Explaining Unionist Crises: The Protocol and the idea of Northern Ireland Independence

By Adam Fusco

Five years after the United Kingdom voted to withdraw from the European Union, Brexit continues to shape the political imagination, particularly in places where the majority voted to Remain. In Northern Ireland its unintended offspring, the Northern Ireland Protocol, has come to dominate the political outlook, particularly within Unionism. For many Unionists, the Protocol is understood and experienced as yet another constitutional crisis. Recent opinion polling suggests that it is a significant contributing factor to the electoral destabilisation of the DUP and has caused some Loyalists to waver on the Good Friday Agreement.[1] This post reflects on the present moment’s historical resonance and considers the methodological lessons which can be learned by examining the continuities (or lack thereof) between past and present Unionism in respect of the Protocol and historical articulations of Northern Ireland independence. It considers how existing historical scholarship on Northern Ireland often fails to capture Unionist grievances and claims in the appropriate register. It suggests that to better articulate the ideological profile of Unionism, explanations and political languages should be imported from other disciplines beyond Irish studies and the history of Northern Ireland.

At previous junctures, including Stormont’s prorogation in 1972 and the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, many Unionists viewed the decisions of the UK government as betrayal. They believed their basic interest in the constitutional security of Northern Ireland to have been jeopardised by their co-nationals, expected allies, and supposed guardians at Westminster. This encouraged some to turn to more radical forms of politics – to protest on the street, to prepare for armed resistance, and to even question the Union itself, by articulating an idea of Northern Ireland or Ulster independence.[2]

The latter – independence – almost exclusively followed from moments of perceived constitutional crisis within Unionism. This idea was consistently articulated as the surest means of protecting Unionists against both British duplicity and a United Ireland. Independence was mooted first during the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations in November 1921 by James Craig to extract financial benefits for Northern Ireland.[3] It was then reconsidered following the Second World War, when Stormont became uneasy cohabiting with the Attlee Government.[4] This idea then lay dormant until the start of the ‘Troubles’ when it re-emerged in the guise of the Ulster Vanguard, the Ulster Loyalist Central Coordinating Committee and the New Ulster Political Research Group (NUPRG).[5] After a brief lull in the early 1980s, it was resurrected in response to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, with the future leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, David Trimble, as one of its most prominent articulators.[6]

One might ask in the present, why have Unionists not returned to this radical idea, as during their past? There are many mitigating reasons for this, including Covid-19 and the longer-term impact of Unionism’s consolidation and institutionalisation following the Good Friday and St Andrew’s Agreements. The existing scholarship on Unionism either emphasises Ulster nationalism or contractarian explanations for Unionist political protest and the advocacy of independence. Nationalist explanations suggest a ‘we are Ulstermen and not British’ attitude on the part of a besieged Unionism, whereas contractarianism asserts that for Unionists political obedience is conditional on their (religious) liberties being upheld by the crown.[7] Neither view, however, gives a fully satisfactory explanation of the present circumstances. While there is always a certain sense of ‘Ulsterness’ within Unionism, and in particular Loyalism, what is currently being emphasised is the wrongful severing of links through the protocol and not greater autonomy for Northern Ireland and Ulster identity.[8] Moreover, while protest has been mooted against the Protocol, the language of a broken contract and rightful civil disobedience is not being systematically employed. Instead, the absence of articulations of independence within the present context may be better explained by the changing relationship between majority and minority on these islands.[9] This approach is borrowed from democratic political theory and the history of political thought. It is based on the idea that regular and perpetual minorities fail to take part in their own self-government and are instead subject to the arbitrary power of ruling majorities. Pro-independence Unionists have historically understood themselves not only as a potential political minority within a United Ireland, but also as an existing minority in the United Kingdom. This minority status reinforced their belief that their fundamental interests are held at the discretion of the UK government, nearly always constituted by a majority in Great Britain, or in fact England.

This resonates in the context of Brexit and the Protocol when the population of England alone came to virtually determine the referendum and subsequently mandated the Johnson government’s Brexit plans in the 2019 general election. In previous moments of crisis, what made Northern Ireland independence palatable to Unionists was that, as a political majority, they would be able to secure their interests themselves and not be subject to the discretion of British (and routinely in fact English) majorities at Westminster. Now Unionists have moved from being a majority to a plurality in Northern Ireland and are no longer secure in the idea that breaking the link with Britain could guarantee their interests. A democratic language of shifting majorities and minorities on these islands connects the present to Unionists’ past grievances with the British government, while still explaining why the idea of independence has failed to resurface in the contemporary context. Looking beyond the existing scholarship on Northern Ireland to theories cultivated elsewhere in political history and theory helps place Unionism in a register that makes intelligible its political concerns and motivations, particularly regarding its political thought. Contemporary democratic political theory and the history of political thought may be useful places for historians of the ‘Troubles’ to look to further understand Unionism, but to also appreciate the full spectrum of political thought within Northern Ireland. Concepts may be found to help resolve the seeming paradoxes of Unionism, such as its ‘loyalist disloyalty’ or its general unease with articulating a national identity to supplement Britishness. As the history of Irish political thought and Northern Ireland studies develops as a field, looking within these bodies of scholarship may prove constructive to explain the political ideas that helped animate, sustain and end the ‘Troubles’.

(Image: Commons Wikimedia)

Adam Fusco is a Lecturer in Politics at the University of York. His research examines the history of Unionist and Republican political thought, as well as the political theory of national self-determination. His recent publications include ‘Is Irish Reunification Republican?’ (2020) and in Nations and NationalismNorthern Ireland Independence Revisited’ (2021).


[1] Belfast Telegraph, 28 August 2021 & 8 November 2021.

[2] Cochrane, F. 1997. Unionist Politics and the Politics of Unionism since the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Cork: Cork University Press.

[3] Ervine, S-J. 1949. Craigavon Ulsterman. London: Allen and Unwin, p. 451-2.

[4] Rees, R. 2009. Labour and the Northern Ireland Problem, 1945-1951. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, p.48-55.

[5] Ulster Vanguard. 1972. Ulster – A Nation; Ulster Loyalist Central Co-Ordinating Committee. 1976. Your Future? Can Ulster Survive Unfettered;New Ulster Political Research Group. 1979. Beyond the Religious Divide.

[6] Trimble, D. 1988. What Choice for Ulster. Lurgan: Ulster Clubs.

[7] Miller, D. W. 2007 [1978]. Queen’s Rebels. Dublin: UCD Press.

[8] Todd, J. 1987. ‘Two Traditions in Unionist Political Culture’, Irish Political Studies 2, 1: 1-26.

[9] Bourke, R. 2003. Peace in Ireland. London: Verso.

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