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The de-ulsterisation of Ulster

When I was a child Northern Ireland was rarely off the front pages. That has changed, and thank God for that. Back in the ’90s, I did not expect the peace process to work. This just papers things over, I thought; it has done nothing to solve the fact that the two sides want incompatible things. But the years have gone by and that layer of paper appears to be holding up the whole house.

Why? I am happy it worked, but why has it worked?

Maybe the two sides stopped wanting incompatible things. Or to be accurate, one of them stopped caring so much and the other almost stopped caring at all. In 2011 I saw a few scattered reports about this survey that said 52% of Northern Irish Catholics in the sample wanted to remain in the UK. Given all the blood and ink spilled about that question the reaction to this was curiously muted. Sinn Fein, its raison d’être gone, continued to do pretty well in elections to the NI Assembly, local elections and EU elections.

Today’s Observer has another such story, equally little regarded. Malachi O’Doherty and his subeditor have done their best. They gave it a dramatic headline: “The nationalist identity crisis that could change Northern Ireland for ever”. Yet at time of writing it has a grand total of 54 comments while the umpteenth opinion piece in which a Labour guy with some connection to reality laments the unelectability of Corbyn has 3,882.

Yet Mr O’Doherty’s story records a development that no one would have dared predict twenty years ago:

The easy assumption about politics in Northern Ireland is that it is a contest between two ideas of sovereignty. Unionists see the place as British; nationalists see it as Irish. And the Good Friday Agreement, in effect the constitution – according, as it does, sovereignty rights to each – is the best interim solution to the old quarrel.

This election has signalled a change in the old model of two mirror-image communities at odds with each other
But one of these two blocks is not sticking to the old template. Nationalism – if we can even call it that any more – is diversifying. And the strongest evidence of that is the fact that in the assembly elections Sinn Féin has taken its first reversal in its traditional heartlands of Derry and West Belfast. The party was outflanked on the left by People Before Profit, an anti-austerity party that has also put economic policy before ending partition.

Not just on the left,

And Sinn Féin wasn’t the only nationalist party to suffer. The SDLP lost seats in both cities, too – and one of those, held by Fearghal McKinney, was fought over the question of whether abortion should be legalised. McKinney had allowed himself to be photographed beside strident anti-abortion campaigners – and paid for it.

The issue had risen to unexpected relevance with the prosecution of a young woman who had self-administered abortion pills. Both Sinn Féin and the SDLP are now caught in a dilemma over this issue and stand to lose voters whichever way they move. They can placate the conservative Catholics by holding fast to “pro-life” positions and lose the newly secular liberals; or they can go with them, as the Green party did to its advantage, and lose the religious.

Yet even among conservative Catholics who do want a united Ireland, some have put their moral causes before the constitutional question. In East Derry last week, a group of conservative Catholics campaigned for the DUP as the party most likely to resist abortion reform and the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

I am not trying to get anyone to cheer for the unionist or the nationalist side, just observing that a significant change has quietly taken place.

Farewell the plumèd troops and the big wars
That makes ambition virtue! Oh, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
And O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
The immortal Jove’s dead clamors counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone.

26 comments to The de-ulsterisation of Ulster

  • 2 people before profit MLAs do not de-Ulsterization make!!
    20 might!!

    Maybe “we in coming years will see the indomitable Irishry”

  • matthew chester

    Just wanted to point out that all the Northern Ireland peace process stuff happened shortly after a certain nation went offline. That same time a whole bunch of “red” terrorist movements in Europe went offline as well…

    Coincidence, I am sure.

  • Roue le Jour

    Continuing to fund the IRA after 9/11 and the declaration of the “War on Terror” was too hypocritical even for the US.

  • Mr Ed

    matthew c,

    Funny that about a certain nation going off-line, ex-GRU officer Viktor Suvorov noticed that all the terrorist acts by Commies and Anarchists stopped in Bulgaria when the Peoples’ Republic was set up as WW2 ended.

    And just because some might want to remain the UK doesn’t mean that they don’t hate us in Great Britain as well as many of their neighbours.

    But why should anyone in England want to remain in Union with such a depressing welfare zone?

  • 9/11 greater raised the game for terrorism. I recall thinking at the time that it would depress any IRA thoughts of resurgence. It killed stone dead any lingering US inclination to sympathise with Irish terrorists. It seriously affected how people in NI thought of the collateral dangers of indulging terrorism. It changed the perception of people in NI about what people abroad would think of any resumption of terrorism. The IRA probably sensed that no cover, such as the word islamophobia gives, would be offered to caucasian males whose nominal religion espoused a conventional social morality (even though far less extreme, and not brutally enforced).

    That said, Natalie may be noting a real if only nascent trend. Between cringing to the eurocrats and cringing to the US high-tech companies who outsource work to them, Ireland has visibly little real independence or distinctiveness. It seems unlikely Eire’s people will be offered an Iexit vote, and Ireland is one of the PIIGS, albeit perhaps managing a bit better than the others. NI probably has greater residual ability to decide things for itself.

    The commenters above note the death of the USSR as a factor. This is relevant to some movements whose aficionados notoriously became watermelons in the 90s. It may be less relevant to the IRA – the provisional IRA as I can just remember them still being called in the days when their split from the ‘Official’ (i.e. marxist-controlled) IRA was still remembered. Taking control of their organisation from Moscow was one of their agendas and was carried out. They may of course, still have been getting money and assistance indirectly or without strings.

  • NickM

    Niall nails it. I think it was the Omagh bombings which was the sickener. That and, when they got together, the Protestants and Catholics actually got on. If only this had happened earlier though it happened and we should all be happy it happened. I live near Manchester and the IRA did a number there in ’96. GBP500m in damage (no lives lost thank God). I am glad it is all over. But there is another thing. Apart from some nutters people are becoming less nationalistic so the IRA rationale is finding less traction. This is partly the EU but mostly Ryanair. And the ‘net. And the fact the Irish and the Brits aren’t exactly that different.

  • and, when they got together, the Protestants and Catholics actually got on

    Not sure I would overstate that (but nor would I disagree entirely either). I have (but mostly had) some relations from Ulster, both green and orange, who for the most part lived less that twenty miles from each other. And they did indeed get on just fine when they all intermittently met… in London. Because that was the only place they ever met.

    Over the years, no less than two of my rellies married across the divide, whereupon they more or less immediately left Ulster to have a new life together (in Toronto and Sydney respectively). They didn’t do this because they were worried they would be targeted by nutters or anything like that (this is Ulster circa 2010 I’m talking about, not Pakistan or Egypt), but it was simply a given that as a Prod-Taig couple, they would need to start again somewhere else. And they were probably right.

  • NickM

    Ireland in general has a long history of producing migrants so that doesn’t surprise me. I’m slightly surprised though Perry you didn’t comment on the point about cheap flights.

  • Fraser Orr


    I am trying to work out how to wrangle your Othello quote into a joke on American politics. Othello says this just after he hears the false accusation that his wife Desdemona is a “whore”, and so he laments the loss of all the glory in his life including these wonderful warrior activities.

    I mean after the self seeking aggrandizement of the war on terror, the whole “unfaithful spouse thing” and the line “farewell .. the shrill Trump” I just feel there is something in there that is hysterical, but I just can’t seem to bring it out.

  • Chris

    I think the explanation is simple. By the 1960s, the nationalist struggle in Northern Ireland was over. The IRA was a debating society for old Marxists. The members were no longer young, and didn’t want to restart any violence they had engaged in prior to WWII. Irish Catholics simply wanted equality with the Protestants and started a civil rights movement. Some Protestants though didn’t want to do that and responded with violence. At that point, young people who had never fought before and had their hormones up decided to fight back. And this being the late 1960s and 1970s, became ideological and invented all kinds of ideological nonsense to justify it. Thus when Westminster decided to reform Northern Ireland institutions and policy, they kept fighting anyway.

    By 1995, the young men weren’t so young anymore. And because of earlier reforms, the status of the Irish Catholics had improved so far fewer young men joined the movement. The old men didn’t want to fight anymore, and there weren’t enough young men who did who could stop them. If Northern Ireland of 1968 was like the Northern Ireland of 1995, the Troubles would never have begun anyway. So they wisely decided to make peace while they still had some clout and leverage.

    While this might have been derailed at some point, it wasn’t. Twenty years on, politics have become more or less normalized. There are still nationalists and unionists, but few have any desire to kill or be killed for that belief. Ireland is not the nightmare realm Ian Paisley imagined it to be, and things are no longer so bad for Catholics in Northern Ireland.

  • Mr Ed


    When the NI institutions were set up post the Good Friday agreement, I was doing some legal research for a client on a proposed law change which impacted on his business, but there was no trace of any change, almost the first thing passed was that the new organs set up their expenses and salaries in the new order, including pensions. I told the client this and he was not surprised.

  • Paul Marks

    The struggle continues in Ulster.

    Sometimes violent sometimes not (such as he IRA efforts to control education and local government – gain a stranglehold on culture and history).

    Violent or not violent the conflict in Ulster is not often reported on the big island.

    As for Roman Catholic Unionists.

    There have always been Irish Catholic Unionists (I am not Jewish on both sides – my mother’s side were Irish Catholics by origin, Irish Catholic Unionists).

    But yes there seem to be more Catholic Unionists than there were – and the DUP is not a sectarian Presbyterian party any more (even the leader of it is a Anglican, Church of Ireland, lady) – and yes it has open (rather hidden) Roman Catholic supporters now.

    The IRA (“ourselves alone” or whatever they call themselves) are very upset about all this.

    Oh dear, how sad, never mind.

    But the fight is far from over.

    And, most likely, the level of violence will increase at some point.

  • Paul Marks

    Oh by the way….

    The idea that the “Civil Rights” movement of the 1960s was about equality for Roman Catholics is like saying that the Black Panthers in American cities were a social club.

    “Some Protestants started the violence [in the 1960s] and some Catholics decided to fight back”.

    That is a lie – and it is lies like that (no doubt being taught in the schools right now) that mean that more violence is highly likely.

    The people who “fought back” actually started the fighting – and they LOST.

    The British army was actually sent in to SAVE THEM.

    Yes save the IRA – sorry I mean the “Nationalist Community”. Even in Nationalist areas the IRA was called “I ran away” because of how they run away from the fight THEY STARTED – whether it was the Provos of some other faction is another matter.

    Had the British army not gone in the “Nationalist Community” (who had started the fight) would have been chased out of Ulster.

    The old Irish tradition (on all sides) of “burning out”. Which (again) the “Nationalist Community” started up again in the 1960s

    And how did the IRA (and the INLA and all the other factions) reward the British Army for saving them?

    Why by murdering of course – for 40 years.

    That is their “gratitude”.

    “But Bloody Sunday”.

    For 40 years Martin M (the leader of the IRA in Londonderry and now in the government of Ulster) dined out on firing the shot on Bloody Sunday.

    Was he lying for 40 years – or is lying now?

    Now it is suddenly the Paras who are supposed to have shot people for no reason.

    The only reason Martin did not kill anyone that day (if he did not) is because he missed – he has always been better at fishing than shooting.

    In reality many high ranking people in Ulster (especially outside the cities with their unions and other mess….) were Roman Catholics.

    Generals, commanders, Mayors (including of “Protestant towns”) and so on.

    And it was not Protestants who killed these people.

    They were not killed by Catholics either – unless one things that Vatican II types, indeed Liberation Theology types, are Roman Catholics.

    Which I do not.

  • Paul Marks

    Oh by the way…..

    The only time I have not been allowed on a mostly empty bus was in Belfast.

    “There is no room” said the bus driver – when he heard my English accent. No doubt he was from the “Nationalist Community”.

    So you can shove your “civil rights” where the sun does not shine.

  • Paul Marks

    As for American cities in the 1960s – we could say a lot about them, and what really happened in the North and West (not in the South – where there actually was repression there were hardly any riot).

    But I would called a “racist”.

    Even Chief Parker (who came back from World War II full of zeal to break corruption in the L.A. Police Force – and did, and introduced black police officers) was called a “racist” – for saying the Watts rioters behaved like animals in a zoo (which is very unkind – to animals in a zoo).

    Who cares about the truth – it certainly does not get into the history books or in the media.

    So people have to choke back their anger about being constantly lied about – for years, indeed decades.

    Till they can not choke back their anger any more.

  • Paul Marks

    An old friend of mine (who goes by the name of “Exile”) was one of the first families to be cleared out in the 1960s – his family were not Roman Catholic (they were Church of Ireland – still “Catholic and Apostolic” but not quite the same thing).

    A glance at who was really under attack (especially in areas near the Irish Republic) would show who really “started it”.

    Ethnic Cleansing is fine – as long as it is the “reactionary” (unfashionable) community that is being driven out.

    I suspect (although I do NOT know) that it was the same in American cities.

    After all what community was in the clear majority in the 1950s (over 90% back in the 1940s in most northern cities) and were forced out in the 1960s and 1970s and so on.

    It would be called Ethnic Cleansing – if it were not an unfashionable community being forced out.

    And not only are they forced out (and victims of a savage crime wave for 50 years) but they also have to endlessly apologise for their “crimes” (as if a Polish American in Detroit was responsible for slavery in the South) and their “Privilege”. The “Privilege” of being driven out of the cities they built – with their own government siding with the people who were driving them out (any effort at community self defence – forbidden by their own government).

    People who would (quite rightly) be called RACISTS if it was the other way round. And black people had been driven out of Detroit and other cities – by “Hell Nights” of fire and murder

    I am just sick and tired of this.

    Progressive Detroit (and it was Progressive dominated – and the others were also) being written about as if it was Dixie with the blacks under the jackboot.

    And Ballymena (with its Mayors with Papal Knighthoods) being written about as if Roman Catholics in the 1950s were being burned at the stake after the football match on Saturday afternoons.

    What I hate most about this “Civil Rights” talk is the blarney.

    If someone wants to take over (which is what it is nearly always about) and drive out people they dislike – that is what they should say.

    Not this rubbish about “equal rights” and so on.

    Yet your yes be your yes and your no be your no.

    If you come to kill – say so.

    Do not start a fight and then whine about being “peaceful” if you lose.

    And that is true of all “races”, “ethnic groups” or whatever other nonsense.

    In Ireland it is all people who are all the same mixes of DNA (many of them are from the same families if you go back far enough).

    And even religion is not really important – not any more (not in this way), not for centuries. The people who really care about theology do not care about the fight as much as other people do.

    It is a matter of power, and of loyalty – and the love of fighting.

    Yes the love of fighting.

    It is very common.

  • Paul Marks

    That stuff about “Equal Rights” and “the Unionists started the fighting” really set me off.

    But that is enough for now.

  • Sean MaccCartan

    With respect , it’s difficult to know where to start with Paul Marks. In fact…nah , I just despair.

  • Mr Ed

    Sean M,

    Generally, I start with the facts and seek to apply logic. I am always happy to know more detail. Do not despair, refute and illuminate. A factual error may point to a false premise, and untenable deductions. People may have been lied to, or lie.

    If you do not challenge lies, they may be more likely to prevail.

    If you cannot call out a lie, wherever it started, you are facing either the limits of your knowledge, or the truth.

  • shlomo maistre

    If you cannot call out a lie, wherever it started, you are facing either the limits of your knowledge, or the truth.

    I don’t speak for Sean M, but there’s a bit of a difference between “cannot” and “will not”. Explicating truth costs time and effort. And let’s not mistake the silence born of despair for agreement… unless of course it makes us feel better.

  • Mr Ed

    I did not ask him to call out a lie, and why should he despair? A double triple-broadside from the Sage of Kettering, the ‘Tirpitz of Truth’ himself, is rare enough, but why post to say that you despair of it, when you could post and still point to one error?

    Life costs time and effort.

    Prak died in despair at Arthur Dent.

  • What others said about 9/11 and the reaction to the Omah bombing.

    But also, NI got wealthier. A lot of youths from NI went to university on the mainland and came back (or didn’t) wanting a decent job and a decent house so they could raise kids. They weren’t interested in fighting guerrilla wars. And Belfast became a place where professionals could make money, which is better than scraping by in 1970s living standards.

    Two anecdotes: a girl I knew from NI went to Manchester University in 1997 and went home one holiday to find a roadblock manned by paramilitary youths. She noticed that the young men involved were the complete losers and retards from her high school. These were the sort of people being recruited by the paramilitaries in the late 90s, everyone with a brain was doing something constructive or studying abroad.

    A guy who became my one of my best friends arrived from NI to Manchester University in 1996 chock-full of IRA propaganda, and spent the first year raging against injustices and “the British”. He was absolutely gutted to discover nobody gave a single fuck, and rather than enter an argument with him just agreed because they had no idea what he was on about, let alone a desire to argue. He realised that what was the entire world to him back in NI meant nothing to those outside: they simply didn’t care*. A few years later, he didn’t care either.

    *Incidentally, a Russian chap called me up the other day asking what people in the West are saying about Russia. He was rather crestfallen to hear me say “Nothing: they don’t care about Russia”. Other than a few headlines and discussions on geo-political blogs, the average Joe or Jane doesn’t care two hoots about Russia. Whereas Russians – via their state propaganda – obsess daily about the US and the West. You don’t mind too much when the girl of your dreams is screaming and shouting at you: that means she cares. But when she ignores you? Boy, that hurts.

  • Patrick Crozier

    A lot of what Paul says is bang on the money.

    The story of August 1969 is the story of two riots. The first took place in the Bogside area of Londonderry and led to the eviction of the police. Had the British state at that point said: “Off you go and join the Republic of Ireland.” it would have saved itself a lot of trouble. Bloody Sunday would never have happened. The second riot took place in Belfast with the aim of diverting police manpower from the riot in Londonderry. It began with the deaths of a couple of Ulster Britons. It ended with the Ulster Irish rioters being utterly crushed by their neighbours. It was at this point that the army was deployed.

    Or to put it another way, the Ulster Troubles were solved and then the army went in.

    The documentary evidence for civil rights abuses is thin. Richard Rose, the only academic to look at the question in any detail in Governing without Consensus, found only marginal differences in, for instance, the allocation of council housing.

    The Ulster Irish did not become nationalists in 1969. They had always voted Nationalist. The Civil Rights Campaign was simply an attempt to destabilise the Stormont Government that succeeded way beyond the dreams of its founders.

    Paul Kingsley’s Londonderry Revisited is fascinating on this subject and debunks myth after myth.

    As to Martin McGuinness’s bullet, I’ve never heard of this. I was a Unionist researcher back in the day so if it was doing the rounds I should have done. I can only imagine this was the round allegedly fired at the army some distance from where the main shooting took place and appears in the Widgery Report. The question is did it really happen? The British army in 1972 was not above making things up, for instance by clumsily planting nail bombs on dead nationalists.

    On Natalie’s substantive point, it is depressing to see the return of puritanical politics. When Stiff Little Fingers wrote Bloody Sunday they weren’t taking aim at the security forces they were complaining that there was nothing to do on a Sunday.

    It was also depressing to see the destruction of the moderate nationalist and unionist parties after the peace agreement.

    Also beware what you wish for. In the 1960s there was an apparent move to normal politics. The nationalists agreed to become the official opposition at Stormont while the Northern Ireland Labour Party came to close to becoming the second largest party. As we know it did not end well.

  • AFT

    @Patrick Crozier.

    Taking August 1969 as a starting point is pushing things. Burntollet (to take one example) was in January 1969.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Patrick Crozier writes,

    It was also depressing to see the destruction of the moderate nationalist and unionist parties after the peace agreement.

    Yes. A bitter reward for having been the ones who stuck to peaceful persuasion.

    On the other hand, I take some comfort from the thought that the vote for the parties who were in bed with paramilitaries only really went up after they had mostly renounced violence. That suggests that people approved politically of hardline nationalism or unionism but hitherto had been put off by the violence.

    And now the nationalists in particular don’t seem to really warrant that description any more – yet still vote Sinn Fein. Nowt so queer as folk!