Alasdair McKillop is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh and contributor to the online current affairs magazine Scottish Review. He is a co-founder of The Rangers Standard and contributor to the forthcoming book Bigotry, Scotland and Football (Edinburgh University Press, 2013).
Back in October I wrote an article for the online current affairs magazine Scottish Review. It was prompted by comments attributed to Dr David Hume, director of services at the Grand Lodge of Ireland, when speaking at an Ulster Covenant event in Glasgow.
Among other things, he was quoted as saying the SNP should ‘extend the referendum to the Ulster Scots’. Not only would this have been unworkable in practice but it was a suggestion distinctly out with the boundaries of mainstream discussion on the shape of the referendum. Hume’s comments followed disappointing interventions by substantial Ulster Unionist figures in the shape of Lords Kilclooney and Trimble.
I concluded my piece by making the following suggestion: ‘As a simple measure of the importance of the importance bestowed on links to Scotland, the next Ulster unionist intervention should strive to demonstrate a confident grasp of some of the fundamental realities of the debate.’ I was pleased to discover that Open Unionism had written to all pro-Union MLAs as a result of this piece and that responses had been received from Jim Allister, leader of Traditional Unionist Voice, and Mike Nesbitt, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.
Allister’s piece outlined the links between Scotland and Northern Ireland, both historical and contemporary. Despite having something of a checklist feel to it, the conviction was clear and blunders were mercifully avoided. I was mildly optimistic that this intervention might herald a period of restrained, constructive, even forward-thinking dialogue between those in Scotland and Northern Ireland who value the union.
Recent events, however, seriously jeopardise the chances of Ulster unionists finding a receptive audience here in Scotland: what was already a difficult task has been made to look almost insurmountable. Needless to say, the violence associated with the flag protests provides a timely pretext for those who have no desire to permit those of an Ulster unionist persuasion to contribute to the debate. It needs to be impressed upon those in East Belfast and elsewhere that burning cars equals burning political capital and goodwill, not only in Scotland but in the rest of the United Kingdom. What were not exactly abundant resources before December 2012 are being squandered at a time when the prospect of Scottish independence is proving to be a more substantial threat to the union (albeit using very different methodologies) than decades of republican warfare.
Anyone with even a limited degree of sympathy for the working-class Protestant community in Northern Ireland has been forced to look on in dismay as the social media generation put on a new production of ‘Drumcree: A Saga of Repeated Foot-Shooting’. The same organisational tactics that were used to great effect during the Arab Spring have, in this case, created a leadership vacuum into which has stepped men of the background of Jim Dowson and the calibre of Willie Frazer.
Frazer has the aura of a man whose creator aggressively dismissed the notion of charisma, but to an outside audience these two men seem to be the closest the protests have to a leadership cadre. We are yet to see the emergence of a convincing figure that can articulate the concerns of the protesters for a wider audience but also, in turn, make the protesters aware of the implications of their actions in a UK-wide political context. Until that point, footage of rioters attacking the police will continue to dominate.
Even experienced commentators have at times seemingly failed to reflect the complexity of the situation. Ed Curran, writing in the Belfast Telegraph, correctly highlighted a culture of disaffection but it felt like there was a nod towards some of the more unsatisfactory explanations for Protestant working-class community decline. He wrote, for example: “Long gone are the days when the forbearers of today’s protesters benefited from Northern Ireland’s now-defunct industrial boom in the engineering and textile factories and shipyards.”
Notions of industrial cannon-fodder and discrimination negating education have been convincingly challenged by Gareth Mulvenna, a visiting research fellow at Queen’s University, in a recent article published in the Irish Studies Review. He argues that there is evidence of a strong emphasis on educational attainment in pre-Troubles Protestant working-class communities and that this was part of a civic self-confidence buttressed not only by employment in traditional industries but the social networks that flourished in the communities that depended on them. Part of his conclusion his worth quoting at length:
“Another trauma experienced by the loss of the civic fabric that existed in the era prior to the Troubles was that the Protestant working class became cut adrift from the wider working-class communities of the UK. Previously the Protestant working class could see their day-to-day hopes reflected in the experiences of the working-class communities in similar industrial cities in the rest of the UK. When the Troubles were visited on society in Northern Ireland the ordinary experiences that had previously been shared with the industrial working class across the UK incrementally fell by the wayside and the Protestant working class in Belfast began to feel alienated from the constitutional arrangement that had been a source of increasing succour in the years following the Second World War.”
In Northern Ireland, the fragmentation of the UK working class is exacerbated by cultural and political pressures that are far more intense than elsewhere. Despite winning the war (do they know?) people feel like they are still losing battles. Exactly how the prospect of Scottish independence is playing into the anxieties that underpin the protests is difficult to gauge but it seems likely that socio-economic and domestic political and cultural concerns are of more immediacy.
Some commentators have suggested it is part of a wider mosaic of concerns that is contributing to a communal sense of vulnerability. Gareth Mulvenna argued as much in an article for Comment is Free. He wrote: ‘”The prospect of Scottish independence is a prospect that haunts most politically sophisticated unionists in Northern Ireland. If Alex Salmond gets his way, the “narrow sea” could become a vast ocean.” Or, to put it another way, the intimate strangers might become simply strangers. The yellow-brick road to London seems to loop north through Glasgow for many unionists and Scottish independence might trigger an existential crisis that Ulster unionism gives no indication of being able to handle.
Imitations of the protests here in Scotland have been mentioned but seem to have an ephemeral quality. They are allegedly of a more anti-independence persuasion but taking inspiration from the protests in Northern Ireland is a misguided place to start. One protestor told Gerry Braiden, The Herald’s local government correspondent and himself from Northern Ireland, that the pro-Union Better Together campaign didn’t represent their views. The same article quoted a Facebook poster who wrote: “[Nicola] Sturgeon is forgetting her history and needs reminding. We’re standing firm with Ulster as we have since 1912.”
The apparent transplantation of the protests and the similarity in their justification again testifies to a symbiotic relationship between Scotland and Northern Ireland that cannot be conveniently wished away. It is likely that those taking part in protests in Scotland also feel a similar sense of alienation and disenfranchisement, even if the dynamics are not exactly the same. While energy is being channelled into futile protests, developments elsewhere might well offer an exciting opportunity to re-evaluate the centuries-long process of cross-fertilisation between Scotland and Ireland. Glasgow City Council’s plans for a memorial to the Irish famine will surely be the catalyst for discussion about Irish influences on Scottish society at a time when sectarianism still has the capacity to provoke unrivalled controversy.
It remains to be seen whether the recent events in Northern Ireland will distort the shape of the forthcoming debate. One notable development at the end of 2012 deserves to be highlighted was the support of the group Rangers Till I Die Northern Ireland for the proposed famine memorial. This is exactly the sort of magnanimous gesture unionist should be striving to emulate.
It is hard to envision a solution to the current trouble that doesn’t result in what feels like yet another defeat for the communities involved. Where is the leader able to impress on the protesters and their communities that these manifestations of discontent look nothing short of abysmal on television screens in the rest of the UK? No one with any credibility seems to be laying the groundwork for a facing saving compromise, never mind something more substantial that will address the key underlying issues. The idea of a Unionist Forum seems to be exciting no one in particular while the coalescing it implies has been expertly critique by Colin Reid and opposed by the likes of UUP MLA John McCallister.
Peter Geoghegan, writing in The Scotsman, contended, probably correctly, that a proper opposition at Stormont would be more useful than a forum. It is hard to escape the conclusion that unionism and loyalism are in intellectual and organisational disarray at a critical juncture in the history of the union their adherents see threatened by the removal of a flag. Decisive action and clear-headed purpose is required if they are to contribute in a meaningful way to the debate on Scottish independence and, by extension, the future of the United Kingdom.Share on Facebook