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The Idea of the Union: a troubling unionist manifesto

Book review: the North is portrayed as a natural polity built on rational foundations and not the result of a contingent solution to imperial withdrawal

The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland
The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Author: edited by John Wilson Foster and William Beattie Smith
ISBN-13: 9780993560729
Publisher: Belcouver Press
Guideline Price: £12.99

The Idea of the Union is a collection of writings edited by John Wilson Foster and William Beattie Smith. It is variously a manifesto and a handbook, and a casebook of arguments in defence of the constitutional and cultural status of Northern Ireland “rooted in history and the real world”.

Two of its 21 contributors are women, and two are dead, the book constituting an update of a previous edition published in 1995.

Much has changed since then, and much not, and if nothing else the book is instructive on the deep hurt and isolation felt by one part of a unionist community whose foundations are set in what is called, with some nostalgic regret, the “higher professions”.

Given the roll call of Northern grammars in the contributors’ biographies, I was reminded of my own school’s career evenings, where old boys judged on what side of the academic line you fell, between solicitor and estate agent.


There is next to nothing here of unionism as a programme for the improvement of society, the alleviation of poverty, the increase of educational opportunity, or as a resource to respond to climate catastrophe.

The immediate predicament for the security of the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is Brexit. There is an idea in the book that unionism connects its adherents to a collective identity larger than any single nationalism can generate. In the British context this federal argument implodes when the centrifugal weight of English nationalism is applied, as it did with Brexit.

Vote Leave turned unionists into nationalists, and nationalists into unionists, with Europe, and not the UK, the preferred federation for the majority in Northern Ireland. Now it is hard not to think of the decades between the Good Friday Agreement and the referendum to leave the European Union as a last period of security for the unionism described in this book.


The concept of overlapping sovereignties, which appals so many of its contributors, and which was central to the peace, made permanent the reality that, partition or not, those who consider themselves British have multiple guarantors of their interests.

These include the Irish State, and one of the book’s tactical missteps is its misreading of Irish society, the outlines of which are drawn in un-neighbourly, uninformed and offensive terms, as when Foster writes that “Northern Irish Protestants are regarded as beyond the remit of Irish multiculturalism and thus do not qualify even for the fashionable nominal respect reserved for immigrant cultures”. This ignorance is dispiriting, and, in my own personal experience, untrue. It would also be news to Drew Harris, the Garda Commissioner.

This attitude is saddening, as is the cryptic suggestion that the Irish government plotted with unknown agents in Brussels to thwart the British people in their aspirations to leave the EU, whatever the reality that 56 per cent of the electorate in Northern Ireland voted to remain.

Quite aside from the fact that the British government seems quite capable of creating multiple problems for itself without any external help, the assumed suzerainty over Irish interests as the expression of some natural affiliation is but the latest extension of the idea that the UK is a great power and Ireland its continuing supplicant. This attitude surfaces in various essays, from economics to identity, and points to the damage a century of partition has done to unionism, the disconnect leaving its elite to fight old wars which are long lost.


There are democratic mechanisms to change the constitutional status of Northern Ireland if a majority of its subjects decide to do so. The consequences of such a vote will be radical for society across the island, and should be prepared for by a civic process that will last for decades. This will be difficult, and a tactical mistake of the unionist position, as outlined here, is to see Irish governments as antagonists and not competing parties with interests that can be understood rationally, engaged with and managed.

In this telling Northern Ireland is a natural polity built on rational foundations, and not the construction of a contingent solution to imperial withdrawal. That we might learn something of the actual contexts of the past, and their implications for the future, by thinking about partitions in other times and places is not mentioned in consequence of the necessary fiction that Northern Ireland would work if only its enemies allowed it.

This narrative informs much of the book and proceeds from the perception that the state was never given a chance by its nationalist adversaries, an original sin that excuses all the missteps after, which elides the violence and expulsions that attended Northern Ireland’s formation.

Similarly, most subsequent critique of the state is dismissed as delusion, whether it be in housing or collusion. When extended to Henry Hill’s description of the Good Friday Agreement as a “misfiring settlement” this is insensitive to the point of callousness.

There is deep antagonism in many of the essays to the peace accord, which is considered too great, or too broad, a compromise. Unlike the majority of the contributors, who are old enough to have known life before the beginning of the Troubles, I spent the first half of my life in Belfast without knowing anything else. These were harrowing, endless, repetitive times, all of us living in a broken society, warped and traumatized. It is repugnant to diminish the agreement because its framework no longer fits the ambitions of some of its signatories, and careless to assume that only one part of the population suffered in one particular way.


The Idea of the Union is a defence of Northern Ireland as a solid state of fixed and unalterable borders, whatever its provisional history. It expresses a mentality that coincides momentarily with the English separatism that powered Brexit. This is unionism’s contemporary dilemma, and its tragedy. For if these two projects meet at the inflection point of Brexit, they may well diverge as the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland fragments under the incompatible ambitions of its constituent parts.

Presiding over the unsteady whole is Baroness Hoey, whose foreword represents this late moment in the history of the union as evidence again of “the threats we have withstood”, in augury of threats “even greater”.

Whatever your constitutional position, as a philosophy of life this has nothing for it, the union a cold hall haunted by echoes, great statement, little room.

Nicholas Allen is Baldwin professor in humanities, University of Georgia. His latest book is Ireland, Literature and the Coast: Seatangled