Draft profile of today’s Ulster Unionists

I’ve been on a little muse about the sort of people Tom Elliot represents. Epithets like ” the salt of  the earth ” and ” the backbone of Ulster ” would have applied to them in my youth.  Despite the dominance of Belfast, their essential character was rooted in  a very strong sense of place.     

Putting my head in a noose, I’ve tried this little profile.  

A basic question is whether the home comfort zone of the  UU socal classes exists any more. I have sympathy with them for trying to recreate the  fairly self contained, apparently stable world with a  strong local identity, free from the violence and turmoil of the last 40 years. Their forebears didn’t always realise that some of it was achieved at others’ expense and when they did, they thought it was necessary for their very survival.   For the present generation, the old certainties have eroded but have not lost their appeal. While deference to the gentry has long gone,  they feel a pang of regret that they have lost their smaller share of  pull and patronage – though who you know still matters more than you might  think.

They sound secure, even complacent and are anything but.  Contrary to  some appearances and their legendary taciturnity, they are in fact deeply emotional.  They observe the norms of religion but are privately more sceptical  than their fathers were.  After all “the right” did not unambiguously win, so where was God?    

They are in two minds about the political settlement but on the whole will make the best of it.   Braced for years again the threat of ambush and sudden attack,  many defended their territory in the UDR and RIR with great courage.  They abominated equally the few who disgraced the uniform, and republican and  loyalist terrorists.

 They have have moved on, of course. They travel and use the Internet. They no longer boycott crossing the border although they don’t need to do it very often. They take budget airline trips to England at least a couple of times a year. Or at least their wives do. Note I assume ” they ” are men. The age of equality hasn’t quite caught up with them  and they shake their heads  and chuckle at women’s assertiveness.  One Arlene Foster doesn’t make a  feminist nirvana. 

 They are fair employers and courteous workers. Many of their well-educated grown-up children have good jobs abroad or across the water. The mobile young are often agnostic about Ulster values and identity, a fact that causes their parents pain.

 Some of  their best friends might be Catholics but on the whole not.  They  mix across the community warily and know what they mean when they say “in lodge.” 

 For  the forty somethings among them now assuming the driving seat from their fathers, their vision is based on a folk memory of pre-troubles life and the remarkable continuity their fathers preserved against the odds. Life and settlement patterns in rural areas still bear the traces of the Plantation era, despite the flight  to  the city and beyond.  Protestants are in slow retreat but are gamely hanging on, refusing  to be defeated by the terrorists and their legatees. This is admirable. Their determination  to remain deserves its reward.  The old Labour politician and journalist Richard Crossman once said their frontier spirit reminded him of the early Israeli settlers of the kibbutz. They would welcome the  romantic comparison. 

Otherwise, their society is like a miniature of  the US flyover States where gays and other ethnics keep their modest places and diversity treated with suspicion. The ” liberals” ( a term of abuse)   are mostly deluded and get far too much attention.  They are part of the globalising world only very selectively and are not blown about by any passing fancy. They get angry when they feel  they’re being patronised. They feel slighted and deliberately misunderstood for reasons they can’t quite fathom and certainly distrust.

They are not bad people. You underestimate them at your peril.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London