Review: A People Under Siege by Aaron Edwards…

This is an important book for a number of reasons. While genuine students of unionism and the pro-union community here will be familiar with the historical timelines that hold the narrative together, there is a level of honesty and an attempt to explain the unionist community from an empathetic, sometimes sympathetic, position that has been too rare for too long. Edwards – unlike far too many writers from what is now euphemistically  termed “a unionist background” – does not set out to demonstrate his own moral purity in a condescending manner. Nor does he seek the “why can’t they all be more like you”   backslaps so beloved of too many of our unionist commentators. No. He does not flinch from necessary criticism of his own people when it is necessary (as is often the case in this book). But his criticism is based on a genuine understanding of the flaws in much of the unionist psyche and an empathy for what causes and magnifies them. For that alone this book would be welcome.

The entire basis for the book can probably found on page 205, when he quotes Trimble supporter Esmond Birnie as saying that “the greatest threat to unionism may be those pessimists within the camp who perpetually talk of sell-outs and treachery, and so talk themselves into an abyss of despair.”

Edwards is not of that ilk. The story he tells is one of constantly repeated mistakes and of Unionist leaders “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory”, a phrase I first hear used about the risible Jim Molyneaux in the 80s but one more appropriate than ever since 2016. These mistakes include consistently aligning themselves to Conservative Prime Ministers who betray them time and time again, leading from Brooke/Eden, through Faulkner/Heath (“Faulkner was prone to believing every word uttered by Heath, whom he famously said he ‘trusted like a brother’”) and Molyneaux’ clearly unrequited devotion to Thatcher to the most ridiculous and hardest of all to understand, the willingness of successive DUP leaders to behave like cats in heat when in the presence of Boris Johnson.

Edwards also deals with the failure of Unionist throughout Northern Ireland’s first century to embrace more inclusive and socially progressive pro unionists from Beattie and Midgeley through David Bleakley and up to the likes of David Ervine and Billy Mitchell in the 1990s incarnations of the PUP. He provides a great quotation from Mitchell who, while he could see the potential in the GFA to contribute to political crisis and grave danger he also believed that “stood on the cusp of a time of transition, of invitation and of opportunity, a new era of hope and opportunity.”  Of course, as Edwards points out here, within unionism the GFA fell on David Trimble failing to sell it as a victory while Paisley was able to successfully denigrate it as a betrayal. Another example of the unionist community being very badly served by its leaders and yet another example of the old “defeat from the jaws of victory” so beloved of lazy leaders. I compare Trimble’s performance in the aftermath of the GFA with that of Cameron in 2016. No real effort made to sell a very sellable case in the face of destructive and insular opponents.

I think the most important and enlightening chapter of the book is chapter eleven where he focuses on the growth and decline of his home estate of Rathcoole. He chronicles how this suburban estate, built as a model estate of cross community living, failed to survive the first ill winds of 1969/70 to be abandoned by those who claimed to represent it,  starved of investment and retrench into a bastion presented to the world as full of extremists, ultimately dominated by criminal gangs masquerading as defenders of the people. Just as happened in comparable areas on the other side of town like Twinbrook and Lenadoon. Exactly the same houses but with different murals.

I hoped the book would then proceed to deal more thoroughly with what I think has been and remains the biggest problem facing unionism throughout both the Troubles and the post GFA era. Namely the total non-existence of any relationship between the Protestant working class and a Protestant middle class that has abdicated any political responsibility for advocating and defending a union that has served them well and from which they have benefited disproportionately. A class that largely distances itself from the areas its antecedents populated and that provided their parents’ post war educational opportunities and social mobility.

Instead those people so often denigrate these abandoned communities and ridicule even their way of speaking (“fleg” anyone?). They see no responsibility for helping improve the lives and opportunities of others within their own community. I rarely agree with Brian Feeney but a couple of decades ago he published a very prescient piece where he compared the attitudes of those Catholics one generation away from the Lower Falls with  those of Protestants two or three generations away from the Lower Newtownards Road. He was of the view that as the Catholic middle class became more entrenched as a grouping it would adopt similar attitudes to more established Protestants. But has that happened? I don’t think so. Whether you describe it as communal solidarity or base tribalism, there exists a “civic nationalism” (I hate that term) that is simply not replicated among the pro-union middle class.

Late in the book the author touches closely on the issue by saying “in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s the unionist political class had depended on loyalists to help them bring a more muscular approach to political protests – now they were abandoning them.”

Maybe this story – it needs to be told – will be Edwards’ next project. He is well qualified to tell it.

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