When the Ace of Trumps became the Two: Unionism and the Diminishing Power of the “Orange Card”?

“I decided some time ago that if the G.O.M. [Grand Old Man/William Gladstone] went for Home Rule, the Orange card would be the one to play. Please God it may turn out the ace of trumps and not the two.”

So wrote Lord Randolph Churchill in a letter to Lord Justice Fitzgibbon on 16th February 1886 as the first Home Rule crisis came to the fore. In playing the “Orange card” his plan was to mobilise Ulster Protestants by tapping into their long-held fears of “the Other” and exploit the sectarian tensions that had plagued Ulster throughout much of the century.

The fears and insecurities were often, despite its own displays of bravado, best epitomised in the Orange Order – thus his reference to the Orange. For Churchill it was essential, in order to defeat Home Rule, that Ulster Protestantism would unite and speak with one, if necessary threatening, voice: “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right”, he would later menacingly insist.  

Churchill’s use of the “Orange card” set an important precedent for Unionist political leaders. It became an important political strategy for mobilising unionist/loyalist support at times of crisis and, more often than not, during elections as was evidenced in the recent Assembly campaign when it backfired in spectacular fashion.

Importantly, this was not the first time it failed to achieve its intended objectives and history suggests that the “ace of trumps” should not be seen as a guaranteed outcome. A clear example of this was during the third Home Rule crisis (1912-14) as Sir Edward Carson entered into a dangerous game of bluff with Irish nationalism and the Liberal government.

Carson, in playing the Orange card, believed that if Ulster sought “separate treatment” convincingly enough, Irish nationalism would pull back from its Home Rule demands rather than accept a partitioning of the island. Carson’s goal, after all, was to protect the Union – the “guiding star” of his political life – in its entirety.

Carson’s politicking however, although designed to play on Protestant fears and wider sectarian tensions, also succeeded in mobilising nationalist anger and played directly into the hands of militant separatists. As Bulmer Hobson, a key figure in the reinvigoration of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, described to RTÉ in 1963:

“Carson…changed the whole political climate in Ireland, he shook it out of its dream of constitutional agitation. It made the young men feel that they got to be up and do something…”    

Carson’s Orange card, in reinforcing the sectarian divisions of the time, pushed Ireland ever further towards a partition that neither unionism nor nationalism wanted. Particularly after the crisis generated by the Easter Rising of 1916, it was clear that the Orange card was no longer serving the needs of Irish Unionism and that Carson had no other hand to play.

This latter point is of huge importance. Even if Carson’s campaign had been successful in preventing Home Rule, in all likeliness this would only have been a short-term victory. Ulster Unionism, despite its restructuring since 1905/06, had never devised a strategy capable of removing the threat of Home Rule in the long-term or prepared themselves to take the bold moves necessary to create a more stable Union.

As will be discussed shortly, this very much resonates with the current position Unionism now finds itself in.  

Following partition the Orange card came to play a very different role. Despite having secured a state with a significant Protestant majority, the Orange card continued to be employed but now as a means of guarding against a fracturing of unionism that could become a threat to the political dominance of the Unionist Party.

Central to this was the preservation of a perceived nationalist/republican threat. Political speeches, often delivered from Orange platforms during the July celebrations and during election campaigns, sought to reinforce the idea that the next constitutional crisis was merely around the corner.

According to this narrative, any division within Unionism was a sign of weakness that could prove fatal. As political historian Graham Walker argues, unionist leaders worked hard to ensure that electoral politics in Northern Ireland became little more than a ‘straightforward struggle’ between Orange and Green.

This approach, in the main, served unionism well for a considerable period. Somewhat ironically its effectiveness was undermined when a threat, of sorts, did emerge in the form of the civil rights movement. The demand for equality – for reform not revolution – generated significant divisions within unionism about how best to respond.

For some, a positive response opened the possibility of a new stability in Northern Ireland that could, once and for all, put to bed the constitutional question. This was, perhaps, best summed up by Terence O’Neill’s condescending remark in 1969 that “if you give Roman Catholics a good job and a good house they will live like Protestants”.

For other unionists, however, any such conciliation was merely opening the door to the “enemies of Ulster” and should be strenuously opposed. In many respects, the descent into conflict helped to maintain a stronger degree of unionist unity than might otherwise have been the case – most unionist politicians were again united in their analysis of who the enemy was and how they ought to be fought.

Making peace has tended to be more problematic, as evidenced in James Molyneaux’s famous assertion that the IRA ceasefire was “the worst thing that has ever happened to us”. Just how problematic it was can be seen from the fracturing that took place between pro- and anti-Agreement parties.

These divisions created a scenario in which it was the DUP that were capable of play the Orange card more effectively. In so doing they could successfully argue against what they deemed a weak agreement for unionism and claim they were negotiating a much stronger settlement.

The problem, of course, is that even strong agreements contain elements they don’t like and this remains unionisms greatest problem. A strong, confident unionism is seen to exist only when it is standing up to “the Other” – it is not when it is compromising or, worse still, implementing those compromises.

Yet, it is arguably accepting this necessity that can strengthen the Union in the longer-term. This is particularly true given the changing demographics of Northern Ireland.

Catholics expected much from power-sharing between Sinn Féin and the DUP. In particular, they expected a recognition of, and respect for, their Irishness – something the DUP has seemingly failed to accept sufficiently.

This has been reinforced by the party’s support for Brexit and the fears that this has generated within the nationalist community that it may, once again, create a hard border on the island. For many, this is an entirely unacceptable outcome.

Indeed, whilst not necessarily lending itself to republican militancy, Brexit may yet prove to be the moment contemporary Unionism once again awakened a complacent nationalism.  

For the DUP, and unionism more generally, lessons need to be learned not only from the last Assembly election campaign but also from history. Put simply, the Orange card can very easily deliver the two.   


  • the moviegoer

    Excellent analysis.

    Another aspect of this is that for 100 years it is nationalists who have been advocating constitutional change whereas unionists had the advantage of being defenders of the status quo.

    Now it is Brexit-supporting unionists who are the ones advocating constitutional change via Brexit while nationalists and moderate unionists are defenders of the status quo.

    Why did the DUP suddenly decide to become proactive about constitutional change, with all the inherent risks involved, and run against the grain of mainstream political thought in Westminster? The possibility that they might have done it simply to cash in on being the bagman for anti-EU campaigners on the mainland is quite incredible.

  • grumpy oul man

    The orange card still is the unionist fallback positon (at least the DUPs)
    The obvious problem is that while its not a deuce its at the most a 5 and lowering.
    Its also obvious to everybody else that its not the card it used to be, It dropped to about 10 after Drumcree and dropped again after Twaddell.
    Any card is only a trump card if it wins a hand the OO hasn’t won a hand in a long time.

  • Df M

    Many in the DUP were probably like Boris Johnson, opportunistically pro-Brexit in public but privately hoping that it would not happen. Except for the likes of Sammy Wilson, whose jubilation was extremely premature given that the “ourselves alone” choice, Brexit, may come at the cost of breaking up the UK and certainly will not make the Union stronger or NI’s position in it. If Scotland votes to leave the UK in a second referendum, a border poll in NI will be firmly on the agenda.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    “For Churchill it was essential, in order to defeat Home Rule, that Ulster Protestantism would unite and speak with one, if necessary threatening, voice: “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right”, he would later menacingly insist.”

    This history is like those carved Chinese ivory balls, one inside another, and really needs to be engaged with in the context of how people were actually thinking at the time. This particular comment needs to be detached from what ensued, especially with Carson and the Covenant and their inevitable “bad loser” recourse to arms when the constitutionalist struggle failed Unionism at the time of the Third Home Rule Bill. Carson was talking to Saunderson’s Unionist party, which was a very different creature the party the later UUC! “Fight” meant for Churchill, a fight in the commons against Parnell and Joe Biggar’s “rasping Belfast accent” filibustering the business down until Home Rule was to the front of the agenda. It was a very, very different age! But I doubt that Randolph Churchill, for all his bellicose rhetoric, would ever have imagined creating a private army to challenge Westminster outside of constitutionalism. When his son Winston plotted to employ Sir Neville Mcready arrest the UUC and UVF leadership in march 1914, he was acting in the interests of the constitutionalist framework against what were effectively people openly plotting treason. Sadly, the arrest attempt failed (despite gunboats in Belfast Lough) and we were projected on a trajectory of quite unnecessary violence for a century, as Bulmer Hobson gleefully attested in the quote above. Sir Randolph could never have imagined that a later generation of Unionists would take his hyperbolic rhetoric very, very literally!

  • David Crookes

    Probably nothing so rational, tm! In its DNA the DUP carries the meme that the EU is 100% popery, and therefore bad.

    The Orange card has become more like that awful card in Monopoly which contains the command DO NOT PASS GO.

    If the DUP wanted to snatch victory in the second election from the jaws of their effective defeat in the first one, they would instal a young leader with no Troubles baggage, say sorry, stop snarling, stop scowling, stop barking idiotically about Mr Adams, embrace a modest Irish linguistic dimension in a generous spirit, forget about the Orange Order, declare that most people (Protestant or Catholic) are interested neither in parading nor in eternal enquiries, and reach out to a multitude of urbane unionist non-voters with the promise that no DUP MLA would remain a member of any ‘loyal order’.

    (Ye’re tha quare comeejin, sez you.)

    Of course you’re right. Only dreamingI

    I fear that the incurable dog will return to its curried-yoghurt vomit.

    [By the way, bravo, Cathal! Cogent and acute posting.]

  • the rich get richer

    There is no doubt that some politicians took positions that they thought would strengthen themselves and their parties . They expected Remain to win and were shocked that Brexit won .

    It only goes to show how many of our politicians are completely out of touch with your ordinary voter………….

    Too many in Gilded Palaces and doing very nicely……..How do the servants of the people get so far removed from the people……..

  • Df M

    Agreed. Actually surprising the DUP did not get punished even more for their Brexit stance in the election. The UUP rather meekly accepted the overall UK decision in the aftermath. I think this was a strategic mistake by Nesbitt. Had they remained consistent in their opposition to Brexit, and campaigned more on the issue, the UUP could have eaten into the DUP’s vote by arguing that the DUP through their recklessness, have weakened the Union.

  • Gavin Smithson

    Before anyone reads further, let me emphasise and make clear that I do not hold any of the beliefs below. I am a unionist but I’m afraid I’m a tiny minority in my cadre. Below is true for 95% of political unionism:

    Unionism is elitist. Unionism/ Ulste Protestantism regards itself as the chosen ones. This means that it is incapable of reaching out to non Protestants because they are not the chosen ones

    Sometimes Unionists play lip service to reaching out but that’s just hot air. It’s not in the Unionist DNA. Unionism regards Catholic Ireland as backward. For this reason, Unionism wants nothing to do with it.

    Unionism’s power is declining. A rationale secular party or movement would evangelise and reach out to non core supporters to keep its numbers up.

    But not Unionism. Unionism is elite. We will go down with the NI ship and will cut off our nose and ears and eyes to spite our face.

    Unionism is morbidly stupid, incapable of reaching out and does not have a strategic bone in its ailing body.

    Sometimes people like Basil McCrea, John McAllister and Mike Nesbitt come along holding out a hand but they just get laughed at within unionism and get chewed up and then we are back to political normal. Such people mean well and have brains but Unionism doesn’t have brains. Unionism just has ‘right’ on our side

    Such gentle persons I mention are those daffodils that sometime grow in winter. A rarity, an exotic thing to behold but they don’t last long and there’s never more than a handful at a time.

    That’s why Unionism will fail. Smart unionists would start negotiating for a UI today. But Unionism is not smart. It never will be

    And I am a Unionist saying all this and it pains me. I voted NI21. I thought they would deliver. I was wrong

  • lizmcneill

    Unionism should get out more. Ireland is no longer backward and less Catholic as time goes on.

  • woodkerne

    ‘Having an enemy is important not only to define our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our system of values and, in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth. So when there is no enemy, we have to invent one.’ (Inventing the Enemy, 2013), In this way instancing how parochial intersects geopolitical, parsing the eternal structure of otherness and othering – where, perhaps surprisingly to essentialists, self is shown to be produced through dialectical process of attraction and/or repulsion to/with a constitutive other – Umberto Eco reveals the standard 2-part divide & rule trope of colonial expropriation: i.e., wherein relative privilege is afforded by the coloniser to a locally dominant tribe or cohort of transplanted settlers in promotion of absolute ethnicist enmity towards an inferiorised indigenous minority (or majority). Whether as between Xhosa and Zulus, Hutu and Tutsi or in the artificial conditions of French occupation of Algeria or the plantation of Ulster, where Scottish and English protestant settlers usurped and dispossessed the Irish catholic native, across the globe and throughout 17th – 20th centuries, the basic technique of playing the sectarian ‘card’ and the long-term (post-colonial) consequences of it have been much the same.

  • Gavin Smithson

    I know that.

  • Df M

    Interesting analysis. However, the recent election surge for nationalism and the demographic trend, which has started to manifest itself in earnest may provoke a change of strategy. The Brexit fall-out and Scotland’s fate will have a huge impact on unionism. We have entered unchartered territory and fresh thinking is required on all sides.

  • Gavin Smithson

    You assume rational thinking will come to the fore. This is Ulster. It won’t

  • Am Ghobsmacht



  • Fear Éireannach

    The UU identified Brexit as a threat to peace and Union and then voted for it!! Had the associated themselves with the majority in NI they would not have done worse in the election, but would have had a stick to beat the DUP with when Nicola Sturgeon calls a referendum.

  • Df M

    The problem with Mike Nesbitt is that he flip-flopped a lot during his tenure. First moving towards the DUP, unionist forums and pacts then his recent flirt with the SDLP. Also the UUP were very divided on Brexit with many senior people going against the party line. Perhaps Nesbitt resigned prematurely. He definitely seemed to be offering a more inclusive pro-union vision.

  • ted hagan

    I’m afraid the current situation, to me, not only illustrates the bigotry that still exists within much of the unionist community, but also that which exists within the nationalist community as well. And that, after years of enforced powersharing.
    I’m 62. If I was forty years younger I’d be packing my bags, pronto..
    Neither the DUP or Sinn Fein holds the high moral ground in the current situation.
    They’re both playing sectarian games and one wants victory over the other.

  • Guilty of Wrongthink

    Aye, how dare those yins have arms for defense. Unlike those noble Fenian IRB warriors and their bombin campaigns an’ all.

  • Guilty of Wrongthink

    Hates Unionism and spreads mendacious hatred against “his own” to show how wonderful he is to fit in with those who want to drive us into the sea — check!
    “start negotiating for a UI today” — check!
    “voted NI21” — and they wonder why it failed? lol

  • Mike the First

    I agree with a lot of that, and Foster’s leadership has indeed been poor.

    But “install a young leader with no Troubles baggage”? Come on! Arlene Foster’s witnessing of murder bids on her father and her school bus driver as a child is hardly “Troubles baggage” in the sense of others’ active and leading terrorist roles in mass murder campaigns.

  • Guilty of Wrongthink

    About as balanced an article we could expect (sarcasm rolls eyes)

    “Catholics expected much from power-sharing between Sinn Féin and the DUP. In particular, they expected a recognition of, and respect for, their Irishness – something the DUP has seemingly failed to accept sufficiently.” waaawaaaaawaaaaaaaa They’re not promoting the eradication of their homeland for us waaaa waaa waaaa how dare they spend £171 on Irish Gaelic over the past 5 years waaaaa waaaaaa waaaaa waaaaaaaa

  • johnny lately

    Everyone is wondering why your comment is awaiting moderation yet Sluggers version of a Venus fly trap who is clearly playing the man rather than the ball can post what he likes.

  • David Crookes

    [As the inevitable robotical responses will in time demonstrate.]

    Gavin, I was profoundly moved by your previous posting. You wrote from the heart, without artifice.

    I and my family are 100% British in our own hearts, with generations of service in the Crown forces behind us, but we’re going to have to think with our heads very soon.

    Barbarous vulgar ‘unionism’ has no interest in being 100% British.

    (Barbarous vulgar ‘unionists’ dislike English people, and are unashamed to say so!)

    Barbarous vulgar ‘unionists’, if I can use the words of Lord Vansittart, ‘are a dangerous lot, aggressively provincial, hating all that they do not know.’

    Partly because their ignorance is so prodigious, barbarous vulgar ‘unionists’ are characterized chiefly by hatred.

    It is they (and not the rampant ‘themmuns’) who will destroy the union.

    They have disgraced the state of Northern Ireland all over the UK, and all over the world, with their culture of flegs and lambegs, their lawless violence, their abominable inurbanity, and their Big Sulky Mouths.

    Behind the most formidable manifestation of Orange Lil there stands Violet Elizabeth Bott.

  • 1729torus

    I was always surprised that unionism never made more of an effort to integrate RoI with the UK more, and didn’t even to aspire to achieve a UI inside the UK. Such moves would have strengthened both Unionism and the UK considerably.

    The example I always think of is how they never took advantage of the incident with Michael Conlon and the Olympic boxing to promote the Commonwealth Games in the south. I never heard of corruption in Commonwealth boxing. It was the ****** definition of low hanging fruit, and they never took advantage of the chance.

    Unionists could also have offered to support an all-Ireland team for the Commonwealth Games if Ireland agreed to rejoin the Commonwealth.

  • the moviegoer

    Don’t be surprised. Unionism is defined by separation from the rest of Ireland more than it is by union with Britain. it is really a form of Ulster nationalism. It has always been Ulster Protestant first, British second. Even Edward Carson didn’t figure that out until it was too late.

  • Cathal McManus

    Hi, thanks for the feedback. I think you are absolutely spot on that this needs to be developed – I actually had a section doing so but took it out because the piece was so long!
    In terms of the point you make re. Churchill, I think, again, you are spot on – he certainly did not envisage himself as being that leader perhaps. There are a few points I would make though.
    Firstly, I think Churchill was always confident HR would never make it through parliament. In theory, he did not need to play the Orange card. That he did so, I think, was to ensure that political leaders might think twice about a HR policy in the future.
    The second point therefore, relates to how he did this. In the first instance his choosing the Orange card was important. The OO at that point continued to have a negative reputation across Britain and Ireland for its links to sectarian violence. It was, of course, at this stage being reformed by more respectable figures that had, earlier in the century, abandoned it. Nevertheless, its name was still, generally, associated with violence.
    Furthermore, Churchill was keen to ensure that the idea of resistance was developed. His visit to Belfast in February 1886 was key in this. At a meeting in the Ulster Hall, for example, he spoke about his confidence that HR would be defeated but he was also keen to stress to the crowds that “diligence and vigilance ought to be your watchword”. As quoted in BNL 22/02/1886: “…if my calculations should turn out to be wrong, then I am not of the opinion, and I have never been of the opinion, that this struggle is likely to remain within the lines of what we are accustomed to look upon as constitutional action.”
    He refers to the “army of Ulster” on a number of occasions and was always keen to highlight historic deeds of bravery ie. would this generation be found wanting if called upon. This is a ploy used to great effect by both Craig and Carson later of course.
    Hope this clarifies a little.

  • David Crookes

    Many thanks, Mike. If Mrs Foster is unable to transcend those evil acts, she should not be sharing power with SF. She is the third DUP leader to sit in a power-sharing government with SF.

  • Mike the First

    Agree with that – she’s been in government with SF for years and she needs to be able to make it work. She’s signed up to a partnership government.

  • David Crookes

    Thanks, Mike. Leonard Cohen’s line sounds brutal, but it applies to the situation which we’re discussing.

    ‘Your pain is no credential here.’

  • 05OCT68

    Some guy on the View tonight described himself thus.

  • Annie Breensson

    Orange Lil? Don’t you mean Orange Ruth?

  • 05OCT68

    You must be very disapointed in them, they never used those German arms to keep Ireland within the Union

  • Granni Trixie

    Just what we need – context, given we are living through times which resonate with a Unionist past. Disappointed that the significance of sustained support for Alliance in a polarised campaign is ignored in the analysis.

  • Trasna

    Will you stop living in the past. The Rep will never join the busted flush that is the Commonwealth. 50 odd nations doing what exactly? No common trade or travel areas. No preferential entry requirements into each others countries. But hey ho, Ireland has that preferential treatment.

    When the British talk about the Comonwealth, they mean the white Commonwealth counties. No ifs, buts or maybes.

    Besides, when the present British monarch dies, Australia and Canada will leave the Commonwealth and become republics. And yes, I know there are republics invthe Commonwealth.

  • 1729torus

    Is Poblachtánach bródúil mé, and you might have heard about recent crass comments about the Commonwealth and “Empire 2.0”.

    I was just remarking on Unionism’s apparent lack of ambition or initiative.

  • 05OCT68

    Australia, Canada, New Zealand. Two economies based on minerals the other sheep & when the UK joined, the EU placed a tariff on NZ & Aussie lamb which they haven’t forgot. I’ve been to Fremantle port & the container ships from China & the USA are an impressive sight, rows & rows of John Deer tractors just off the boat. On up the coast the minerals are shipped all over the world. The white commonwealth doesn’t need UK imports. Unfortunately the black commonwealth will be targeted by the UK defense industry, tobacco industry & big Pharma, I know they are doing it now, but post brexit the UK government will sell more guns,fags & overpriced drugs into them to make brexit appear successful. Poor Ba$tards.

  • 05OCT68

    Catholics in Vietnam, Asian “non Blacks” in South Africa, Presbyterians in Ireland. No better oppressor than the oppressed. As for Presbyterian dissenters how many of our Ulster brethren know why they had to exile to America or how they evolved into Loyalists? For us Irish, how did Irish immigration evolve into Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Steve Bannon, Paul Ryan or Kellyanne Conway?

  • David Crookes

    “The task of filling up the blanks I’d rather leave to you…..”

    Lili [M]arlene…..

  • Sliothar

    Fair play to you, GoW. Best impression I’ve read of Violet Elizabeth since my schooldays!
    Oh, sorry! You’re serious?? Oops!
    Thilly, thilly me…?

  • 05OCT68

    She/He’s Guilty of Gobbledygook.

  • 05OCT68


  • Robert ian Wiliams

    The great mistake of nationalist Ireland..always writing off the Unionist people. Even stating in the proclamation of Independence that the British government fostered the differences.

  • woodkerne

    ‘No better oppressor than the oppressed.’

    Not to get too psychobabble about it, but it surely is worth considering colonialism as a pathology. Hasn’t the inglorious history of double oppression you refer to got much to do with an internalised inferiority complex or what in International Relations they call dependency theory – i.e., a type of self-loathing which takes on an abrasive character of self-righteous bigotry formed in objectification of the native–other (detested and traduced as sub–human, untrustworthy, workshy, lascivious, childlike, simian, etc. but at the same time, unsettling the coloniser mindset, furtively feared, exoticised and desired). Dependent though as abusive personalities of this type are upon denial of true feelings and oppression of inconvenient truthes in discourses of unreason, contraditions are prone to bubble up, irrupting as victimology and phantasmagorical rages of (master/slave) self-justification.

    Populism of course fits perfectly with the pattern Eco describes – founded in post-imperial pathology of nostalgia and melancholia, racialism, xenophobic nationalism, paranoia, narcissism, perversity, anti-intellectual resentment of elites. Thought of in this way, before the current vogue for the term, the DUP have always operated on a populist (dupe/thug) basis.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you, Cathal, and thanks also for a fine informative posting, for which I have few critiques beside this one point about any attempt to evaluate the seriousness of anti-constitutionalist Unionist rhetoric during the 1880s!

    My own family was involved in these developments, with an ancestror from my (ususlly) Liberal family becoming the treasurer of a central Belfast Conservative Association in the 1880s, and becoming involved with incipient Unionism at a party level. Through his friend Richard Routledge Kane, he also had direct contact with the LOI leadership and the popular grass roots movement it represented. The all important thing about the Orange Card was that it was utterly esssensial to the northern scene in that it brought Belfast’s growing Protestant working class on board the new project, something Saunderson and the leadership needed copper fastened, and something which Unionism fretted much about over the coming decades. The committed support of the LOI was essensial for a party with very limited appeal even then to working men (of course women would not have the vote for some decades). Without this alliance northern Conservatism in Ireland could perhaps have been outflanked by a deevloping working class of a common set of class interests, something the IPP’s man Joe Devlin could still play with some skill two decades after Randolph Churchill’s speech at the Ulster hall.

    That Randolph called upon the militray traditions of the Williamite wars was an inevitability, as such things were always common currency in whipping up passions with the LOI. But there is an important difference between the naissaint northern Unionism which his speech encouraged, and the UUCs creation of an actual army of resistance. Any research into the attitudes of the northern Unionist MPs gives a far more moderate picture than randolph Churchill’s rhetoric would suggest. Alvin Jackson has masterfully prepared the ground for any such work with his study of the early Parlaimentary Unionist party and of the redoubtable Edward Saunderson himself. It is only with the decisive shift of power in the north from the naturally more conservative rural gentry to the new mercantile leadership of the UUC in 1905 that any physical resistance becomes at last serious option, as before that date the financial support which made the UVF possible simply would not have been available. Such things develop with their own character, and one of the vices of the current techniques in historical analysis is to catagorise such things broadly, and outside of their subltle development patterns, which ensures that all too easily the attitudes of a later decades are applied quite retrospectively.

    One of the most dangerious things in researching Unionism across this period is to conflate public rhetoric with personal intent. Carson is something of a minefield in this matter and can be seen to take entirely contrary positions with different people, often during the same month, when we compare his speeches and his privately expressed opinions. His public utterences in February 1914 as the Home Rule crisis lurched into overdrive display a public firmness which his private feelings, as recorded by Plunket and others contradicts. Some decades earlier Randolph Churchill knew his audience and was playing them to the hilt, but it would be very necessary to seriously research what he actually thought at thsi time before taking him at his word in any public utterence. Similar rhetoric issues from the southern Unionist party right up to 1920, while the self same people are often enough preparing for the clear inevitability (as they privately see it) of a Home rule Ireland. Saunderson himself deemed it an inevitablity from the kerfuffle around the Second Home Rule Bill, something he even described as a gross betrayal by the Conservatives. Carson and Craig certainly made what Randolph Churchill said a literal thing, but the Torys of the 1880s were rather less inclined to the kind of recklessness that the party opposing Asquith was willing to flirt with, although even they were having serious second thoughts in 1914. As Randolph’s son knew only too well, with the first British soldier shot by the UVF, the generalised support that the UCC could draw on would wither and the Conservatives, while reckless in words, were themselves all too aware they did not want to be seen to be supporting anyone killing British soldiers. The entire policy of the 1912 resort to violence was an elaborate extension of political rhetoric, in essence a devise in support of a “fishing expedition” which could only work if the threat of violence remained simply a propaganda feature of the rhetoric. Almost forgotten as it is today, the effect of the single costguard killed during the Larne gun-running sent a shock through British opinion which would have been amplified greatly had it been a RIC constable or a soldier shot in any seriously handled confrontation.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Defence, really? The arms were to shoot down the RIC and the British army should they attempt to enforce a Home Rule Act passed three years running by a perfectly legitimate parliament. And come on, GoW, what were they really defending themselves against other than their own hysteria (called “Ulsteria” at the time)? A Dublin Parliament exercising only a mild form of devolution (“less than a local council”, as one hsitorian put it), still sending MPs to Westminster and with the “Crown in Parlaiment” as the political formulation? What was proposed was virtually the kind of “Home Rule” Northern Ireland recieved in 1920 anyway, with Westminster still controlling most of the important issues and retaining the power to step in at any moment if problems arose. Just to top it all, the northern Unionists were even offered their own committee in the new Home Rule parliament which could vet anything which pertained to the north, and which would even have had the power of veto!

    There was simply nothing to genuinely be afraid of from an Ireland, as Helen Waddell described it in 1916, “finally won to constitutionalism.” The seperatist tradition and particularly the IRB itself, was virtually moribund until the formation of the UVF gave them a renewed lease of life, and percipitated Easter 1916. Do you in all serioiusness suggest that a century of violence and of the politically indefensible oppression of one third of our community was in any way preferable to a mild and benign devolved administration in Dublin in 1914?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    “Orange Lil” was a stage character created by the late James Young, a persona taken up (as I was told) by a Sandy Row lady who cavorted up and down the Lisburn road during the passage of the Belfast LOI procssions to Finaghy, festooned in red, white and blue Union Jack clothing. This was not a fashion lead others followed during the more staid 1950/60s, despite its popularity nowadays.

    Robert Harbinson’s “Tattoo Lily and other Ulster stories” is worth a look in this context, for a fictionalised version.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Granni, my own eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century family were almost unremittingly Liberal (other than my great-grandfather, whose politics are mentioned in my big post above) and it has been most helpful to my own historiography to see the evolution of the polarised anti-liberal political culture of the north through their eyes. This tradition has been virtually written out of our history, let alone this analysis, despite its central role in what genuine culture has developed here over the past three centuries. Alliance, to my mind, very much holds the strings of that tradition today.

  • Nevin

    The colour orange appears fourteen times in the body of that diatribe, the colour green once and the colour red not at all.

    About twenty-five years ago, when I took a look at history and politics, I found it useful to move beyond a binary analysis. In the political sphere, this involved unionism, nationalism and socialism; in the religious, Catholicism, Presbyterianism and Episcopalianism. Our communal conflict contains a potent political and religious cocktail that is seldom handled with care.

    The emergence of unionism during the course of the nineteenth century appears to have been a reaction to the transition from reform to revolution in the 1790s and its growth to Catholic emancipation, the Repeal movement and changes to the franchise. Churchill did indeed play the Orange card but Gladstone also did a side-deal with Irish nationalism in order to be Prime Minister of a Liberal government.

    Talking of cards, I like this 1841 yarn about the joker aka the Liberator aka Daniel O’Connell:

    Cooke’s supporters denounced O’Connell’s visit as an invasion of Ulster: hostile crowds gathered in Ulster towns along the Dublin–Belfast route, and O’Connell was obliged to abandon plans for high-profile receptions along his route and to travel two days early disguised as a well-known Dublin ventriloquist.

  • Gavin Smithson

    Thank you David. I made a minor typo correction to my comment above and it’s gone and subjec to approval!

    Anyway it’s good to know folks like us aren’t alone or perhaps as small in number

    Empty vessels and noises

  • Gavin Smithson

    I fully agree

  • Gavin Smithson

    Hello moderators

    I made a typo correction to my post below. It didn’t change the meaning of my post and I see it’s now subject to a moderator decision this past 24 hours

    Do I need to do something to get my post visible again?

    Sorry for any mixup

    Thank you

  • Oggins


  • Fear Éireannach

    But the British government has fostered the differences, look at Brokenshire and the DUP.

  • Annie Breensson

    Ahh … Thank you Seaan. I was unaware of the stage and real-life character.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    She used to be an “easy” Twelfth picture for the Bel Tel photographers annually in the 1960s!

  • David Crookes

    Gavin, I see that your posting has now appeared. Bravo!

  • Gavin Smithson

    Thanks to Mr Crooks for asking me to repost this as my prior entry is stuck in moderation for a couple of days now after a typo correction :

    Before anyone reads further, let me emphasise and make clear that I do not hold any of the beliefs below. I am a unionist but I’m afraid I’m a tiny minority in my cadre. Below is true for 95% of political unionism:
    Unionism is elitist. Unionism/ Ulste Protestantism regards itself as the chosen ones. This means that it is incapable of reaching out to non Protestants because they are not the chosen ones
    Sometimes Unionists play lip service to reaching out but that’s just hot air. It’s not in the Unionist DNA. Unionism regards Catholic Ireland as backward. For this reason, Unionism wants nothing to do with it.
    Unionism’s power is declining. A rationale secular party or movement would evangelise and reach out to non core suppor ters to keep its numbers up.
    But not Unionism. Unionism is elite. We will go down with the NI ship and will cut off our nose and ears and eyes to spite our face.
    Unionism is morbidly stupid, incapable of reaching out and does not have a strategic bone in its ailing body.
    Sometimes people like Basil McCrea, John McAllister and Mike Nesbitt come along hol ding out a hand but they just get laughed at within unionism and get chewed up and then we are back to political normal. Such people mean well and have brains but Unionism doesn’t have brains. Unionism just has ‘right’ on our side
    Such gentle persons I mention are those daffodils that sometime grow in winter. A rarity, an exotic thing to behold but they don’t last long and there’s never more than a handful at a time.
    That’s why Unionism will fail. Smart unionists would start negotiating for a UI today. But Unionism is not smart. It never will be
    And I am a Unionist saying all this and it pains me. I voted NI21. I thought they would deliver. I was wrong.

  • Gavin Smithson

    Unionism prior to partition was never pro Irish. It was pro Ireland in the Empire. When the game was up, they just retreated into whatever expedient space there was. N Ireland became merely a Continuity Ireland in the Empire.

    Unionists were never Irish patriots any more than white Afrikaaners were African patriots. They were and are patriotic only to their own interested.

  • Gavin Smithson

    My post is reposted. Thank you for the prompt

  • Gavin Smithson

    Yes I know. I have reposted my comment. I am not sure why my minor insignificant typo led to my comment being sent to moderation purgatory but computer systems do act up sometimes

  • Gavin Smithson

    We do get out. Sometimes we go to Portadown. Sometimes Enniskillen and Portrush

  • Annie Breensson

    Don’t ‘they’ say “If you remember the ’60s – you weren’t there”?

  • Croiteir

    Now Seaaan – you and I know that unionist unity will never happen. The conflict between unionism and orangeism, now euphemistically called loyalism, go too deep. Do I need to remind you, of all people, of the arguments in the mid 19thC, I see those divisions still.

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    And conservative religious unionism doesn’t want liberal secular Ireland.

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    Again and again ..the demographic trend is mentioned. Have they actually studied the 2011 census? Nationalist birth rates are falling to mainstream levels. You can’t accept contraception , abortion and homosexuality..without a knock on effect on your demography.

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    There you have it the DUP representing and respecting the Catholic teaching on marriage and abortion….much better than any respect for a language.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Good heavens, I even remember the late 1960s! Certainly a lot of walking about (and sitting down) in support of civil rights……..

  • SeaanUiNeill

    The divisions are there, Croiteir, but there have been moments such as the “Covenant” and the earlier Home Rule agitations where they have been momentarily sunk in an apperiance of unity. The usual outcome of this is a covert victory for one end of the Unionist see-saw.

    Belfast was noted as a notorious hive of Liberalism until 1831 when Dr Henry Cooke started his campaign to win Presbyterianism from the liberal “threat” which had played such a big part in linking it to the events of 1798. Due to his mendacious activities, an Orangism which had been very C of I until that date started to attract Presbyterians who brought their on brand of “radicalism” into play to create that Loyalism which plagued Belfast with anti-Catholic riots for the succeeding century. Helen Waddell could honestly speak in 1916 of the rest of Ireland (other than some of the north) being entirely free of sectarianisn for all of this time. Most Unionist posters on Slugger are slow to realise that when they compare Unionist recourse to violence with the Fenian movement and the IRB is that these things have quite different ethos. The historical Fenians and the IRB both were emphatically drawing on the inclusiveness of the Young Ireland movement and were by ideology committedly anti-sectarian, at least in the intellectial leadership.

    The encoded habit of that 1880s alliance of Orangism with those Irish Conservatives who supported the Union against Home Rule to constanty see enemies in the surrounding streets and townlands inevitably spilled over from its anti-Catholic origin to encompass “Lundies” and “Rotten Prods” (usually trade Unionists and Socialists) but could easily be stretched to include anyone within Unionism itself who differed on any issues spotlighted by that narcissism of minor difference which the movement made its very own. As you point out, such divisions seem to be perennial in Unionism, and are perfectly expressed in that old quip “second item on the agenda, the split.”

  • SeaanUiNeill

    You might enjoy this little booklet, “The Complete Grammer of Anarchy”, published in 1918, which quotes the more treasonable uttereances of Unionism in years leading up to Great War:


  • lizmcneill

    Is it any different from liberal secular Britain?

  • Croiteir

    But to be fair the period also ended up wit te missed opportunity of the Magheramourne Manifesto.