Why are there no Unionist intellectuals?

Last week the MacGill. This week the John Hewitt. The week after next the William Carleton. Brian Feeney points out that the historical, cultural and political content our summer schools is overwhelmingly nationalist, even if the orginal figures being celebrated were not. Why, he asks, do Unionists not organise their own Unionist specific events?

The absence of unionist reflection on politics and history creates another problem. It�s this. Republicans crowd in to hear unionists speaking and can question them and exchange views but it’s all one-way traffic.

Occasionally you hear complaints from republicans at such gatherings who use the opportunity to tell unionist politicians in particular that there is no reciprocation. Where can republicans speak to a mainly unionist audience? Who would invite them? Where would the venue be? The answer from unionist guests is usually twofold. First, there is no unionist equivalent of occasions like ‘West Belfast Talks Back’ and secondly, �the time is not right�, such a weak and pathetic response no-one dignifies it with serious consideration.

Those questions deserve real answers. Why are unionists afraid to appear in public and question sacred tenets of unionism? Why can they not argue the toss with each other? Would other unionists think they are ‘selling the pass’? Why are there no unionist intellectuals?

There are Unionist intellectuals of course, as the, albeit sporadic output, of some of the Cadogan Group demonstrates. But what Feeney highlights is that, generally, they don’t talk. This is also a question I have heard senior politicians in both the main Unionist parties ruminate on, not least after their own appearances as at the like of West Belfast Festival, or the MacGill.

  • God Give Me Strength

    Colin Bateman, Adrian McKinty, Glenn Patterson, Gary Mitchell – all leaders in their categories today. Brian Feeney – a sad deluded neo-nazi. Some may not like the term, but his Catholic/Nationalist supremacism reeks of this.

  • Greenflag

    Christopher Eastwood .

    Thanks for an excellent sound common sense post .:)

    ‘If one wants another to heed their point, it must be framed in terms of respect for the other person’s sensitivities. If both sides learnt this lesson, our arguments would become a lot more productive, and yield that elusive “common ground” which is so essential as a foundation for the future. ‘

    The title of the thread is I agree a misnomer.

  • Fred Allan


    Yes, OK, but I thinking of the civic republican values that have become very fashionable among liberal nationalists.

    I’d say summer schools involve quite a lot of boozing and pulling.

  • Garibaldy

    I feel obligated to point out that the civic republicanism which Fred refers to is an internationalist ideology, and is the one which motivated people like Tone and Connolly. Thus, nationalists may attempt to appropriate its language but the reality is their ideology is opposed to it. Hence nationalists fighting republicans in the Spanish Civil War.

    I’d be delighted to see the values of active citizenship penetrate both unionism and nationalism, but at the moment, aside from a few mostly isolated individuals, it is all just rhetoric.

    I suspect summer schools involve a lot of boozing. Dunno that I’d want to do any pulling there though.

  • harpo

    ‘liberal nationalists’


    Now there’s an oxymoron if there ever was one.

    ‘but I thinking of the civic republican values’

    And what would they have to do with actual Irish Republicanism, or actual ugly Irish nationalism? Of the ‘the only thing they understand is half a tonne of semtex in London’ variety?

  • harpo

    ‘Thus, nationalists may attempt to appropriate its language but the reality is their ideology is opposed to it. Hence nationalists fighting republicans in the Spanish Civil War.’


    Well said. And therein lies the paucity of Irish nationalist thinking.

    They can paint it anyway that they want, but in the end Irish nationalism is an ugly belief system that amounts to no more than ‘we want all of the territory’.

    It’s reactionary, and only ever used true republican or socialist ideas to come up with new reasons to kill the other side.

  • Southern Observer

    [i]Beezer, Ruth Dudley Edwards is a deceitful typical sindo pro-partitionist columnist. Every column she writes refers to an “orangeman who is a decent person siad…”, or “…as a nationalist who tries to see the other sides point of view…”. There’s always the line about the dacent orangie or a reference to herself as an “Irish nationalist” – yeah right!.[/i]
    Agree with some of your points Ciaran although I think a tad more temperate language could be used.
    The following Blanket article gets it about 90% right:

  • Fintan, Portlaoise

    Ciaran Damery displays a great ignorance of my alma mater Maynooth, the second-oldest university in Ireland. It has produced quite a few outstanding graduates, who have added much to human learning and science. He ought to look up Nicholas Callan, for example.

    As for Unionist intellectuals, of course there are plenty of them. I profoundly disagree with their support for the Union (or their opposition to the reunification of Ireland, whichever way you look at it), but I respect them for their learning, integrity and professional courtesy. Rather than trying to portray those who disagree with us as intellectually inferior, we should be trying harder to make them see the bigger picture and trust they will give our arguments a fair appraisal and eventually come to a new conclusion: that a United Ireland presents a wonderful opportunity for intellectuals (and indeed everyone) from both communities to enrich their own lives and make valuable contributions to the world we share with everyone else.

    As for Dr. Colin Coulter, a young man who has been an honoured guest in my home on many occasions, there is no doubt about his status as an intellectual. Firsts in every exam at uni and a Ph.D. before he was 30 demonstrate that. I always thought he was a Unionist as well, but one open to new ideas. Isn’t that what an Intellectual Unionist is?

  • slug


    What a nice courteous comment! Any more of those and I may actually feel like debating!



  • Ken A. Biss, Finland

    “Unionist intellectual” is right up there with “Swedish humour”, “environment friendly nukes” and “Liberal Paisleyites” as a serious contender for the title of “ultimate oxymoron”.

  • AM

    There seems precious little cerebral about any of the correspondence on this thread – the humour situated lower and relentlessly choleric. Sore weekend spleens and livers?
    Any chance that the sniping might stop?

    Fintan, perhaps you could ask Colin Coulter if any of his writings are or might be made available online to the interested public?

    (“Fred” so there’s no boozing or pulling in Oxford then?;)


  • Fintan, Portlaoise

    AM: “Fintan, perhaps you could ask Colin Coulter if any of his writings are or might be made available online to the interested public?”

    AM, I haven’t seen Colin Coulter for a while, as I spend a lot of time outside Ireland nowadays, but doubt his books are available online. This is a link to a list of his publications:


    Maybe you’ll have to get a copy at the library or buy one. His books are not only very informative and insightful, but also (rare enough in that genre) eminently readable. One of them, Contemporary Northern Irish Society: An Introduction, has an excellent chapter about Belfast murals.

  • AM

    Thanks Fintan, will add the reading to the wishlist.

  • J McConnell

    southern observer

    > Having lived in the ROI,UK,and NZ I can state that Dublin is a bookworm’s paradise.
    -speaking as a died-in-the-wool bookworm.

    Really. And which cities are you comparing it to? Rotherham? Dunedin? Limerick?

    I’ve just spend a wonderful few weeks trawling the bookstores of San Francisco, Seattle and Portland after more than a year in the wastelands of Dublin. I can name half a dozen cities much smaller than Dublin on the West Coast that are much better served by bookstores than Dublin.

    I for one cannot wait for even a Borders or Barnes and Noble to open in Dublin. Hodges Figgis is an embarrassing excuse for a serious bookstore and Waterstones is little better. And as for second hand bookshops, even San Luis Obispo a small college town in California the size of Waterford, has a better selection than Dublin.

    I’ve you love bookshops a quick visit to Portland or Seattle, both cities about the same size as Dublin, will show you just how ill served Dublin is.

  • Southern Observer

    Let’s face it Mr McConnell you can hardly be described as impartial as far as the ROI is concerned – procrusteanly tailoring the facts to fit with a predetermined outcome.
    I have scrounged for books in the following places-in some of which I have been resident:
    Southampton,London,Brisbane Auckland,New York,San Francisco…
    Dublin trumps them all- a bibliophile’s Mecca.

  • kensei

    “They can paint it anyway that they want, but in the end Irish nationalism is an ugly belief system that amounts to no more than ‘we want all of the territory’.”

    Classic. What a load of horseshit. I think you’ll find that the English want all of the territory of England and the Scottish want all of the territory of Scotland. What you are saying is a mother fucking tautology.

    Irish Nationalism is spectacularly uninterested in terriority outside of it’s own National bounds. It is neutral. It engages in no wars of aggression, and attempts to support them ebven in a limited sense meet with the kind of angry response Shannon flights have produced.

    Irish Nationalism grew out of very real grievances with British rule, both pre and post partition. The drivers behind Nationalism is the desire to be in control of own destiny, because we are better equipped to solve our own problems. Behind it lies Republicanism (in the broadest sense), Constitutionalism and latterly Socialism, but that component is well and truly dead. What it is about is Authority, not territory. Who has the Authority to rule Ireland? Only the Irish people. When Authoritry is not legitimate, then there is resentment. When the Authority is not legitimate AND it royally screws people over, then the result is what we get here.

    The concerns of Dev and others at the time of partition. It wasn’t about dividing the land. It was about dividing the Irish people. Even if you discount all the Unionists, who can’t seem to make up their mind half the time if they are Irish, British, both, Scottish, Ulsterish, Northernish or fucking Armernian, that still left a 1/3 of the population of the North at the time who most definately did consider themselves Irish. It was that division that is horrendus, and remains horrendus.

    And you will note the importance of the concept of the Irish Nation, as the links with the various parts of the dispora show.

  • J McConnell

    Southern Observer

    What kind of books do you read? Remaindered Catherine Cookson’s from Chapters in Abbey St?

    In the last 25 years Dublin has lost more than half of its second hand bookshops and those that remain are, with one or two exceptions, sad and depressing places mostly populated with remainders or rather tatty and overpriced books.

    The statement that Dublin is better served with bookshops than London or San Francisco is obviously so silly as to need no further comment.

    Maybe you should get yourself over to Portland, Oregon, sometime and have a browse in Powells, a mostly second-hand bookshop whose *main* store covers a whole city block and is as big as Clery’s , and whose smallest of its half a dozen satellite shops is bigger than the largest secondhand bookshop in Dublin. Now that’s what I call a bookshop.

  • Southern Observer

    Mr McConnell,
    Maybe we just have different literary tastes.I go for intellectual/historical/academic stuff.
    [i]The statement that Dublin is better served with bookshops than London or San Francisco is obviously so silly as to need no further comment.[/i]
    Ad hominem comments are forbidden under Slugger rules.

  • Can someone inform me of the religious make up of Stiff Little Fingers? —- originally all Protestant, then 3/4 Protestant then 1/2 Protestant and then they invited some English people in and as they are all Godless no-one knows whether they are Protestant Godless or Catholic Godless. As to music being delineated along religious/sectarian lines, this is typical twaddle as rock music especially has been the one ground through the past 40 years where religion and politics have never intruded. Thank Satan for that 🙂

  • Oh btw – despite affiliation to Satan’s music – being from what the crass people of the world refer to as a Unionist Background, managed to scrape through a degree with a 2:1 and hold down various jobs where intellectual discourse, writing and analytical skills must be used, not one where opinions are currency 🙂 But I guess that doesn’t make me an intellectual under Brian’s terminology. Mmmmmmm methinks I’ll have to write a crap book about NI politics and sell 3 copies – then will I be an intellectual?

  • bertie

    I thought that Van Morrison wasn’t a unionist

  • bertie

    BTW that last comment related to something that was on the first page, #9 I still haven’t ogt used to the commnets being on several pages). The topic seems to have moved on somewhat. 😉

  • Fred Allan

    AM – endlessly. Must get an anonymous email…

    J McConnell – you really think Borders will solve your book-buying problems? Unless by ‘bookshop’ you mean a kind of middlebrow Woolworths.

    Harpo – I think you answer your own question. There are varieties of Irish nationalism, just as there are varieties of Irish unionism, Islamism, communism etc.

    Kensei – I agree with your argument about legitimate authority and self-rule but… ‘neutral’ ‘National bounds’? This THE classic nationalist fallacy. This isn’t, however, to say that a United Ireland is an illegitimate cause. It just needs to be recognised that it is a political aim not the fulfillment of a God-given (or something) programme. Where are the ‘neutral’ boundaries in the Middle East, the Indian sub-continent, North America, former-Yugoslavia? Just because Ireland is small doesn’t make it special. Where are the ‘neutral’ boundaries, for that matter, between England, Wales, and Scotland? Have a look at the borderlands between Poland and Ukraine/Belarus/Lithuania in the interwar period. A very nasty ethnic struggle took place 1939-45 over incompatible ‘neutral’ claims that was halted, eventually, by the brute force of the Soviets and mass migration. Settlement patterns, however they came about (and no one is suggesting Presbyterians should be sent back to Scotland…), have made ‘the North’ different from ‘the South’. Whether this justifies partition is a separate question. But there are realities on the ground which have to be dealt with humanely and pragmatically – and, if it needs to be said, there is no question that Britain’s neglect of NI after 1920 was utterly shameful, permitting abuses of power that would have unacceptable elsewhere in the Union.

    In the end, the point, surely, is to free people from their shackles, material and spiritual. It may be that a United Ireland would get closer to achieving this than the Union, but this case has yet to be made. It may be that a reformed NI can make its people content. Either way, nationalism (as opposed to republicanism of the non-semtex sort), as an ideology of improvement, has had its day.

  • seanniee

    Have you all forgotten that great intellectual
    Johhny Adair?.Or Willie Frazer?.Ulster’s finest.

  • kensei

    “Kensei – I agree with your argument about legitimate authority and self-rule but… ‘neutral’ ‘National bounds’?”

    I meant neutral as in the sense “Ireland is a neutral country”. Which, Shannon not withstanding, is a statement of fact.

    Nice rant, though.

  • Shuggie McSporran

    Does Robert McCartney QC not count as a heavyweight working class unionist intellectual of the highest calibre?

    I first read his theories about Irish nationalism in the “Field Day” publications of the 1980’s which form the basis of how unionists theorize about Irish nationalism today, eg – his linking of Irish nationalism with Nazism. His articles in the Belfast telegraph also seem to have a bit of an intellectual quality about them.

  • Ziznivy

    I can’t be bothered reading 9 pages of unionist bashing, but has Tom Paulin been mentioned. I believe he is pro-Union.

  • Nathan

    Apologies for the late reply to harpo:

    Nathan: ’The unionist tradition certainly hasn’t undergone a fierce self-scrutiny and criticism of itself.’

    Harpo: ‘Why should it bother doing so?’

    Because the two main unionist parties are both suffering from a haemorrhage of voters, even though the demographics point to a strongish margin between what is perceived to be the nationalist/republican community and the unionist/loyalist community. This continual failure of vision, insight and intellect within unionism may, under the right circumstances, contribute to its own terminal decline, and if this happens it will end up being the northern equivalent of 20C southern Unionism in a 21C UI context – defunct, shadowy and demoralised.

    Moreover, because I want the sacred cows of unionism dead in my lifetime – nothing more, nothing less.

    Unfortunately, as Slugger demonstrates there are no shortage of Unionist commentators who churn out the silage (which of course allows the sacred cows of constitutional unionism to survive and thrive e.g. the bogeyman south mentality). This is a pity, because the connection between Britain and Ireland is a legitimate one, and something I would wish to advance in an United Ireland context, where as IJP points out the institutions of the Irish state (particularly the ceremonial ones) would be negotiable.

    Nathan: ‘Unlike the Republican tradition, it rarely has the maturity and confidence to look at itself from more than one particular perspective.
    Moreover, it struggles to cherish and to respect
    the authenticity and validity of Republicanism minus the excesses of narrow nationalism.’

    Harpo: What? Is this the Irish Republicanism that we all know? A violent rising every generation. Bombs on the streets of English cities that kill children? “

    What passes for mainstream Irish Republicanism always has been the excesses of narrow Irish nationalism. The modern Provos certainly have turned out to be nothing more than ugly Irish nationalists.

    Authenticity and validity my arse.

    All the supposed looking at itself from more than one perspective just leads Irish Republicans to keep on saying ‘yes, we are still right and the Brits and unionists are still wrong’.

    Why the fcuk should any unionists cherish fcukers that blow up children on the streets like they did at Warrington? Or cherish fcukers like Martin McGuinness who turned up to state ‘yes things like that shouldn’t happen’. He and his sort of IR hammered away with the same message until they convinced young Irish people to commit such acts. Why should unionists cherish or respect people that preached that message, or carrried out the acts?

    Come back to me harpo when you start to appreciate the depth of the gulf which exists between constitutional republicanism and physical force republicanism.

    Not every Irish republican is motivated by ethnic nationalism you know. For instance, the fact that I would have no sectarian objections to an all-islands, one presidency dispensation where a British Muslim or a Scottish Catholic, having being conferred upon them honorary Irish citizenship by the Irish state following an all-islands Presidential election, could potentially hold the elected office of Irish Head of State and be external representative of the Irish nation abroad at some point in the future demonstrates that we’re a broad church of people, with different motivations and ambitions where an independent United Ireland is concerned. Provided British holders of the Irish Presidency(whether unionist or otherwise) are pluralist enough to play a leading role in our affairs in an impartial manner (e.g. whether it be attending the Easter Rising commemorations or issuing birthday cards to 100 year old citizens) then he or she should be cherished equally as a child of the Irish nation regardless of any perceived differences in ethnicity. Thats my republicanism for you, and it has nothing remotely to do with a baseball bat or a banaclava.

  • ciaran damery

    Shuggie asks, “Does Robert McCartney QC not count as a heavyweight working class unionist intellectual of the highest calibre?”. Well yeah Shuggie, at least that is what he kept on telling us. But he is a failed politician, has no mandate and to most people he is a meglomaniac, not an intellectual. But of course if he returns to the airwaves and bores the viewer to death with his pompous claims that he is very smart, then I guess some poor soul is bound to swallow his Bullshit.

  • Fred,

    “…much of what runs through contemporary Irish nationalist intellectualism is, in fact, self-criticism and, in so far as this is the case, this must be regarded as very positive”.

    I fear we may not be providing our nationalist readership with the right kind of stimulation then, for I see little appetite for self criticism here or in the wider media. Perhaps it is that people are less likely to expose the dark/weak side of their politics in a competitive space like Slugger.

    In fact, I’m not sure that inward looking self critique is actually useful in and of itself. Arthur Aughey’s piece for Prospect on England was neither inward nor particularly self critical, but it was exploring an important aspect of Unionist concerns which is rarely given space to: the quality and nature of east west relations.

    But there is also a dearth of discussion (or indeed serious intellectual capital) on north south relations too, despite the existence of these great summer schools. If it were not for the work of Dublin academic institutes like IBIS, there would likely be little impetus for new lines of thought in northern Nationalism.

  • slug
  • Bernard

    To Daft Rumsfeld.

    “Ulster Scots” also pioneered the Ku Klux Klan.

    Cross burnings, protestant masonic cult and burning hatred for catholics.

    Funnily enough the area in America with the largest majority of “Ulster Scots” is Appilachia. Which is also the poorest and most backwards area.

    Oh and country music came from Irish Celtic music.

  • John Kennedy

    I’m just fed up with hearing about Northern Ireland and it’s petty politics. We were force fed the small mindness of Northern Ireland’s politics as a kid via RTE – a turn off for most -risable at best.

    It appears to me than neither side can move forward from the 17th century. Hello we live in the 21st century – a competitive free trade world and an interconnected world. Message to the politicans – move on from the polemics and do something positive for Northern Ireland.

  • james orr


    Dont be daft. How could a 19th century northern US urban catholic Irish immigrant community create an 18th century southern US rural protestant musical form?

  • Doctor Who

    Christopher Eastwood

    “It has been recalled by many that Loyalist prisoners were defined by their somatic obsession – indulging their Adonis complexes with heavy weight-lifting and steroids. Conversely, Republican cells apparantly resembed libraries, areas of thought and reflection.”

    “Republican cells resembled libraries”. Good lord, what ones do you go to. Their cells resembled the pitiful neo naxi, book burning (linen hall library fire bomb) shit they where.

    Where do you go for thought and reflection, the sewer perhaps.