by C. Desmond Greaves
Labour Monthly, August 1974
No nation, it is said, can tolerate a Vendee. But with what sense of justification did the Vendeans press into service religious fanaticism in defence of the privileges and fetishes of a doomed feudal order? What if England or some other powerful state had repulsed the republican Hoche and guaranteed anachronism in perpetuity? Would the catchcries of faith and king remain recognisable today? Or would the essence, counter-revolution backed by a foreign power, have manifested itself in as many layers of false consciousness as there were acts of opportunism to preserve by reformation?
These speculations are prompted by the publication of a serious study of the Northern Ireland Unionist Party,* by John Harbinson of the Belfast College of Business Studies, who appears to be that rara avis the non-political Northern Irelander, a conservative with a small c. His book is an elaboration of a college thesis, and suffers from some of the defects of the genre, but for solid information about the Unionist Party it is highly recommended.
Admittedly he commits inaccuracies which arise from the quality of history taught in the state schools of the six counties. On page 1, after citing Cuchullain the Ulsterman’s wars against the Gaels to emphasise the historical separateness of Ulster, he asserts that the Scandinavians ‘conferred upon the north…. a name, the Gaelic Ulaidh.’ In fact of course the name is of great antiquity and occurs, though in a corrupt form, in Ptolemy’s geography.
There are faulty generalisations too. Thus, on page 3: ‘the event which completed the separation of Ulster from the rest of Ireland was the Act of Union of 1800 which convinced the southern Irish that the people of England were knaves, fools and political pirates.’ He is right of course in the implication that the beginning of Unionism was the legislative union, and elsewhere he makes it clear that the Unionist Party was established to defend it when it came under attack. But he should know that the purpose of the Union was the simultaneous restraint and consolidation of one of the most blood-thirsty counter-revolutions in the history of those islands, and that the Orangemen were opposed to it. They preferred from the outset that, while England guaranteed the power, they should exercise it.
He concedes that Ulster’s ‘radicals and liberals’ had previously stood for national independence, and attributes their abandonment of this position to ‘the shattering blow all Irish radicals received in 1798’, that is to say a dilemma forced upon them by the fury of the counter-revolution. The predominant forces became the Conservative Party which in the fifties and sixties he notes, ‘forged strong links with the Orange Order.’ The enormous importance of this institution, which provided the shock troops of counter-revolution in 1798, is recognised from the start. It would indeed not be far out to say that Unionism in the last analysis amounts to Conservativism plus the Orange Order.
And it would not be amiss to recall that the reactionary activities of that organisation were not confined to Ulster. On June 4, 1833, at Lord Kenyon’s residence, the Duke of Cumberland presiding, British Orangemen heard Colonel Fairman’s report of his recruiting tour in Scotland. Many fresh lodges were started, and two years later sectarian riots did their work against Chartism. The Order was banned for conspiring against the accession of Queen Victoria on the ground that she was a woman. But that did not prevent its being armed against the Young Irelanders in Dublin when revolution threatened once more. Mr Harbinson writes:
Many of the leading county families, such as the Coles and the Archdales, were also leaders of the Orange Order, so that there was in west Ulster an identity of interest, to put it no higher, between the Order and the Conservative organisations.
No Catholic can become a member of the Orange Order. Mr Harbinson describes it as ‘an exclusively Protestant organisation dedicated to the defence of civil and religious liberty and loyalty to the British Crown and Empire.’ But in chapter 8 he notes that:
the Orange institution is extremely offensive to the Roman Catholic section of the population, and second, the institution has been involved directly or indirectly in most of the major riots in Northern Ireland since the 1830s.
He finds it ‘perplexing and paradoxical’ that this image of sectarianism and violence is at variance with its self-stated principles. The question is of course whose ‘civil and religious liberty’ does it defend.
The author gives a businesslike account of the foundation of the modern Unionist Party in the eighties. Again he notes that ‘the emergence of Orangeism as a political force in 1885 is the second factor which contributed to a coherent Unionist movement.’ Others have noted the generous subscriptions given by landlords and Tories alarmed by the successes of Parnell and the Land League, for the refurbishing of decrepit Orange Halls and for promoting membership. The crucial meeting of Conservatives and Orangemen took place on January 8, 1886, at the Constitutional Club in Belfast, and the Party was founded on the principles of total opposition to Home Rule in any form, firm rule in Ireland and the ‘suppression of disloyalty’. This was the year of the first Home Rule Bill. Gladstone had a simple answer. On April 8, he said:
I cannot allow it to be said that a Protestant minority in Ulster or elsewhere is to rule the question at large for Ireland, but I think that the Protestant minority should have its wishes considered to the utmost practicable extent in any form they may assume.
In other words minorities had rights, but they were not equal to the rights of majorities. Let us remember that the Catholics of present-day Northern Ireland, who are fighting for the rights appropriate to a minority, which they lack, are still a part of that majority of the people of Ireland that was recognised by Gladstone.
Backed by Randolph Churchill who was deliberately playing the ‘Orange card’ and inciting riot and disturbance as effectively as Edward Carson a generation later, the Orange Order grew by leaps and bounds. Over the next quarter century it fed on fears and prejudices. By 1911, says Mr Harbinson:
The Ulster Unionist Party not only had achieved a tight and efficient political organisation, but it had organised an alliance with the Orange Order and the parliamentary Unionist Clubs Council which made it a formidable obstacle to Home Rule.
The detached academic prose of Mr Herbinson cannot do justice to the sheer impudence with which the Unionist Party defied the will of parliament to have reform in Ireland. Nor does his careful review of the Party’s structure and organisation show the strands of British influence. Was not the British Conservative Party termed the Conservative and Unionist Association? And did not the arch-apostle of Ulster Unionism, Carson, at the end of his days bitterly reflect:
What a fool I was! I was only a tool, and so was Ireland and so was Ulster. I was only a tool in the political game that was to bring the Conservatives back to power.
For the Unionists went the length of running arms from Germany, with the assistance of F.E. Smith and other Tories. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff knew all about it, while the navy stood by and failed to intercept. When orders were sent to the Curragh to send troops, the officers resigned their commissions and the government climbed down. Some of us have wondered whether anything similar happened in May 1974. And if the ‘Ulster Workers’ Council’ may yet repeat Carson’s words of disillusionment.
English historians all deny it, but I have long been convinced that the true makers of British policy intended partition. The Unionists wanted the Union. The nationalists wanted independence. By tolerating Unionist illegalities and persecuting the nationalist resistance, they set the scene for the polarisation of the Irish nation. That polarisation was institutionalised in partition. The peculiarity of partition is not the obvious one that it keeps the nationalist minority within a Unionist state, but that it keeps the nationalist majority out. Within the framework of partition the same grisly process continues.
The Unionist Party ruled the six counties uninterrupted for fifty years. Mr Harbinson admits the force of the nationalist charges against it: religious discrimination, electoral legerdemain, draconic repression. He sees the cause of the present crisis in attempts by Unionist extremists to prevent the rapprochement with the Republic begun by Terence O’Neill, and resist subsequent concessions to the demands of the civil rights movement. One governmental dilemma is: ‘What strategy will retain power and therefore the Union and at the same time placate the minority?’ Another is ‘how to please the (Unionist) Party and the United Kingdom government.’ He thinks military rule, power-sharing and direct rule from Westminster equally unworkable. But if a Unionist leader were to make ‘a serious and determined effort to change the image of his Party so that it would embrace both religious communities,’ then he would have hopes of his Party’s surviving.
But can any face-lift solve the problem? The Unionist Party may be smashed in the parliamentary sense. It may no longer be able to form an administration. The British government will not allow it to control its opponents by the agency of mass murder. But the Orange Order is still very much present, and so are the paramilitary organisations. They are increasingly linked with ultra-right forces in Britain. Right-wing Labour and coalition governments in Britain and the Republic for the moment make improbable any radical rethinking of the relations between Britain and Ireland. The most that is to be hoped for is that sufficient will be done to end discrimination , misuse of the army, and internment to secure peace with the republicans. In conditions of peace and extending civil rights the logic of class would begin to loosen the Unionist organisations. The process would take place against a background of intensifying capitalist crisis when accelerating changes are possible. But it would require time.
For the Unionist Party represents an alliance of oligarchies cemented by sectarianism. Mr Harbinson gives a potted biography of every Unionist MP who ever sat at Stormont. From the information he provides it is possible to deduce some startling figures. Of 167 names listed, 57 belong to company directors, 11 to farmers, 8 to members of titled families, 62 to university graduates, 28 to army officers eight of which were at Sandhurst, 16 to former public school-boys, 36 to persons at one time active in municipal politics, only two persons born outside of Northern Ireland, and (wait for it) 125 to members of the Orange Order. Persons of working class origin are the smallest handful. Apart from the directors and proprietors, the members were academics or lawyers.
Looked at from the top this is a conspiracy of the upper middle classes to use religion to preserve their comforts and privileges. The trade unionists who in the wild days of May 1974 dared the missiles of a deluded mob to assert the right to work and the unity of the workers, were challenging this conspiracy in the way it must be challenged.
*The Ulster Unionist Party 1882-1973, John F. Harbinson, Blackstaff, 252pp. £2