The Ulster Question

God’s own province

Preface: I thought that I should add a brief glossary at the start, for people who may be reading from different parts of the world and may not be familiar with Irish political terminology, to ensure there is no misunderstanding, as many terms – such as Ulster and Northern Ireland – are commonly used interchangeably and often incorrectly.

Gaelic: indigenous Irish people; typically Catholic.

Nationalists: people who believe in an all-Ireland republic, free from British control; typically Gaelic and Catholic.

Northern Ireland: a six-county statelet in the northeast of Ireland, belonging to the UK.

The Plantation: the colonisation of Ulster by British settlers, beginning in 1606.

Ulster: a nine-county province in the north of Ireland, with six counties in the UK (Northern Ireland), and the remaining three in the Republic of Ireland.

Unionists: descendants of British settlers in Ulster who believe Northern Ireland should remain in the UK; typically Protestant. Sometimes called loyalists, though that term has paramilitary connotations.

Since the independence of the Irish Free State in the south, and particularly in the context of the Troubles in the north, there has been a trend to – erroneously – conflate Irishness with Gaelicness and Catholicism. It is an understandable mistake to make (indeed, it’s one I used to make myself, when exploring the various aspects of my Irish identity), because the vast majority of the population of the island of Ireland is, indeed, Gaelic and Roman Catholic (at least nominally), and many of the most stereotypical, quintessential aspects of Irish culture are of Gaelic origin; but it is still a mistake. Gaelic and Irish, though closely intertwined terms, are not synonymous. Other flavours of Irishness exist, even though politics leads to them being mislabeled as other than Irish.

We cannot really discuss unionism in Ireland without the speaker clarifying his stance, so I shall provide a bit of personal context. I am an English-born Irishman whose paternal family hails from Munster, and whose maternal family’s roots lay in Ulster. Genetically, I am overwhelmingly Gaelic; however, my mother’s family has a history of mixed-denominational marriages, and so I have a significant amount of relatively recent Protestant, unionist ancestry. I used to identify solely as Gaelic, to the exclusion of my unionist heritage. I, like many Gaelic Irishmen, used to reject Irish / Ulster unionism in all of its forms, viewing it as an un-Irish, anti-Irish expression of foreign triumphalism; a hangover from British colonialism in Ireland. I considered the unionist Ulstermen as foreigners who should accept a united, all-Ireland republic and forsake their culture, or else leave for Britain.

As I’ve matured, I’ve learned to see things from a more balanced, realistic perspective. Please don’t mistake me: I still condemn historical British actions in Ireland in the strongest possible terms, and I still believe wholeheartedly that a unified Ireland is both just and desirable; but we, as nationalists, have to be realistic here. In Ulster dwell 900,000 unionists who strongly identify as British. Rightly or wrongly, these people fear being subsumed in an Irish republic, as they feel that this would lead consequently to the loss of their British unionist identity and their Protestant faith in a numerically Roman Catholic-dominated all-Irish state. These people have been in Ulster for 400 years – they are not going to just go back to Britain, and nor should they be expected to. As someone born and raised in England, I can state that, ironically, Northern Irish unionists come across to the English as very Irish in their speech and mannerisms; I have seen an Englishman innocently refer to a staunch unionist from Belfast as Irish, completely unaware of the offence he’d inadvertently caused. English people generally see no distinction between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and view the political conflict in Northern Ireland as two groups of Paddies fighting each other over religion. The Plantation was centuries ago, and the descendants of the settlers are inextricably interwoven into the fabric of Irish history. Like it or not, since their arrival, the Ulster unionists have left an indelible mark on Ireland; and Ireland has also left an indelible mark on them.

So clearly any radical solution to the ‘Ulster Question’ proposed by either side that involves any form of mass population expulsion or “like it or lump it” intransigence is not going to work, nor is it morally right. The nationalist people in Northern Ireland for years were told to “like it or lump it” despite massive systematic bias and discrimination in housing, jobs, and liberties, with the Royal Ulster Constabulary free to get away with all sorts of hideous abuses against innocent nationalist people, and this is not fair; but two rights don’t make a wrong, and it would not be fair to impose these conditions on the unionist people in a form of collective revenge. If Gaelic nationalists are entitled to keep their cultural identity intact, then so are the unionist people.

I am no huge proponent of democracy, but I think direct democracy is the only fair way in which the issue can be resolved. The constitutional status of Northern Ireland should be changed with the consent of the people by plebiscite, not by politicians. I think where territory is concerned, this is the only way to deal with border disputes in any country: the will of the majority has to be adhered to.

I would like to see a united, independent Ireland, but I do not think it is feasible without the consent of the unionist people. For this to happen, there has to be some readjustment and compromise on both sides. The nationalist people will have to accept that the unionists are devoted to their culture, whatever we may think of it (and I am no fan of the royal family or the Orange Order, believe me!), and that it is their right to wish to secure its place in the world going forward. It is not reasonable for us to expect the unionists to just abandon their culture and embrace all things Gaelic. There has to be some political framework within an all-Ireland republic that the unionist people – who would constitute about 15% of the population in such a republic – can accept. What this is, I do not know, but I think some form of federalism is probably the way forward – perhaps a regional parliament for Ulster, based in Belfast; this would help the unionists to feel as though they have a stake in the government, and a vehicle to preserve their culture with.

On the unionist side, a more honest reappraisal of their very nature is required, for their own sense of collective cultural well-being. There is an unfortunate trend dominant in contemporary Ulster unionism that seeks to distance itself from all things Irish; to treat Ireland as a foreign country, and Irishness as a foreign phenomenon. It is easy to understand how this came to be: in the Troubles, when the enemy were nationalists waving the Irish tricolour, using Irish language slogans, and fighting in Ireland’s name, it would have been very easy to come to see ‘Ireland’ as the enemy. The Troubles was marked by widespread violence on both sides, and this, of course, was traumatic for both communities; and the natural reaction to conflict is to try and dissociate our group from the ‘enemy’.

This is a relatively new phenomenon (post-1950s), and a very regrettable one, because it is completely untrue to say that Northern Ireland’s Protestant, unionist community are not Irish. For a start, look at the name of “our wee country” – it is not Northern Britain, but Northern Ireland! The emblems of many high-profile Northern Irish institutions contain shamrocks (seamróg), harps, and Celtic crosses – imagery associated in the minds of billions of people worldwide with Ireland. Furthermore, the Northern Irish accent has a lot more in common with the accents found in the Republic than it does with English or even Scottish accents; and virtually every single place-name in Northern Ireland is an Anglicisation of an older Gaelic name (Belfast is Béal Feirste, Derry is Doire, Armagh is Ard Mhacha, and so on). It’s a perfectly valid opinion, to believe that Northern Ireland should stay in the UK and not amalgamate with the Republic – but to deny that Northern Ireland is part of Ireland is absolutely absurd. Unfortunately, many of the more blinkered unionists do just that. 


The logos for the Northern Ireland Football Association, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and the Royal Irish Regiment. All based in Northern Ireland, all institutions treasured by the unionist community, all using quintessentially Irish imagery. And they say Northern Ireland is not Irish?

The problem that has led to this unfortunate case of collective cognitive dissonance is the idea that Irish = Gaelic and Catholic, when in actual fact, Gaelicness and Catholicism are only part (albeit an enormous part) of the rich tapestry of Irishness, not its entirety. The Gaels are the indigenous people of Ireland, and are also the vast majority, so it is not surprising that this misconception has arisen, particularly against the backdrop of ethnic conflict that has characterised the last half-century of Northern Ireland’s history. But being Gaelic and Catholic is not the only way to experience Irishness. Ireland has a long history of British settlers integrating into the Irish social fabric – some Norman colonists loved Ireland so much that they were said to be “more Irish than the Irish themselves”. Many of Ireland’s most celebrated figures were Protestants of British descent – Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, and C.S. Lewis, to name but a few (and, err, Graham Norton is one as well, but we don’t go around shouting about that…). Hell, even Guinness, Bushmills, and Dracula himself were the babies of Irish Protestants! We would never describe any of these people or things as not being Irish (indeed, Guinness and Bushmills market themselves on being Irish; Dracula not so much), because they patently are.

Irishness does not just mean Gaelic and Catholic; Protestants and unionists have exactly the same right to call themselves Irish as those communities do, and once upon a time, they would proudly exercise this right. This identity crisis is a very modern issue. The forefather of Ulster unionism, Edward Carson, was in absolutely no doubt about his national identity, saying on separate occasions:

“I am very proud as an Irishman to be a member of the British Empire.”

“I was born and bred an Irishman and I’ll always be one. The happiest days of my life were in Trinity College, Dublin and at the Irish Bar.”

“We’re both [Tom Kettle] Irishmen, and that is what matters.”

(A selection of quotes about Carson’s Irishness, from Carson himself and from others, can be found here:

Mr. Carson was a staunch unionist: he was absolutely against Ireland – then a part of the United Kingdom – being granted Home Rule; indeed, he was so strongly opposed to this that he was prepared to violently resist any attempt by Britain to install a devolved government in Ireland. And yet, Carson knew that he was an Irishman, and he embraced it; he would have laughed at anyone who suggested that his unionist beliefs somehow nullified his Irishness. Fellow unionist, Brian Faulkner, stated in 1949 about the Republic of Ireland that “they [the south] have no right to the title Ireland, a name of which we [northern unionists] are just as proud as they“. Even unionist firebrand who spent decades of his life campaigning against the Republic of Ireland, the late Ian Paisley, remarked that “I am proud to be an Ulsterman but I am also proud of my Irish roots.”

These men were not labouring under the delusion that unfortunately many modern unionists do, that somehow the designation ‘Irish’ does not apply to them, because they are ‘British’. By denying his Irishness, an Ulster unionist does not only fly in the face of established facts and common sense, but he also denies himself access to his own heritage and his full identity. He may be proud of being British, and he may wish for Northern Ireland to remain in the UK, and both of these things are absolutely valid sentiments – but they should not preclude him from fully acknowledging and embracing his Irishness. It is possible to be both British and Irish, you know? You can feel Irish and British, and yet be opposed to Irish reunification and total independence. Millions of people in Scotland feel Scottish and British, but oppose Scottish independence. There are cultural differences between both communities in Northern Ireland, but the ethnic differences are tiny. The main schism between the two communities is divergent beliefs as to which country – UK or the Republic – should govern what is now Northern Ireland, and sadly this manifests in one community throwing out the Irish baby with the bathwater and shutting themselves off from their Irish heritage. In reality, one can be Irish as well as British: these two identities are not mutually exclusive, and acknowledging one’s Irishness does not diminish one’s Britishness. I am not asking for unionists to hand in their British passports, rip down the Union Jacks from the walls of their homes, and to start singing rebel songs.

It is only the conflict of the last five or six decades that has muddied these Irish waters, polarised opinion, and sundered people from what is rightfully theirs as well.Thankfully, from observing the situation in Northern Ireland, I can see green (no pun intended!) shoots of recovery, with small but increasing numbers of unionists taking an interest in their Irish heritage; schoolchildren from the unionist enclave Shankill in West Belfast play the quintessentially Irish sport of hurling now, and there are even Irish-language classes in the unionist epicentre, East Belfast. Both of these things would have been absolutely unthinkable even 10 years ago, so progress is clearly being made in encouraging Ulster unionists to think of Irishness not as something foreign and threatening, but as something that belongs to them as well as to the nationalists.

Now, I’m not some liberal luvvie who thinks the past 60 years of conflict is just going to melt away in a frenzy of flower-waving, tree-hugging, hands across the barricades. Ethnic conflicts leave painful scars that endure for many years afterwards, and sometimes, like in many areas of life, there is no perfect solution. Lots of families on both sides of the divide have been devastated by paramilitary violence, and who am I – sat here, safe and sound in Old England – to tell them that they should forget that? But, for Irish nationalists, I do think it is important to remember what the Irish tricolour represents: green for the Gaelic Catholic majority; orange for the British-descended, Protestant minority; and white, symbolising peace between the two communities. This sentiment is perfectly encapsulated in the words of Ma from the legendary Northern Irish satirical comedy, Give My Head Peace – “we are all Irishmen together: Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenter. We wish to embrace our fellow Irishmen of the unionist tradition.

There can be no 32-county Irish republic until we nationalists do exactly that.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s