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Pro-union Catholics… July 18, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Northern Ireland.

Interesting article in the Irish Times at the weekend interviewing Catholic unionists – or Catholic pro-union individuals, which is not quite the same thing, in the North. I won’t add too much to what has already been said. But some obvious thoughts sprint to mind.

Firstly they appeared to in the main tilt rightward. Very sharply rightwards, cleaving to the Conservatives. Secondly they appeared to find the current Unionist parties not fit for purpose as repositories of their votes and trust. Those not going to the Conservatives place their faith in the ‘new pro-union NI21 party’. Thirdly they appeared, and I say this as kindly as one can being a leftist in the South and therefore being aware of how it might scan, somewhat contrarian, something that might fit in with the first point.

In a way they reminded me of nothing so much as some of the cohort beyond the Workers’ Party – and to a more limited extent Democratic Left – some of who in the 1980s and early 1990s tended towards a functional unionism. I’m not talking, again in the main, about party members, at least not so much in relation to the WP where a Republican strand remained quiescent but very real throughout – causing no end of cognitive dissonance for many, including myself who would have identified with that strand. I’m thinking more broadly of a ‘halo’ of supporters or those who would be somewhat associated with it.

The arguments were not dissimilar, a wish to transcend the ‘traditional politics’, a view of the United Kingdom that saw it as intrinsically more progressive than the Republic, the idea of links to a broader labour movement in whatever form, economic and social ties that could be used, the concept of secularisation, a more developed economy and so on. And isn’t it notable that rather than finding common cause with the other much larger parties in the North those who espoused this view linked in with a party that was beset by problems and extremely marginal.

To read them inverted, at least in relation to the direction of the political arrow, right rather than left, is fascinating.

That said, hard to believe that the WP supporters of the 1980s might have come out with quite the following:

I think a constitutional monarchy is a good idea. If you are going to have a republic then perhaps you should go for a more executive-style presidency. Having a monarch who is completely above politics is a better embodiment of the nation.

But I think it reflects the broader political dynamics both locally and globally that this sort of right wing thinking is evident. Interesting how it breaks down, in the sense that given the realities of the context in the North their world-view provides no solutions to more contentious issues:

On parades I think the Orange Order has a right to march but they should respect the feelings of the people in the areas they are marching through. At the same time residents in areas shouldn’t go out of their way to be offended by the parades.

And ironic in the extreme, as noted in comments on the IT under the article, that the piece should appear this weekend given the events in Belfast and should include the following:

The old arguments about unionist discrimination and civil rights just don’t seem to feature because the Northern Catholics with such views either have no memories of these struggles or are confident that they have been resolved.

Telling too that they don’t actually cleave to Alliance which would seem on the face of it to be a more natural port of call being essentially centre-right in its socio-economic outlook, albeit in relation to issues of national identity a lot more nuanced/even-handed/nebulous (delete according to political taste).

Indeed it’s fascinating how actually existing Unionism doesn’t work for them, suggesting that those realities mentioned above in relation to structural and political sectarianism outweigh their political identification. This tangled knot of contradictions is expressed quite well in the following sentence.

Just because I am a Catholic does not mean I am a nationalist and it does not mean I am a unionist either. I am Northern Irish, Catholic, pro-union – so your religion does not define your politics.

Of course these views are marginal, although perhaps less so than might be expected. And it would have been enlightening to read the views of those who approach this from a left of centre perspective. What is their favoured option in terms of political expression?


1. Richard - July 18, 2013

There’ll always be at least a few Northern Catholics (I’ve met a few) who claim to identify more closely with the Union than they do with the Republic of Ireland. Part of it stems from contrarianism, I think. In the North you also have this Grammar School culture that trains people to think of themselves as -if they go to such a school- belonging to something of an elite section of society and thus deserving to exercise rule over others, or -if they don’t- deserving to be ruled.

This is not to say that anyone who goes to a grammar school, or even a majority of such people, think in such terms. However I do think there is a similar effect to that seen in the Republic where private schools tend to breed a respect for the gentleman legislator and the captain of industry and a contempt for the politically illiterate culchies and knackers. I think pro-union Catholics of this stripe identify republicanism/nationalism as a hallions’ passion, and not for people of their cultivation and command of economics.


2. Jim Monaghan - July 18, 2013

I am surprised on how little is mentioned about the effective pogrom of the Alliance Party. Even by the Alliance Party itself


3. WorldbyStorm - July 18, 2013

Yes, that’s an interesting point Jim. It’s as if that’s just pushed aside completely but it was a very unusual occurrence in some ways.

Completely agree Richard, it is a very contrarian, and perhaps class inflected, position.


4. anne - July 18, 2013

it is undoubtedly a class thing – castle catholics are usually professionals who are happy to have a successful career.
Having said that the question of being in the UK is confounded by Unonist misrule (see the latest Orange Order riots). Had the working class catholic people of NI enjoyed full British civil rights since partition and indeed even since the GFA, there might be some doubt as to the answer. However too much horror has flowed under the bridge for most nationalist/republican people to consider remaining in the UK as a viable option.
They want what they were promised in the GFA – an Irish language Act, parity of esteem, respect and so on. If those those things had actually materialised then maybe, perhaps, but look at what they are getting. A United ireland appears to be their only option if they are to escape the apparently relentless Orange/ Unionist/Loyalist persecution.


Garibaldy - July 19, 2013

My memory is that an Irish Language Act was not in the GFA, but was something brought forward much more in the St Andrews negotiations.

On another note, what institutions is this “apparently relentless Orange/Unionist/Loyalist persecution” being carried out by in post-GFA NI?


CMK - July 19, 2013

On a related note: has anyone ever heard Ulster-Scots being spoken? Is it a separate language from English, like Irish is, or it is a dialect of English? A half-serious question. But given that under the post-GFA dispensation it has its own separate agency.


Séamas Ó Sionnaigh (An Sionnach Fionn) - July 19, 2013

Irish-Scots is a dialect of Scots (or Scots-English): that is the branch of the English language spoken historically in Scotland and brought to Ireland by British colonists from the Borders region of Scotland/England, principally during the Ulster Plantation.

In Ireland it adopted some words from Irish but outside of a few isolated rural areas it quickly adapted to English as spoken in Ireland (Hiberno-English). Today it survives amongst a few thousand speakers (though when the EU sent a team of academics to research the language as part of a program on minority tongues they couldn’t find a single native speaker in the country).

What is now called Ullans/Ulster-Scots is slightly different, in large part it is an invented or sexed-up version of Irish-Scots dating back to the 1970s and the fringe folk-historians of the Israelite/Cruithnigh movement amongst “Ulster Nationalists” (i.e. British Unionists in Ireland who wanted an independent “Ulster”). It is largely based on the conceit that if the Irish are recognised as a nation by having a language of their own then the “Ulster-Scots” must have a language too to be recognised as a “nation” in their own right. Much of it is total nonsense, an abuse of the original source material with fake spellings, grammars, use of accents, etc. Most linguists and historians deride the whole thing and most supporters in Scotland of the Scots tongue shy away from any contact with their “Ulster brethren”.

Politically it simply serves as a “counter-language” to Irish, a mechanism for Unionists to block any official recognition of the indigenous language of the island of Ireland in the north-east of the country. There is more than an element of straightforward racism to it.

All that said there do seem to be some genuine speakers as I stated above of the Irish-Scots dialect though from what one hears and sees they feel completely alienated from the official body.


CMK - July 19, 2013

Cheers, very interesting. I was always a bit skeptical of the whole ‘Ulster-Scots’ thing. Seemed motivated by spite. Irish has a 1500 year literary history etc, but certain folk want to stymie that by insisting that a particlar way of talking is, in fact, a ‘language’. For what it’s worth I’d no problem understanding the locals last time I was in Larne last time I was there. I wish I could say the same about parts of the Republic.


benmadigan - July 20, 2013

whether it was promised in the GFA or the STA makes no difference – it was supposed to come into being. It is also EU policy for minority languages. It was only one example of several deliverables that have not yet been delivered


Garibaldy - July 21, 2013

I’d say it makes quite a bit of difference in terms of who is responsible for promises made not being implemented. The most important deliverable not yet introduced is the Bill of Rights; or is it a proper and serious strategy for tackling sectarianism. Whichever, there’s a lot of blame to go around for those.

On a side note, is it EU policy for there to be a language act for each minority language?


Tomboktu - July 21, 2013

Don’t know, but here is the European Commission’s page on regional and minority langusges.

I don’t see references to directives (or regulations or more generally legislation), so without further research I would doubt it.


The treaties have the following

Article 21
1. Any discrimination based on any ground such as sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation shall be prohibited.

(Specifcially, it is in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.)


5. RosencrantzisDead - July 18, 2013

There is a certain irony in that these Catholic Unionists are joining the Conservatives. It is definitely a function of a widening of the propertied class to include more Catholics and a increasing liberalism in Irish society in general. (As a side note, I am often amazed at the remarks some Catholics from NI make about muslims nowadays. Memories are short, very short).

Of course, one of the oft-cited reasons for why Catholics began to move upwards was free education and other social benefits. These Catholics Conservatives/Unionists are looking to throw away the ladder they have ascended.


6. Séamas Ó Sionnaigh (An Sionnach Fionn) - July 18, 2013

My limited experience of people from the broad Catholic/Nationalist/Irish community in the north-east of the country who are politically pro-Union is very much of individuals who are socially and economically conservative or people who espouse libertarian views (almost in the American sense of the word). I’ve seen much the same thing with Neo-Unionist types elsewhere in the country who are very much on the political right or who disdain right/left politics altogether (as one fan of Ron Paul informed me). I think in some cases mavericks is a suitable descriptor.

However that of course that does not preclude people in north-eastern Ireland being genuinely Unionist in the sense of simply believing themselves to be British, regardless of their faith or background. There has always been Catholic Unionists in that sense, people who have a Catholic but entirely Unionist and British background.

On the other hand I have two friends from a broad Ulster Protestant/Unionist background who are centre-left on socio-economic matters and would vote for a reunited Ireland if given the opportunity. A third comes from an Ulster Protestant family who regard themselves as nothing but Nationalist and Irish and always have done (to their own disadvantage). All anecdotal I know but I think identity in the north-east in not as fixed as some would think and that is probably a good thing.

The idea however that there is a massive Pro-British/Pro-Union majority of Catholics and Protestants in the north simply doesn’t stack up against the voting patterns of recent decades. That fluctuating 45/55 divide is still there in the percentages and claims that Catholic Unionists simply don’t vote enough (or at all) to make a decisive difference in favour of British rule rings pretty hollow. Even more desperate is the idea that a north-east referendum on a reunification would bring them out in droves to voice their opposition. They and many others would be the very stay-at-home types that might allow such a referendum to succeed if SF and the SDLP were to mount a united campaign at some such future date.


richotto - July 19, 2013

I remember reading some FF politicion quip that “We’re all Unionists now” after the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Thought that was a fair enough summary considering the contents that those on the nationalist side signed up to as their policy from here on.
There is a clause in that Agreement I believe which prohibits constitutional change for NI without the consent of both traditions. Even a referendum going in favour of a United Ireland option could’nt overide that hurdle. Is that the case?? If it is then the self procliamed nationalist and republican parties should honestly admit that they have adopted a policy of a de facto permanent Union with Britain.


WorldbyStorm - July 19, 2013

“There is a clause in that Agreement I believe which prohibits constitutional change for NI without the consent of both traditions. ”

I don’t have the text in front of me but I’m fairly sure your belief is wrong.


Séamas Ó Sionnaigh (An Sionnach Fionn) - July 19, 2013

I’ve never heard of such a clause. As far as I am aware it simply takes a +1 majority vote in the north-east coupled with a majority vote in this part of the country (though arguably the latter could be skipped if the government and all parties agreed). The clause thing could be something sold to Unionist voters to persuade them to register a Yes vote in the 1998 referendum. Though since the majority of Unionist voters actually voted against the Belfast Agreement and it still was put in place it was clearly an illusionary promise.


WorldbyStorm - July 19, 2013

Yep, that’s it isn’t it Séamas…


Garibaldy - July 19, 2013

I think Richotto is mixing up the rules for how the Assembly operates with what the GFA says about changing the constitutional status of NI.

Where did this idea that the majority of unionist voters actually voted against the Belfast Agreement come from? I never heard anyone say it at the time, not even the DUP. It was widely accepted across the media and across the political world that a majority of unionists who voted voted in favour of the Agreement. A lot of those voters subsequently seem to have stopped voting however.


Séamas Ó Sionnaigh (An Sionnach Fionn) - July 20, 2013

The Yes vote from Unionists at the time of the referendum was claimed (depending on the source) to be between 50% and 60%. Most suggested a 53% or 57% majority. However some Unionists called that into question subsequently, mostly related to arguments about calculating the Protestant/Unionist population/electorate with the suggestion of a 48-49% Yes vote from the Unionist community as a whole. I will take a look for a link to the claims (if online) when I get a chance and post here.


7. Mekonged - July 19, 2013

Why weren’t they asked the most pertinent question – if they were golfer would they choose UK or Ireland in the Olympics?


Séamas Ó Sionnaigh (An Sionnach Fionn) - July 19, 2013



8. King Alpha Plan - July 19, 2013

“an Irish language Act” – yeah, the people are screaming for that alright. Pro-UK I would say is a sign they have their brain engaged, pro-Free State, enthrall to the peados


Séamas Ó Sionnaigh (An Sionnach Fionn) - July 19, 2013

I believe you mean “…enthralled to the paedos”.


Bob Smiles - July 19, 2013

Good to see some catholic Tories, including GAA members backing unionism. If we could get a few Protestant socialists it would be even better.


WorldbyStorm - July 19, 2013

This UK you speak of, that wouldn’t be the one where their ‘entertainment’ world (including their state television channels) appears to have had quite a few… nah…forget about it King Alpha Plan… I’m sure I’m wrong.


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