From ‘civic unionism’ to ‘devo-brats’


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.



  • Brian O’Neill

    An interesting post Jenny, well done. I still see decent Civic Unionists around today, but they do tend to be keeping their heads down. Who can blame them when even the moderates are getting bullets in the post.

  • PaulT

    Robert James Tennent, is that the Liberal MP who married Genry Joy’s sister

    I thought merchants tried to establish a slave trade in Belfast, they were prevented by laws intended to keep the trade in England.

    I thought Belfast made a lot of money out supplying the slave trade.

    I thought the anti-slave movement was largely down to the United Irishmen esp as the the concept came from the french revolution.

  • New Yorker

    Excellent article. Thank you, Jenny. The Queens University study is quite encouraging. I was not familiar with that Paul Bew book but will find a copy and read it.

  • Brian O’Neill
  • PaulT

    Brian, your link backs up my point, the anti-slavery movement was created and led by the United Irishmen and other radicals.

    The anti-slavery movement was also linked to Catholic emancipation. So hardly likely to attract unionists

    Tennentt, not only didn’t lead the movement, he wasn’t even a unionist, he was a early Homeruler wanting union with GB but not to be administered by the English.

    Next you’ll try too revise Lord Castlereagh’s role in the slave trade

    Problem is unionism is always found wanting, they were into slavery, they hid under the bed during WW1 and kept going on strike for more money during WW2 and so on, up to RIR officers caught out awarding each other medals for free in Afganistan.

    Thought you had stopped jumping the shark with this rubbish Mick

  • SeaanUiNeill
  • tmitch57

    An interesting post. In a struggle between two competing nationalisms liberals are usually rendered irrelevant. In South Africa Afrikaner nationalists saw most English-speakers as suspect and regarded the Progressive Party and its later off-shoots as being in bed with the African National Congress. Whereas the ANC cooperated with white Communists but eschewed the liberals and regarded them as suspect. The even more hardline Africanist Pan-Africanist Congress wanted whites excluded from liberation politics all together and viewed all whites as simply settlers to be expelled after liberation. In Israel the liberal Zionist Meretz party is regarded as traitors by those on the Israeli far Right and suspect by many Palestinians. The basic problem is that nationalism is about identity politics more than about ideas and those who come from a different identity are suspect as are those who come with a different set of ideas.

  • Roy Reilly-Robertson

    A very interesting post which raises a few questions about how to break out of the past and not simply go on re-living it at every opportunity. The current devolved political arrangements do nothing really except put a total stop on developments in political thinking and discussion. Civic Unionism still has a future in some for or another but politicians need to take risks and the threats of bullets in the post needs to be faced down. Perhaps the current Leader of the UUP could make a start by indicating that his agreeing to issue 40K leaflets about the City Hall Flag decision was a mistake as it allied Unionism with interests and figures that were not controllable or even really friendly to the interests of modern democratic society.