Slugger O'Toole

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John Laird for Christmas?

Fri 17 December 2010, 12:45pm

John Laird (Lord Laird of Artigarvan) is unionism’s jester. His memoir A Struggle To Be Heard ” by a True Ulster Liberal”  (from Slugger’s shop on Amazon here) might serve more as a heavy stocking filler than anybody’s idea of a main present. In it he wears the masks of comedy and tragedy to turn the stereotype of unionism on its head, as his title implies, dressed in his huge kilt on the front of the book and a grenadier’s uniform on the back . Beyond caricature to some, Laird nevertheless pulls off a PR feat of personal and political history which however selective, captures the essence of a neglected cause.

The Lairds (higher and lower case varieties) are still the natural rebels of old, on the Anglo-Scottish borders, in Ulster during the 98, in the young United States, during the Home Rule crisis of a hundred years ago and during the UWC strike of 1974. This  was Laird’s  own big moment (his brother came up with the slogan ” Dublin is only a Sunningdale away,” it seems). His unionists remain rebels at heart in the face of British and Irish untrustworthiness today. He writes vividly of his family background further back  in the  Belfast working class and with the Protestants on either side of the border where his ancestors settled, like  the Artigarvan of his title near Strabane.

He is (wouldn’t you know it?) a liberal in the New Light tradition of Presbyterianism who were as much rebels as their sometimes bitter opponents of the Old Light. He is  an admirer of that denizen of the Enlightenment Francis Hutcheson.

So who was it did all that one sided governing in the 20th century? He glides over this first by questioning that unionists should ever have accepted the role of government after partition at all, and then by leaving the untrustworthy Irish out of his story more or less altogether, apart from the odd “decent ” nationalist like Gerry Fitt. Then he redefines or rediscovers the unionist identity, not as a sub-nation, a people or a religion but as a culture, the Ulster Scots, still quite distinct from the Irish after 400 years.

But most revealing is the personal history which jostles with the political. He was the ultra- respectful  son of Dr Norman Laird the Stormont MP for St Anne’s ( the Sandy Row area) in the 1960s, who had been instructed in turn by his father to become a doctor, even though he hated the job. He nonetheless did it conscientiously even to the extent of never employing an assistant of any kind. Becoming an MP was his heart’s desire. “My father if he said something, his opinion was set in stone – looking back I can see this was a weakness,” says John in a rare moment of filial independence.

When Norman Laird died suddenly one night in April 1970, the young John was traumatised and fell into depression. But he inherited his father’s seat and embarked on his own career, mainly on the fringe of politics and carving out a niche for himself in PR. He is brave enough to admit that depression has been a facet of his life. He fell into it again later in the Troubles.

What sort of career has it been? Easy to mock and notoriously high maintenance in the Lords and with the Ulster Scots Agency, he has at least lightened the unionist image. I declare a small interest. I have enjoyed several of his well attended and very mixed functions and he was the friendliest and most hospitable of neighbours in the 1980s.

The Ullans Academy exists as a modest counterpoint to the richness of Irish, thanks to the balancing politics of the Good Friday Agreement. How many of the 50 or so volumes of Ulster Scots poetry published in the Ulster Scots heyday of 1750 to 1850, are read today, I wonder?

It has been John Laird’s perception that imitating and adapting the rebellious and cultural politics of Irish nationalism has been the way to win the equality and parity of esteem of which some unionists seem to feel they have been cheated.  In politics, this has too often been reduced to a tactic to thwart Sinn Fein’s own cultural politics in favour of Irish.

In the wider unionist community the claims of  the Scottish tradition have limited appeal. Stridency from people not known for their cultural breadth only increases their isolation and draws attention to the narrowness of their cultural  horizons.     And who outside the academy and the wilder reaches of Old Firm supporters recognise it in Scotland today?

Perhaps the best hope for Ulster Scots is to take the reverse course from that of the Sinn Fein in the early last century and advance from a by product of politics to an exclusively cultural enterprise open to all and interested in all.

Without doubt however, lack of self esteem whether justified or not has been a profound element in unionism’s character and on the evidence of his book, in John Laird’s character too. In that sense, unionism and John Laird are well matched.

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Comments (17)

  1. Nevin (profile) says:

    “lack of self esteem”

    Where did you get this gem from, Brian? I’ve met a fairly broad spectrum of folks over the years and the stereotypes/caricatures tell you very little about individuals or the multiplicity of groups that they identify with.

    Should you not have given a little context to the ‘one sided governing’ caricature? Are you unfamiliar with the ‘society within a society’, a form of self-imposed apartheid adopted by those who’d rather have had a different constitutional settlement? Or the affiliation by Nationalist councils to Dublin institutions that led to gerrymandering?

    John Laird was one of the few politicians who was prepared to take off his coat and pursue some of the issues associated with the Rathlin ferry saga. Some of his expenses and taxpayers costs would have been much reduced if Government ministers and senior civil servants had abided by the rules and also given straight answers to straight questions.

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  2. Greenflag (profile) says:

    BW ,

    ‘the best hope for Ulster Scots is to take the reverse course from that of the Sinn Fein in the early last century and advance from a by product of politics to an exclusively cultural enterprise open to all and interested in all.’

    Sounds like a much better plan for this day and age . Ditto for Irish language enthusiasts . SF’s emergence in the early last century was a delayed equivalent of the general european ‘emergence ‘ of national awareness on the part of the smaller countries – made a little more complex in Ireland’s case by both the nature of rule from London and the memories of 98 and the great famine and the emergence of RC ‘religious’ supremacy 1800 to 1900. The Anglo-Irish cultural elite were instrumental to a great degree in this ‘emergence’ whereas much of the rising Irish middle classes were focused on grabbing their share of whatever was going whether in politics -in land ownership or in religion (post 1829)

    ‘The Lairds are still the natural rebels of old, on the Anglo-Scottish borders’

    I recall having a tooth filled by a somewhat demented dentis in the middle of Africa some moons ago -This gentleman took some pride in his family name pedigree and insisted on maintaining that I was one of ‘them ‘ When somebody is floating around your head waving sharp painful looking tools and drills -one’s inclination is not to disagree .

    But he was much more proud of his mother’s family background stating with no lack of self esteem that the Johnstons were well known as cattle rustlers on the borders .

    are still the natural rebels of old, on the Anglo-Scottish borders,

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  3. Nevin (profile) says:

    Greenflag, Suzanne Breen wrote a great piece about him in the Sunday Tribune.

    Of course, only a small part of him is Laird. He’s part Dunn – John Dunn Laird; part Davidson – Norman Davidson Laird; and may other parts besides!

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  4. Nevin (profile) says:

    They’re making a right donkey’s ass out of road-naming in the Kingdom of Moyle :L

    Staunin Cairn Road has been added to the list. I’ve heard of a standing stone but not a standing cairn; surely such a cairn is a heap of stones.

    Haw Road has now got Hawthorne Road whereas Haw may well be a Scots form and a word meaning something other than a bush. ‘The Haw’ is in the townland of Curramoney and I see there are two Haws in east Donegal.

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  5. wild turkey (profile) says:

    “When Norman Laird (MP) died suddenly one night in April 1970, the young John was traumatised … But he inherited his father’s seat”

    uh, pardon my ignorance, but this is a serious question(s).

    did john really just “inherit” his fathers seat?

    did it really work that way or was there a pretense of a selection process and/or election?

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  6. Nevin (profile) says:

    A by-election, WT.

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  7. granni trixie (profile) says:

    Nevin: his expenses were inexcusible.

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  8. Greenflag (profile) says:

    nevin ,

    Sounds like a harmless duffer and more than a bit eccentric in that Breen article .

    Still a few home truths there in that article served up with a lot of tosh . He was right about Dave Allen but he got the Duke of Wellington quote wrong but it’s a common error . That piece about the stable /horse was really one of Dan O’Connell’s quips about Wellington which later by the usual means was attributed to the Duke himself . He too was a piece of work and more than a tad eccentric himself .

    His excuse of being afraid to wear a kilt in Dublin is rubbish . I’ve never heard of anybody being attacked because they wear a kilt -Lots of Scots rugby fans do . Anybody impersonating a Scotsman might of course receive a few ribald remarks by a passing Dubliner in a mood for slagging

    @granni trixie

    or his excuses were inexpensible ;)? .

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  9. Nevin (profile) says:

    Greenflag, perhaps he was right about Ó Cuiv and O’Donoghue too. Ó Cuiv was party to the Rathlin ferry shenanigans.

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  10. PaddyReilly (profile) says:

    A proponent of Ulster Scots as a language, Lord Laird wants road signs in Irish, English and Ullans on all roads in Ireland, as “parity of esteem” as signed up for under the Good Friday Agreement. Similarly, he says that the Garda Síochána should be renamed to An Garda Síochána/Hannin Polis. (wikipedia)

    Sounds reasonable. As long the Met are renamed Metropolitan Police/Gardaí Síochána Mháthairchathrach Shasana.

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  11. joeCanuck (profile) says:

    Yes,
    On the face of it, he seems to be a buffoon. But I think he is more of a court jester, slyly mocking the powers that be.

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  12. oneill (profile) says:

    “The Lairds (higher and lower case varieties) are still the natural rebels of old, on the Anglo-Scottish borders…”

    The Lairds were one of the infamous Border Reiver gangs (17th century football hoolie crews to all intents and purposes), still spoken of to this day with awe and terror in places like Workington and Dumfries.

    They were exiled under an intra-national ASBO by one of the (I think) King James to what are now the border counties of NI and the ROI but particularly Fermanagh.

    A lot of the Unionist establishment (Foster, Elliott etc) from that part of Ulster carry names which originated from those gangs. There used to be a leaflet from the Ulster-Scot Society about the Reivers in the tourist info spot in town, well worth a read if you can still get your hands on it.

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  13. Greenflag (profile) says:

    O’Neill .

    So we can forgive Brookeborough’s infamous cattle rustling along the Sligo Fermanagh border on grounds that he was merely maintaining the family cultural traditions . :)? and therefore it was’nt his fault . Th’oul DNA baggage can cloud any moral imperatives?

    Don’t know if the latest ‘Priest’ child abuser Tony Walsh is using the ‘DNA ‘ excuse for criminal behaviour but he won’t get away with it . Should have chosen banking or politics as as a career and he might have ‘escaped ‘ :(

    @joecanuck,

    ‘slyly mocking the powers that be’.

    Not that they don’t need it -here in Ireland and elsewhere . Emperors are feeling the cold these days and our German and French ‘friends ‘ might want to tone down their little national corporals – ‘arrogance’ and ‘righteousness’ a notch or two or three . It’s in their own longer term interest if they can for a moment or two turn away from the scaffold where Mr Euro is feeling the strain of a tightening noose around his neck .

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  14. Nevin (profile) says:

    oneill, how could you possibly leave out Hume?

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  15. 241934 john brennan (profile) says:

    Lave Laird Laird oot o it. He’s wan dacent grate ulst sots mon, aye tha noo

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  16. 6crealist (profile) says:

    Time for an update.

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  17. […] the temperance wing of Unionism. Reviewing his artlessly revealing autobiography I described him as Ulster Unionism’s jester, a word  less open to misunderstanding than clown or  fool.  I stand by that.  Jesters or clowns […]

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