-based group for much of the period 1880-1910, though there was a tension between the 2 identities.

It's hard to track unionist identity's development, as it mainly reacted to nationalism and worked within the political environment it found itself in (Conservative alliance, pro-Imperialist popular sentiment). Unionism's commitment to the Empire during the first 2 H.R. Crises may not have been the same as the Conservatives. 3 main unionist views of the Empire:

- Ireland's position must be maintained - at the moment it's part of a governing race, and shouldn't be reduced to colonials.
- The Empire provides the best (non-parochial) expression of Irish patriotism.
- The Empire is better than Home Rule, but Independence would be better than home rule also: based on the feeling that a British-backed Parnellite government would leave the minority with less chance to defend its interest than they would have under independence.

[I don't have much more time, so I'll just give a vague overview:]

- Mass democratisation (extension of the franchise) lead to a higher degree of politicisation of the lower classes (and increased the importance of the geographical spread/concentration of each identity, as electoral success depended increasingly on them).
- Removal of the Lord's veto in 1909 made Home Rule more likely, and increased the need for mass mobilisation. The political momentum behind nationalism at this stage and the playing of the Ulster card, led to the assertion of the Ulster unionist identity over the more pan-Ireland unionist identity - and support for partition.
- Partition and the border increased the separation both politically and identity-wise.
- The self-determination question and the concentration of unionists in the north-east meant that the Ulster-based identity laid claim to self-determination, arguing that there is no reason why the island should be a single political unit.

It's not a great post - didn't have much time to write it - and you'll [Josef] probably be more interested in more modern unionist identity (isn't UK nationalism a hard enough topic?). It's a very large and complex topic, so I clearly haven't done it justice, but hopefully that helped.

(The main book I've used is Alvin Jackson's The Ulster Party, but I'd also recommend the writings of Paul Bew and Patrick Buckland).


  1. Cheers, Eurocentric - I appreciate your effort!

    This is of great interest to me - my area of research is nationalism and identity in Europe.

    I gave my presentation on British and "European" nationalism today, and it went very well! I was actually able to draw a lot from the debates over on TH!NK ABOUT IT.

    Good luck with your presentation tomorrow! It sounds like you've got it in the bag.


  2. Thanks. That's great to hear; I'm quite interested in it too, though unfortuneately I haven't really had the time to read up on it that much.

    The presentation went ok; no complaints.

    Have you had any insights into British and European nationalism/identity?

  3. Glad to hear the presentation went well!

    I did discover a couple of things that interested me. Check out the 66th Eurobarometer general report:

    Page 66. In general, Europeans are fairly proud of their nationality. Cyprus is up the top, and Germany is at the bottom (a German student gave an excellent presentation explaining the complicated way nationalism is viewed in Germany post-WWII), but an average of 80-90% of Europeans are proud of their nationality. The thing to note is that the UK is NOT the most nationalistic country in Europe.


    Flip forwards to page 116 - "European Pride." Britain is right at the bottom. It's really striking: 49% of British people do not consider themselves to be European.

    Of course, this just confirms something I'd thought was true anyway - but it's interesting nonetheless!