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.

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  • Cynic

    Sorry but I think a lot of your analysis is wrong.

    You forgot that most of Tom’s supporters are from Fermanagh, deeply deeply deeply small c conservative and over 50.
    Indeed, the joke in Unionist circles is that Tom’s majority would have been much greater but they couldn’t find enough buses with wheelchair platforms in Fermanagh to get the voters to Belfast.

    You also left out his focus on traditional values as embodied by the OO. Presumably that includes the right to march and throw rocks at the peelers if they aren’t allowed to. It certainly means that he wont have a Gay person or a GAA match about him.

    Hence Toms recent positioning in attempt to put him and the UUP to the right of the DUP and between them and the OO. Indeed there are suggestions that some senior members of the UUP close to the ‘leadership’ actively encouraged the OO to reject the Parades Proposals

    This is actually not mainstream unionism. It’s right wing unionism vainly playing the orange card. Paisleyism lite, without the charm or chutzpah!

    I agree that we shouldn’t underestimate them but for different reasons from the ones you suggest

  • Turgon

    Brian Walker’s picture is suprisingly similar to Ed Curran’s in the Belfast Telegraph.

    If Walker was at school or university it would be called plagarism.

    To be fair he has added a couple of nonsense partonising paragraphs at the end and then says (I trust understanding the irony) “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.

    Well I guess at least Brian has stopped telling lies about the UUP leader: progress of a sort. Who knows Brian in a few more months you might be on the way back to being a real journalist.

  • Joseph Addison

    Cynic,
    Brilliant piece,furthermore Farmer Tom thinks if he ignores the moderates they will go away. True they will and the UUP cannot afford a voluntary lobotomy.

  • The Raven

    “This has been a partly political broadcast for….”

  • John East Belfast

    Brian

    If there is any concept that is right about Ulster Unionism – and often leads to what appears as its dysfunctionality – it is the one that says it is a Broad Church.

    As such there is no typical member or voter but a broad range of which you only touch on some

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Actually I think that it is an excellent piece by Mr Walker..if a trifle nostalgic. Fair employers? Well the most famous Fermanagh unionist of them all might well have been fair to those employees he actually had…..but of course he famously reserved the right to be extremely selective about who he actually hired…..a position endorsed by his successors in ulster unionism opposing “fair employment legislation”.
    The RIchard Crossman “flyover states” remark is of course accurate but surely not complimentary.
    Gun toting God fearing “minute men” patrolling the streets of Dallas Texas (Ive seen them) are a reminder of gun toting God fearing types who patrolled against similar godless menaces closer to home.
    No coincidence that Israels flag flies a lot here. A reminder of another God-chosen gun toting people facing a goodless menace. There was actually a time when “kibbutz” was a good word.
    Or those other God fearing gun toting folks facing a godless menace….in Kenya, Zimbabwe and particuarly South Africa.
    Kindred spirits with Elliotts UUP?
    Yes……most of what Mr Walker says is true. They have actually seen a lot of their moral certainty and minor patronage drain away and no end in sight. For them they prolly see The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down getting closer.

  • Joseph Addison

    Farmer Tom might have needed seven buses including two double deckers to win the Leadership. How many buses will he and his inverse looking cabal need to take the defectors. The tap has obviously started running drip by drip.

  • Craig Broon

    I’ve been on a little muse about the sort of people Brian Walker represents. Epithets like “self-satisfied” and “public sector leeches” 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. I know this doesn’t make much sense, because Belfast is a place too, but I’m not being paid for this, so I don’t feel I should make much effort.

    Putting my head in a noose (and it’s a squeeze, let me tell you), I’ve tried this little profile.

    A basic question is whether the home comfort zone of the BBC pensioner 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 impudence and turmoil of the upstart, non-credentialed bloggers. 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. After all, where would be without a BBC to tell us just what ‘the news’ is? For the present generation, the old certainties have eroded but have not lost their appeal. While deference to the provincial news 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. I, for example, know people in London, and am thus very important. You, on the other hand, are reading this blog on an iPhone, as I believe they’re called, in the canteen at Stormont.

    They sound secure, even complacent and are, if anything, even more so. Contrary to some appearances and their legendary loquacity, they are in fact deeply emotional. Now I know that setting up the simple opposition in the first clause of the previous sentence in no way logically led to the concluding clause, but as I’ve already told you, I’m not being paid for this, so I’m not making much of an effort. They observe the norms of “public service” but are privately more sceptical than their fathers were. After all “Sky News” pays rather better, so where was Roy Jenkins? But I digress.

    They are in one mind about the political settlement, and have always applauded the right thing, and have embraced a large range of opinions, ranging from Faulkner’s left circa 1974, to John Hume’s backside. Braced for years again [sic>/i>] the threat of being told how boring, smug and self-congratulatory they are, many got their retaliation in first by being endlessly condescending about others. You know, offering ‘profiles’ of lumpen groups en masse, and dimly trying to remember what de haut en bas means so they can type it out correctly. They abominated the few who criticised all terrorist murders because sel-evidently those hoors were opposed to the Peace Process, blessed be its memory.

    They haven’t have moved on, of course. They travel and use the Internet, and capitalise it needlessly. They feel very superior about the fact that they’ve stayed in a 2nd home in Atlantic Drivem and preen proudly whenever they’re lucky enough to hear anyone English praise the authenticity of Donegal. They take expenses paid press junkets wherever they can, as often they can,a nd resent dipping into their own pockey to actually pay for anything thenselves. And, because they’re so frightfully superior, BBC pensioners have also got frightly superior attitudes towards wimmin. Unlike everyone else. I’m not sure I’ve fully explicated that point, or rather, because I surely have, my fear is that because you’re so frightfully inferior, I’ll have to roll together a few more sentence designed to remind you of just how superior I am in my attitudes until you finally catch up and appreciate that Verity. I don’t know why I’ve capitalised that word, but see my salient remarks passim about lack of pay.

    They are gurning public employees and and bad tippers, unless they can blag it on expenses, and even then, it’s better of course to pocket it oneself. 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 joy so pure and profound that although I could find the words to describe this state of bliss, you would not be able to follow them.

    Some of their best friends might play golf but on the whole not. They mix across the community warily and know what they mean when they say “punters.”

    For the sixty and seventy somethings among them still seething at Dunseith, their vision is based on a folk memory of having once got plum posts, and, been denied still better ones because of the blinkered, bureaucratic cowardice of people unworthy to work for a great corporation. Life and settlement patterns in south Belfast and the Gold Coast still bear some traces of them, but sadly parvenus who ‘create’ wealth are steadily driving them out of their rightful homes by the cruel expedient of buying them.

    Otherwise, their society is like a miniature of the US, with gays and other [sic] ethnics and a 2nd hand celebration of ‘diversity’ being an ideally cost-free way of bruiting ones own moral superiority. The “critics” have, of course, not worked for the BBC, and are therefore unworthy of attention. They feel almost orgiastic levels of self-pleasure when they feel that they’ve patronised someone else. Or better still, an entire, stereotyped group. They’ll slight at will and with self-certifying inerrancy, they’ll fail to understand anything they can’t quite fathom and or distrust. And yes, I should know that this bit it utterly tautological, and yes, if you would care to even raise yourself to the level of effort of buying a stamp for the postal order you wish to send me, I might attempt to raise my game. But no money, no effort, capiche?

    They are boring people. You overestimate nowhere near as much as they do themselves.

  • The Richard Crossman “flyover states” remark?

    Was that an accidental conflation of Brian’s citing Crossman on kibbutzniks? [For which I’d like a source, in any case: since Crossman was an enthusiast of kibbutzim, that would be praise indeed.]

    That noted, does anyone have an ‘ur’-source for “flyover country” or “flyover states”? Where did this expression come from? Was it that Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover, “the world seen from 9th Avenue”?

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Absolutely no idea. I assumed seemingly wrongly that the penultimate paragraph was linked to Crossmans plantation/kibbutz views.

  • Brian Walker

    Malcolm, yes fitz was conflating there. Sorry no source for Crossman, except my excellent ( of course!) memory of a piece in the New Statesman I read in about 1970. He was of course fervently pro-Israeli but barely aware of NI. There are bound files in the Oxford Union library if you have a spare week or two to search. Perhaps you can understand how it stuck in my memory all these years.

    And fitz, be fair.. you’re conflating time too. I’m talking about UUs today, not in the era of Brookeborough. cynic, I thought I put in quite a bit about tradtional values. But I wasn’t referring directly to Tom Elliot.

    But yes I admit, I’m not bang up to date, although not totally adrift- that’s why I say I was attempting a profile. I suppose too like Dev in another context I look into my heart… I grew up with a few Fermanagh and Tyrone stalwarts,but rather more from counties Derry and Antrim

  • Brian Walker

    ps. I first read ” flyover ” States in an Andrew Sullivan piece a coiple of years ago I think

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    oh Mr Walker…..be fair.
    While many UU supporters no doubt have excellent records as fair employers, the political record of the UUP on such as public policy is not exactly wholesome at any time prior to ints introduction.

  • Granni Trixie

    Its impressionistic I know but the pieces written by Ed Curran since he left the BT worry me,(not so much the piece in the link above) given all the power he had as editor of BT at crucial times of the troubles.
    + Eric Waughs pieces , now you Brian.
    I conclude that I live in a different world Is there any hope we might enter each others’ ?

    Maybe tomorrow I will return to optimism after an early night.

  • “…They abominated equally the few who disgraced the uniform, and republican and loyalist terrorists…”

    They lack self-awareness or a sense of irony. They denied that anyone ever disgraced the uniforms (not even the uniforms worn by various fellow marchers on the Twelfth etc, who just so happened to be those sameloyalist terrorists they claimed to abominate).

  • Alias

    While the engineering of the Northern Irish nation (which is the one that actually has the psuedo right to self-determination in NI) requires that the two existing (and competing) nations in NI should be merged into one new nation, social engineering of that new nation that relies on dehumanization of those that won’t fit the model is likely to prove counterproductive. No social group under the banner of either of the two nations that are to be destroyed will go willingly to its own gallows when that fate is made too explicit…

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    It occurs to me that the kibbutz settlers and the people in the flyover American states and of course the Ulster Unionists are…..extremely unpopular.
    Those Israeli gun toting settler types on the West Bank have excellent fair minded journos (are they perhaps related to them?) like Mel Phillips and David Aaronovitch to tell their tale of how they are good decent God fearing people who are much misunderstood in the Modern World.
    Likewise those gun toting settler salt of the earth people in USA have excellent fair minded (are they perhaps related?) journos like Shaun Hannity, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly to tell us that they are good decent God fearing people who are much misunderstood in the Modern World.

    These wonderful God fearing, gun toting settlor people share much with the old style unionists. Alas with the exception of Eric Waugh (is he perhaps related to them) they have no fair minded independent journo to stand up and defend them.