Alex Kane: My top ten list of existential 'threats to the Union'
Unionists have been saying for most of my lifetime that the Union is under threat but its still here
Arlene Foster’s latest warnings about ‘blood-red’ lines, has only served to remind me that unionists have been concerned about the Union for a long time. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Listening to Arlene Foster’s latest warnings about "blood-red" lines, along with the comments from various unionist politicians about threats posed to the "constitutional integrity" of the Union by Brexit, has only served to remind me that unionists have been concerned about the Union for a long time; most of my lifetime, in fact. Given that concern, it is remarkable how sanguine they have been about the potential threat posed by a border poll - something which seems increasingly likely. Anyway, here’s my own top ten list of "threats to the Union" since the 1960s.
1. Ulster at the Crossroads
On December 11, 1968, Terence O’Neill forced William Craig, his Minister of Home Affairs, to resign because of "differing interpretations of the legality of Westminster intervention on devolved matters." Craig’s view was that intervention threatened Stormont’s power by both undermining the government and weakening NI’s position within the UK. O’Neill was already coming under huge pressure within broader unionism for his "Ulster at the Crossroads" speech a couple of days earlier; with many key unionists accepting Craig’s analysis about the threat to the Union.
2. The treachery of Terence O’Neill
So it was no surprise when, four months later, O’Neill was, in turn, forced to resign. He was regarded as "weak" and Ian Paisley - still very much a fringe figure -repeated his comments from 1965 (when Sean Lemass had visited Stormont) that the "threat of a united Ireland had been opened up by the treachery of Terence O’Neill". Craig agreed, accusing O’Neill of "appeasing the enemies of unionism."
3. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association
Right from the start most unionists regarded the Civil Rights Association as both an IRA front and just "another political vehicle" to force them out of the UK.
4. The Labour Government
That NICRA emerged when what Craig had described as a ‘pro-United Ireland’ Labour government was in office, only served to heighten and whip up fears. Any hope that a moderate unionist response would get a chance (and over 150,000 letters of support had arrived for O’Neill’s ‘Crossroads’ speech) was squashed as a new generation of hardliners emerged to "promote and protect" the Union.
5. The prorogation of the Stormont Parliament In March 1972
It was a hammer-blow for unionism. For the first time since 1912/14 senior figures believed that NI’s place in the UK could no longer be taken for granted. The UDA, a paramilitary group formed in September 1971, swelled to a membership of over 40,000. The language of Craig, Paisley and new fringe politicians became increasingly belligerent (Craig spoke about ‘liquidating the enemy’) and the middle ground of unionism drifted off to the recently formed Alliance Party.
6. Power sharing
In October 1972 the British Government published a discussion paper in which it was made clear that both mandatory power-sharing and an "Irish dimension" would be key ingredients for any new devolved government in NI. Again, unionists saw this as an attempt to dilute their own power "as the clear majority" as well as undermining the Union by allowing "Ulster’s enemies a say in our future."
Brian Faulkner’s attempts to reach a deal at Sunningdale in 1973 were always doomed to failure, particularly when he agreed the concept of a Council of Ireland. Unionism wasn’t ready at that point: it hadn’t yet recovered from the psychological blow of losing Stormont and now it was being asked to share power with the SDLP (back then, before the electoral rise of Sinn Fein, unionists regarded the SDLP as ‘out-and-out united Irelanders). The Ulster Workers Council strike brought together most of the pro-Union family to topple Faulkner in May 1974. How far the UWC would have been prepared to go had the UK government not backed down, is hard to tell. But there was a whiff of civil war in the air.
8. The Anglo-Irish Agreement
For most of the 1974-84 decade it was normal for unionists to accuse successive PMs and Secretaries of State of "treachery", "spinelessness" and "rolling over to the IRA". It was the sort of language that went with the territory. But the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 confirmed their worst fears, for it looked as though both the British and Irish governments were conspiring against them to "buy off the IRA and slow down Sinn Fein’s post-hunger strike electoral success." Their heroine, Thatcher, had betrayed them and only a handful of Tory MPs joined them in voting against the agreement. The darkest moment for unionism during entire Troubles.
9. The Downing Street Declaration
The 1993 Downing Street Declaration and the no "selfish, strategic or economic interest" in NI language spooked unionism once again; raising questions about the UK’s long term commitment to the Union. The Good Friday Agreement tore the Ulster Unionists apart. And even though the DUP described it as a "one-way ticket to Irish unity," Ian Paisley cut a deal with Sinn Fein in 2007 because, otherwise it would have been curtains for the Union.
And now Brexit: with the same old fears of threats to the Union and warnings to the latest UK government. It says something about unionism that it seems permanently convinced it will be betrayed by Westminster. Yet the only way the Union falls is if a majority in NI reject it. The task of unionism and of unionist leaders is to ensure that doesn’t happen. A good start would be to stop playing on fears and continually circling the wagons.
Alex Kane is a commentator based in Belfast. He was formerly director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party