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.
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