A History Of The Ulster Unionist Party: Protest, Pragmatism and Pessimism
Manchester University Press
reviewed by Michael Morgan
27th July 2004
Loyalist academics have come a long way, though not nearly long enough. This purports to be an overall history of the Ulster Unionist Party from its origins in the opposition to Irish Home Rule in the latter half of the 19th Century right up until the Northern Ireland assembly election of November 2003, which saw the party displaced as the leading force within the wider ‘ethnic-religious’ community of Ulster Protestantism.
Although a structural analysis of what unionism is about is promised the book doesn’t amount to much more than a chronological telling of the same old story – albeit from a distinctive unionist bias. The book is marred by injudicious language: as if the author can’t restrain himself from having digs at political opponents. His reference to nationalist politics as ‘aboriginal’ politics is just being rude. Most of the times his arguments are just irritating – the mass expulsions from the Belfast shipyards in 1912 were in reprisal (though he’s careful not to say legitimate reprisal) to an earlier attack on protestant school children at Castledawson. It’s just that niggling sense of trying to shift responsibility. Discrimination, it turns out, was not about reinforcing ideas of protestant supremacy but was about managing the fear of protestant communities being surrounded and cut off. Like an alcoholic unionism blames everybody else for its own mess – never itself. If only Irish nationalism hadn’t maintained a ‘threat’ against the Northern Ireland state unionism may have evolved from its popular, sectarian base to a more mature, liberal variety. If only the British government had insisted on central planning to oversee the welfare state provisions the unionist backwoods men may not have had the opportunity to discriminate so completely. Poor, hapless Terence O’Neill receives special contempt as the man who set off thirty years of troubles through his own mismanagement of the Northern Ireland state.
On the big question of political and social solidarity the author speaks of an ‘Ulster National Identity’. This emerged alongside the unionist movement, a consequence of political mobilization as much as its primary motivation. He stresses its ‘ethnic-religious’ composition but doesn’t seem to dwell on its most salient characteristic: its sectarianism. Maybe that’s because its sectarianism undermines its ‘national’ status. For there has never been a homogenous protestant nation in Northern Ireland, rather there is a patchwork quilt of protestant and catholic populations living side by side, cheek by jowl. This social formation is inherently unstable: where a small majority of protestants just about dominate a large minority of catholics. Northern Ireland is therefore a sectarian state, not a national one.
The blurb on the back cover hails the book as being ‘an important and well-researched work based on primary source research’. I take this to mean original work but actually most of the references are to secondary sources. That each chapter is followed by a massive bank of footnotes is meaningless when many of these footnotes are to no more than newspaper reports in the Belfast Telegraph and other local papers. No bibliography is included, so we can’t see the gaps in his reading. There is much more written material on the republican side of the conflict and I could list at least half a dozen major studies on the emergence of the IRA in the 1970s; so why then does he cite Malachi O’Doherty’s singular take on the Falls curfew of 1970 on its own, as if this is settled fact? This in fact opens him to the charge of ‘selective quotation’.
Bad timing or simply bad luck has meant
that Walker’s book will be compared to the recent Trimble biography by
Dean Godson, and unfortunately the comparison will be a negative one.
Godson has raised the bar on writing on unionist politics and this book
falls far short.