The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland – Realities and Challenges edited by John Wilson Foster and William Beattie Smith

The other evening I was having dinner in London with three liberals and when the subject of Northern Ireland happened to come up, all of them said that of course within the near future, Irish unification would take place.

I said this was not my opinion, which surprised them. They wondered how I could be so oblivious to the way the world is going; so at odds with the progressive consensus.

And I was unable to think, on the spur of the moment, of any arguments for the continued Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland which might have the slightest impact on my companions.

In his introduction to this collection of essays, John Wilson Foster laments that my inarticulacy is widely shared:

“What swells unionist alarm is the absence of influential support for the pro-Union cause from anywhere outside the Northern Irish pro-Union political parties. Irish republicanism (by which I mean nationalism that actively seeks a united separate Ireland) suffers no such political privation; it enjoys assent and promotion around the world even from those who know nothing about Ireland north or south…

“Reviewing a Sean O’Casey autobiography in 1945, George Orwell asked: ‘Why is it that the worst extremes of jingoism and racialism have to be tolerated when they come from an Irishman?’ His answer was ‘England’s bad conscience… It is difficult to object to Irish nationalism without seeming to condone centuries of English tyranny and exploitation.’ Northern Irish unionism has unjustifiably inherited this dilemma.”

Hence the production of this admirable collection of essays. Its 21 authors throw much light on various aspects of the problem, but less on how to solve it.

Indeed, an earlier version of the collection was published in 1995, without, so far as I know, doing more than to make existing supporters of the Union better informed.

As Foster remarks, within Northern Ireland itself, landowners, and senior figures in business and the professions, who used to make the case for the Union, have generally fallen silent:

“For some decades, public defence of the Union has cascaded down the social scale. It has now fallen through classless academia and come to rest mainly with loyalists (i.e. working-class unionists), whose reflex is to assert rather than articulate the Union. And they are targets for those who wish to denigrate the Union and dismiss the culture of unionism as all bonfires and marching bands.”

The London media generally feels “no warmth or enthusiasm” for the Union. The cultural riches of Ireland, wonderful poets from Yeats to Heaney, add lustre to Irish nationalism, whatever reservations those writers may actually have expressed.

The cultural riches of the British isles don’t count in the same way, are indeed discounted. Some Remainers wanted quite consciously to reject Britishness and to declare their European identity, and felt bereaved when they were told they could not remain in the European Union.

In vain Boris Johnson pointed out to them that it was still feasible for them to learn French and German if they wish – two languages of which the teaching had actually declined in our schools while we were in the EU.

Nationalism of every kind includes a strange process by which the bogus comes to be seen as genuine. The House of Windsor has been brilliant at doing this. We observe with pride an immaculate ceremonial which satisfies our craving for ancient splendour, much of which was invented between 1901 and 1910 under the joint patronage of Edward VII and the Daily Mail, founded in 1896 and eager for royal pageantry with which to fill its pages and sell newspapers.

Arthur Aughey remarks in his essay, The Idea of the Union, first printed in the 1995 version of this book, that it was at about the same time that the Union commanded close attention:

“The question of the Union was one which for two decades either side of the turn of the century concentrated the mind of the entire British Establishment and encapsulated the preoccupations of an empire. It brought forth a vast literature on the value of the Union as a political idea. Like conservatives in 1789, unionists in both Great Britain and Ireland had been ‘alarmed into reflection’. They were forced to make intelligible that which hitherto had been instinctive and natural.”

When the convulsions of that time were over, the Ulster Unionists found they had both won and lost:

“They had been able to prevent their absorption into a narrow and authoritarian Catholic, nationalist state. What they had not been able to assert convincingly, and what they had been unable to make the British Government in London fully acknowledge, was their full and unequivocal membership of the United Kingdom. After 1920 Unionists were cast back upon their own resources. They depended on their capacities and strength of will alone to ensure that Northern Ireland remained a part of the Union. What ensued was a dialectic of stubborn self-righteousness within Northern Ireland between Unionist and Nationalist.”

He wants to get beyond this self-righteous Unionism to one which is founded on equal citizenship:

“The idea of the Union is the willing community of citizens united not by creed, colour or ethnicity but by a recognition of the authority of the Union. Its relevant concept is citizenship and not nation.”

Aughey asserts at one point that there is “no such thing as the British nation”, and there are “only British citizens who happen to be English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish and some who would be none of these”.

This seems to me to be plain wrong. There is a British nation, comprising not only the four home nations, but people from all over the world who have chosen to live here, and to become British citizens.

As Henry Hill remarks in his contribution to this book, entitled The Re-emergence of Devosceptic Unionism,

“an underlying sense of nationhood is the essential cement of any long-term political union – especially if it cannot avail itself of near-universal elite buy-in as the EU can.”

Hill challenges, as ConHome readers will know, the fatuous assumption that the only way to deal with any failure of devolved government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is to devolve yet more powers.

Brexit is the beginning not the end of making the positive case for the British nation. I have sometimes done this in conversation about the Union with Scotland, contending that if it were to end, both England and Scotland would be diminished, becoming narrower and less generous places.

In Northern Ireland, as various contributors to this volume remark, there are almost certainly many people who are content to remain part of the United Kingdom, but have no words in which to express that preference.

A generous Unionism, of a kind which can be commended at dinner even to London liberals, requires a generous understanding of Britishness, and that in turn cannot be the creation of politicians alone, but must depend, as any nation does, on poets, novelists, historians and essayists.