On the OU Facebook page today we’ve linked to this piece from the Irish Times on the Covenant, viewing it from a southern (and thus at least soft-nationalist) perspective. One passage caught my eye:
“[The Covenant] was a huge, strictly disciplined and peaceful tribal mobilisation that played on strong religious sentiment and fears of “Rome Rule”, on economic uncertainty, and on genuine affection among the middle class for Empire.”
You’ll notice that missing from that list of, if you like, ‘explanations’ for unionism is the simple fact that unionists of all classes considered themselves British and were loyal to the union.
Why would you go to the trouble of trying to explain unionism and leave out the working classes, Britishness or the union itself?
You can see this sort of thinking whenever Sinn Féin starts trying to win unionists round by outlining ways in which their ‘identity’ will be protected inside a greater Ireland. Like the article’s author, they’re operating on a world view that tries to explain unionism purely in terms of cultural identity, economic self-interest and fear of the unknown, rather than face up to the fact that unionists don’t just have a unionist identity but a British one, every bit as keenly felt, legitimate and sincere as its Irish republican counterpart.
This isn’t unique to the IT, it is something I’ve encountered as a history student too. It seems to be a common assumption that nationalism is somehow people’s default state. Anything that contradicts it has to be forensically analysed, whilst nationalism itself is taken to be much more self-explanatory. People who act contrary to what nationalism should dictate, such as Indians who served the Raj or the Algerian harkis, are given all manner of justifications for their actions that often do not include simple loyalty to, or belief in, a trans-national or imperial project or state.
Since any reading of unionism that denies Britishness leaves unionists in the same position as those Indians, unionists fall prey to the same tendency to marginalise and derogate genuine sympathy or loyalty in favour of less noble, more prosaic and material motivations.
Where such loyalty is conceded in the IT piece, it is to the anachronistic and (to the modern reader) illegitimate ‘empire’ rather than the democratic union, much less the British nation. It is also made falsely class-based to boot, as if working-class unionism did not exist, and patronised as ‘affection’. Who on earth would say that the likes of Collins, Brugha and De Valera entertained an ‘affection’, however genuine, for Irish nationalism?
The author talked about making sure that both sides lent the other’s position ‘at least’ parity of esteem on Ulster Day. A shame then, that they didn’t quite manage it themselves.
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