British government papers released last week from 1991 reveal that Peter Robinson, then deputy leader of the DUP, believed the union was “finished”. The official he spoke to noted: “Most Protestants to whom [Robinson] spoke knew that the only alternative they could see was independence.”
It seems remarkable that a leader of unionism may have indulged what is, strictly speaking, the opposite of unionism. Yet there is a strain of unionism to which this is not strange at all.
Ian Paisley expressed it more positively in 2007 when he told Bertie Ahern he was a proud Ulsterman and a proud Irishman in that order, adding he did not need the English telling him what to do.
Such ambivalence to the union is often described, somewhat pejoratively, as Ulster nationalism. It does not describe my feelings – while I “identify with the statelet”, to quote a Gerry Adams’s assessment of the unionist psyche, it is a British regional identity.
But then the DUP and I are on opposite sides of the buried divide in the Protestant population – between the Anglicans and the Presbyterians, or to cast it back to plantation terms, between the English and the Scots.
My ancestors came from Lincolnshire and settled in Armagh, which, like most existing towns of that period, acquired an Irish Street, an English Street and a Scotch Street. Armagh and all counties west of the Bann were designated for English settlement; the Scots expanded their presence in Antrim and Down, while neither community grew large enough to displace the Irish as instructed.
In the three-legged stool this made of Ulster, the Scots have always been the wobbly leg. When they made common cause with the Irish in the 18th century, true republicanism seemed possible. When they sided with the English in the 19th century, Ulster unionism became possible. If they feel denied either option, it is no surprise they might cast around for a third.
An independent Northern Ireland is not possible – too many of its people are too firmly against it – but that only makes the persistence of the idea more revealing.
It reached its zenith of respectability – by which I mean my own tribe did not laugh at it openly – in the 1920s and early 1930s, when people spoke of “dominion status” for Northern Ireland.
The inspiration was Newfoundland, then an independent state within the empire. Bizarrely, its population of just 300,000 had inherited Ulster’s religious divide in identical proportions, yet it seemed peaceful, prosperous, loyal and free, until a corruption crisis in 1934 led to direct rule from London. Newfoundland voted by 51 per cent to join Canada in 1949, in a referendum characterised by lingering sectarianism.
The idea of an independent Northern Ireland did not surface seriously again until the 1970s, when it became a pan-unionist doomsday scenario, driven by Belfast loyalists – that is, by the Scots – and indulged by hardliners in the Ulster Unionist Party – that is, by the English. Now we know the DUP has been harbouring the notion ever since.
If it seems fanciful to speak of an English/Scottish unionist divide in the 21st century, consider the DUP’s promotion since the Good Friday agreement of “Ulster-Scots culture” and how the denizens of English Street laugh at that openly.
Yet the Scots have had the last laugh because, after almost a century of UUP rule, their party – the DUP – is the undisputed leader of unionism.
The ultimate beneficiaries of this should be the Irish. As Paisley indicated, Ulster nationalism tilts more naturally south than east. However, as the 1970s showed, it reacts badly to any threat of having the stool kicked over.
What the Scots want is some sense of a homeland; a place apart. An independent Northern Ireland may be a political non-starter, but a viable, functioning Northern Ireland is an entirely realistic proposition. By area, population and economy it is on a par with the Baltic states, two of which have large Russian minorities. Whatever kind of distinct entity Northern Ireland could be, it does not have to be failed entity.
The key to this is devolution, as Edward Carson understood with an Anglo-Irishman’s regret. “I fought to keep Ulster in the United Kingdom,” he told a friend in the 1930s, “but Stormont is turning her into a second-class dominion.”
Strip that of its pejorative tone and some form of “second-class dominion”, perhaps with the EU as the empire, could please Scots and Irish alike. Then the English would just have to lump it.
Over the past decade the DUP started to feel it had a little country of its own and lost the run of itself – until Sinn Féin took Stormont away. The Scots need to learn from that.
But closing Stormont has only bound the Scots and English more tightly together, and driven the DUP into the arms of London, the belly of the Sassenach beast. The Irish need to learn from that.