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Diarmaid Ferriter: Poots’s delusions are extremely troubling

Past talk of agile unionism has only further fractured the fractious in the North

Edwin Poots joined the Democratic Unionist Party in 1981 after the murder by the IRA of Robert Bradford, a Methodist minister and Ulster Unionist MP. Anyone who thinks unionists are one-dimensional should think about the extraordinary trajectory of Bradford’s career; he left school at 15 to become a professional footballer and was on the books of Sheffield Wednesday, but he returned to Belfast, played soccer for Glenavon, trained as a Methodist minister and studied at Queens University Belfast.

He was a member of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) before leaving to join the Vanguard party; he also resigned from the Methodist church and defeated a power-sharing unionist in the February 1974 British general election. He consolidated that victory in 1979, the same year he unsuccessfully contested the leadership of the UUP.

Influenced by Enoch Powell, Bradford craved attention at Westminster, demanding the shooting of terrorists and castigating homosexuals; he came to admire Ian Paisley and only belatedly diluted his belief that Ulster loyalists were descendants of the lost tribe of Israel. For Bradford, there was no sense of a politics divorced from religion. His killing was sensational and it is hardly surprising Poots cut his political teeth in its aftermath given the heat of 1981 and the emotions and violence it engendered; his father Charlie had also been a founder member of the DUP in 1971.

Ulster unionism has always been fractious, replete with internal grudges, class tensions, resentments between those based in Belfast and those operating in Westminster

Paisley had often maintained before he formed the DUP that he would stay out of politics and only join the political fray “if a crisis arose and he was needed to support the Protestant people”. Part of Paisley’s strategy was to declare the crisis constant, over four decades, and to do his utmost to destroy any other unionist leader who contemplated or agreed compromise, until it suited him to make that compromise himself with the UUP sidelined.


When Paisley was ousted as DUP leader in 2008, the party’s chairman, Maurice Morrow, trotted out a familiar DUP script; that Paisley “has been the one leader who stood up for unionism... in the mould of Carson and Craig”. But there was no love lost between Craig and Carson by the time Northern Ireland was created and Paisley had tormented their successors.

In the course of characterising their “history”, there is a tendency for unionists, like their rivals, to conveniently gloss over the awkward realities. Ulster unionism has always been fractious, replete with internal grudges, class tensions, resentments between those based in Belfast and those operating in Westminster, and falling between religious and political stools. In 2007, Ivan Foster summarised the choice facing Free Presbyterians in the DUP: “one way is the way of political ambition, and the other way is the way of obedience to God’s Word”. The historical cocktail Poots drinks from has numerous flavours.

The construction of the bogus unionist self-image of resilience and unity of purpose was evident even before the creation of Northern Ireland. Ernest Hamilton, a unionist who came to politics from the army in 1885 and became Conservative MP for North Tyrone, where he fought off Presbyterian liberals, published his book, The Soul of Ulster, in 1917. It depicted those planted in Ulster as the harbingers of civilisation who for centuries faced a violent, Catholic desire to annihilate them; Hamilton went on to become a devoted member of the British fascists.

Poots likes to speak 'on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland', a proprietorial stance wildly misplaced

The unease about the direction of modern unionism has been building for decades. The tensions were brilliantly assessed in Susan McKay’s Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People (2000) where she observed how “the unionist cliche that the other side is far better at propaganda all too readily became a form of denial”. The extent of their unmooring is now captured in McKay’s new book, Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground.

One hundred years ago this summer, James Craig told an intermediary to tell the British prime minister, “I’m going to sit on Ulster like a rock, we are content with what we have got.” A century later, the shifting ground has removed the rock. The UUP has had five leaders in 10 years and during the week its new leader Doug Beattie wrote here about the need for a confident, progressive unionism “with an agile purpose”. That will be some challenge; talk of agile unionism in the past has only further fractured the fractious.

Nonetheless, the key challenge remains adaptation. Poots likes to speak “on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland”, a proprietorial stance wildly misplaced. His victory declaration was, inevitably, about the DUP being “the authentic voice of unionism”, as, he further erroneously maintains, it has been for 50 years and will continue to be. His bizarre views on history are well-known, but his ideas about the future also seem misguided.

Given the news this week that the marching season will be back up and running this summer, the recent violence and ominous warnings about more coming, the delusions of Poots seem particularly troubling.