It’s been a sad few weeks for those of us who crave a new story line in Northern Irish politics. First came the lovely speech from Gregory “Toilet Paper” Campbell, which provoked several low-brow responses from the Shinners in return. Then this week it was the news that yet another attempt to shake up the status quo had died a death. The news here on Slugger garnered only slight interest, wracking up a mere 138 views. And more importantly, we were told by Chancellor George Osborne that maybe we could have some extra privileges — like the promise of pudding after dinner — but only if we behaved ourselves and shared our toys.
So I turned to history, thinking that a blueprint for change was to be found there. I picked up a copy of Dr John Bew’s 2009 book, The Glory of Being Britons: Civic Unionism in 19th century Belfast, hoping to find some solace. And I found little. The book offers many parallels with today. Unfortunately most of them support the cynic’s argument that in this place nothing ever changes.
The book offers a window into the days when Belfast had a claim to being the “Athens of the North,” with a progressive unionist culture that was anti-slavery and prided itself on scientific, cultural and economic progress.
At the core of this Ulster liberalism, Bew writes, was “a desire to find ‘an integrative logic to the political future of Ireland… defined by shared principles rather than religious or ethnic distinctiveness.” That political future was best served with an alignment with the United Kingdom.
“For Belfast’s self-conscious Victorians, the logic of the Union was that it transcended ‘ultraism’, parochialism, sectionalism and party strife.”
They contrasted their level-headed, progress-based approach with the “wild vagaries of theoretic patriotism” preached by the likes of Daniel O’Connell. Without patriotic agitation, and with technological developments like the telegraphic wire and global trade, the theory went, “nationalities of men will largely die away and the unity of the world will be evoked.”
This was the sincerely held belief of the civic elite in Belfast, Newry and Derry. They produced some very interesting political leaders, (especially by our current standards) — men like Robert James Tennent, who fought alongside Lord Byron for Greek independence and led the anti-slavery movement here.
In the 1840’s, Bew writes, there was even “a growing amount of common intellectual ground – and active political cooperation – between liberal unionists and the Young Ireland nationalist movement…based around a shared interest in mixed education.”
The engineering feat that straightened the River Lagan, thus boosting the city’s shipbuilding industry, was in 1860 held up as an example of what could be achieved “by local enterprise and local money (a rare thing in Ireland)”, when demagogic distractions were pushed aside.
Bew writes: “The key distinction here was that Irish improvement was being driven by engineers and industrialists rather than those who had reduced the Irish question to ‘blunderings’ about Saxons and Celts.”
Sadly, those ‘blunderings’ carried the day. The genteel civic unionism of the 19th century ultimately foundered on the rocky shoals of nationalistic impulses, both orange and green. The cleavages of identity politics were too strong.
In a conversation with Bew, a historian, author and Belfast native now at King’s College London, he stressed that civic unionism of this time was highly flawed. He also notes that the loud-mouth, rabble rousing vitriol that Campbell employed at the DUP party conference was very much alive in the 19th century. But where unionism today “is defined by provincialism, that was not the case in the 19th century.”
Today, the tone of the debate in Ulster is a strange mix of self-loathing and a defensive, peevish self-aggrandising. Bew accurately characterises the DUP as “devo-brats” forever demanding special treatment, and sums up Gerry Adam’s political raison d’etre as “stick it to the Prods.”
I remain doggedly optimistic. The liberal has always had an uphill battle on its hands in Ulster. But it could be argued that many of the conditions for a strong liberal political culture are still in place – excellent centres of learning, growing intellectual and technical capital, and a flourishing culture industry.
Furthermore, almost everyday I am confronted with evidence that a great number of people here, across class and religious divides, simply don’t subscribe to the orange and the green narratives. Today it was this from Queens University. The question is, then, how to wrest the microphones away from the old guard and build something new.
And in that regard, history provides us with both a reason for optimism and a reason to despair.