Irish Unionity, or Ulster Says Noli Timere

Rosemary Jenkinson, a writer from a Northern Protestant background, on Irish unity

Aslan and Rosemary Jenkinson in CS Lewis Square, Belfast

Aslan and Rosemary Jenkinson in CS Lewis Square, Belfast


A confluence of the centenary of Northern Ireland and Brexit has sparked renewed discussion of a united Ireland. The very words united Ireland strike fear into the hearts of Northern Irish unionists and, understandably, some don’t want to engage with the idea.

At the same time, however, it could be argued that ignoring any talk of a Border poll reveals a lack of confidence. Northern Ireland is a divided society, but if it’s a relatively decent place to live, the votes will reflect that. Instead of Ulster Says No, it should be Ulster Says Noli Timere.

The name Northern Ireland is contentious in itself. Just like Derry/Londonderry, perhaps it should come with a slash symbol: Northern Ireland/The North. Northern Ireland does seem a reasonable enough name as it denotes its geographical position, although it’s ironic that the most northern part of the island in Donegal belongs to the South. I’ve also heard republicans say that the Irish Border should be called the British Border as the British created it. Names are as contestable in this country as the history.

As a Protestant, it wasn’t until I started travelling across the Border that I learnt about celebrations such as Nollaig na mBan and St Brigid’s Day. In 2004, I also went in January with republican friends to the anti-internment march in Derry and the Easter Rising Parade on the Falls. I was interested to know as much as I could about Irish nationalism – why wouldn’t I want to learn about the other big tradition of this island?

I wasn’t only ignorant of republicanism. While I’d been to the Twelfth as a child, I expanded my knowledge of it by going to the Mini Twelfth on July 1st. Three streets from where I live in east Belfast, an effigy of the traitor Lundy is burned every December. It’s fascinating that the biggest unionist hate figure is a Protestant Scotsman and shows just how complicated history can be.

I didn’t learn Irish history in school until A-level – it was as if, at 17, I was considered mature enough to learn about it. It was the first time I’d heard that a large number of Northern Protestants like Henry Joy McCracken were leading members of the United Irishmen. There is no doubt it opened my mind to the possibility of Protestants being republicans, but at that time I was going to school in 1980s Downpatrick and violent republicanism was anathema to me, as I could see the reality of it beneath the romance.

Nowadays, integrated education in Northern Ireland has helped make the younger generation less sectarian. However, it is telling that the schools which are so-called integrated “conversions” are almost all Protestant and I know many nationalists who believe integrated schooling to be a threat to a united Ireland as it will dilute Irishness.

Recent years have also seen more integration between communities in Belfast. The Glider has opened up east with west, encouraging some teenagers from the east to drink in Falls Park and teenagers from the west to drink at the bonfires. There is now even a GAA club in the east and the Irish language is championed there by Linda Ervine. The new diversity is not to say that local loyalism has lost its confidence. A cafe around the corner from me is celebrating the centenary with a mural on its shutters that says “Our Wee Country – The First 100 Years”. The flags are still out in full force in a hyper-real version of Britishness. It’s like Last Night of the Proms here every day.

The last time Northern Ireland held a Border poll was 1973, which nationalists boycotted, but we can safely say the boycott will not occur on the next occasion. It would be difficult for a British prime minister to grant a referendum as he or she doesn’t want to go down in history as responsible for the dissolution of the United Kingdom, but it will be interesting to see what happens with Scotland.

Many of us want to know exactly what unity would entail. Many argue it would necessitate a new flag, but I personally like the Irish tricolour as it was designed to symbolise inclusion, with orange representing Protestants and green representing Catholics.

If a united Ireland were to occur, I’d suggest keeping the tricolour but placing a red hand in the centre of the white to symbolise the return of six of the nine Ulster counties. Admittedly, the other provinces might object and it would be very difficult to get consensus. Composers would relish the opportunity of creating a new anthem, but I also think the unofficial anthem of Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games, Danny Boy, is a good choice and, while the lyrics are a bit mawkish, it’s still one of the most recognisable Irish tunes worldwide.

Validity of opinion these days appears to be just a numbers game. To say you’d choose to stay within the UK means that maybe up to eight hundred thousand Protestants and a smaller number of Catholics agree with you; throughout the whole of Ireland, however, it entails widespread unpopularity, but it doesn’t make your opinion any less valid or mean you should be subject to invective. Fintan O’Toole has written many articles in The Irish Times on the virulent rise of English nationalism, but nationalism is on the rise in Scotland and in Ireland. The idea of saying one nationalism is much more acceptable than another seems risible as it’s all just nationalism, although the resentments fuelling it vary.

Returning to Lundy, I had an email from a unionist who said I shouldn’t be engaging in political discussions with the Irish media and explaining myself as if apologetic for my own tradition. I partially see that point – I’m not sure what our equivalent of a West Brit is, but it might be a Proddy Paddy! – but I disagree as I want to exchange ideas and shed light on things when I feel they’re not widely known. A big reason why unionists are wary of Dublin and don’t want to have dialogue is because they feel that the Irish media has addressed the Catholic Church abuse cases and the scandal of mother and baby homes, but that what they believe to have been the South’s past empathy for Brits Out republican violence has been brushed under the carpet.

Irish history may be problematic, but one of the greatest traits of the Northern Irish is our black humour. There are now jokes doing the rounds about loyalists buying scuba diving equipment to blow up the Irish Sea Border. We have to keep laughing at ourselves to defuse the tension. Sometimes I think Protestants and Catholics are like an old married couple who bicker about who did what in some marriage counselling session. Funnily enough, it goes back to 800 years of hurt, but my ancestors only arrived from England and Scotland four centuries ago!

Northern Irish Protestants are very glad of our heritage and not in some flaunting, triumphal way that is assumed typical of us; far from it. Yet we recognise that there were brilliant barristers like Ned Carson, passionate humanitarians like Mary Ann McCracken and amazing inventors like Hans Sloane who brought us the greatest invention of all, milk chocolate. The finest Irish writers, Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett, honed their wits at school in Enniskillen and CS Lewis is our shining northern light. As the centenary comes to a close and, no matter what the future may bring, it is important to celebrate this legacy.

Rosemary Jenkinson’s latest collection of short stories is Marching Season, published next month by Arlen House.

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