A right hand jab for alleged misusers of Unionist culture – By Terry Wright


Whatever grievances may lie behind the turbulence evident in the actions of groups and individuals at sites of contentious bonfires, they cannot justify the indulgent and hostile defiance of environmental good sense or the collateral social, political and financial fallout.

If it is some form of strategy in a perceived ‘culture war’ ‘its’ proponents need to realise soon that unionist, in this case localised loyalist, culture is not being attacked so much as it being demonised and killed off by those who claim to be its most loyal defenders.

Hardening the boundaries to encourage a sense of siege around a narrow cultural terrain that visits victimisation upon itself to produce a defensive and closed mentality is neither positive or reflective of broader and civic-minded unionism which breathes through different cultures and not narrow pre-supposed identities and unexamined assertions.

Bonfires and flags are becoming the litmus test for those who want to remain in a flawed comfort zone of entrenched base support which feeds the caricature promoted by its political opposition and the larger and growing number who recognise that unionist culture can embrace its shared and intermingled Irish, Anglo-Irish and Ulster Scots heritage beyond flags, bonfires and marching bands which have a place but cannot fill its totality.

It does not have to be this way but civility seems to be flagging and not just in regard to ‘soldier F’.

Unionism needs to pause and encourage bonfire-builders to act differently before they alienate the community, including many unionists, further.

Bonfires are a celebratory feature of life in many countries like India, Canada, Australia and the United States where they mark significant events and festivals such as Commonwealth Day, the Winter solstice and Saint-Jean Baptiste Day in Québec. They do not produce the controversy that results in Northern Ireland from bonfires, across the community at different times, where election posters and flags are burned along with materials which cause environmental damage close to homes, public buildings and roads.

Better sense needs to prevail especially where public money is being made available to provide materials which literally go up in smoke.

In the case of unionism, many of the bonfires are timed to mark events in which the Loyal Orders and other loyalist organisations have a leading role. It is clear that they are being increasingly embarrassed by the negativity and intransigence on display but is it beyond the capacity of these organisations to encourage a protocol reflective of intelligent order and sound environmental good practice within communities?

On an individual basis some members, in concert with community and cultural organisations, are acting to encourage alternatives to bonfires and using beacons which are safer and more environmentally friendly. Family festivals and Fun days are proving a success in some areas but they tend to be single-identity, funded from the public purse and are in effect about encouraging more positive cultural expression. They are in essence an indication of the cultural faultline that runs through the triumphalist mindset of some communities

The Loyal Orders ought to provide more of a lead in addressing the problems. Indeed, they could go further to reduce the number of bonfires by organising them in suitable locations where those attending are entertained by music, food and suitable beverages are available for purchase and the occasion adheres to a civic code of practice to become the traditional celebratory and social attraction that it used to be.

Acting in this way to remove those unattractive features which increasingly discourage many from associating themselves with the activities can only be helpful in ways that Drumcree and Twaddell were not, albeit that they did not enjoy the endorsement of everyone in the Loyal Orders.

The dangers of placing your celebration at the disposal of decision-makers in an emotionally charged atmosphere should be learned.

Politicians closest to them could adopt a more positive stance instead of skirting around the issues to limit damage and call it as it is. Burning flags and election posters is intimidatory, sectarian and degrading to all. Bonfires which necessitate the Fire Service on standby and threaten damage to buildings and the environment are not acceptable in this day and age. Public representatives need to abandon their subordination to old allegiances and lead their constituency back to a more civil and moral anchorage. Common sense ought to break out.

When doing so they can work to widen the understanding within unionism as to what is meant by unionist culture. Limited appreciation of this may be part of the problem.

When discussing the acceptability of an Irish Language Act unionist politicians have argued that this should be contained within a wider Cultural Act but appear at a loss in going beyond Orange and Ulster-Scots traditions to offer a definition of unionist culture.

Apart from the fact that there is no requirement for a trade-off in that Gaelic is a characteristic and enriching feature of British cultural hybridity in Northern Ireland, unionism seems limited in its own understanding of British unionist culture. Too accepting of unfavourable stereotyping, it fails to locate beyond narrow political and communal categorisation empowering itself to disentangle itself from power struggles over manufactured issues of language, bonfires and flags.

For too long unionism has neglected writers, poets and artists who have challenged political and social orthodoxy and as a result has distanced itself from those Irish and Anglo-Irish elements of Northern Ireland’s culture that were once celebrated and promoted by unionism. As a result, it has conformed to its characterisation as Protestant and sectarian. This is reinforced when organisations which purport to celebrate past battles for freedom and liberty now promote narrow social conservatism and exclusivity in worship. When mixed with political fear mongering, is it any wonder that one result is the combustible behaviour pertaining to some bonfires?Paragraph

15 thoughts on “A right hand jab for alleged misusers of Unionist culture – By Terry Wright

  1. Goodness, where to begin. I’ll have a go at working backwards and start with the last paragraph.

    “For too long unionism … has distanced itself from those Irish and Anglo-Irish elements of Northern Ireland’s culture that were once celebrated and promoted by unionism.”

    Well, yes, and no. Aspects of this are certainly true but one example we might highlight is to ask why, when Irish and indeed Northern Unionism once celebrated the Insular art of these islands (a very good example of a broadly British and Irish Isles cultural movement), that Insular or ‘Celtic’ art is now, in Ireland at any rate, almost exclusively associated with Irish/Republican/Celtic/Gaelic expressions of culture. No doubt this is in part the fault of unionists, but I expect the reasons are much more complex, and that they relate to everyone on the island seeking to define an exclusive identity for themselves, not just bonfire builders.

    • If the art is found in Ireland, by definition it’s Irish. It pre-dates the plantations and Protestantism by oh, thousands of years, just like the Irish language.

      • Teresa, the art you refer to is found across the (British and Irish) Isles, hence the name ‘Insular’. Beyond that, the Gaelic revival in Scotland and Ireland during the 19th Century led to a renewed interest in this Insular/Celtic art and the Irish language, something which Protestants and unionists in Ireland embraced as well as Catholics and nationalists. Indeed I have seen references to such art work in a number of Presbyterian churches, which also promoted the Irish language. In the same way, some of the original Northern Ireland tourist posters included ‘Irish’ references such as the shamrock. My point, therefore was that since the late 19th C / early 20th C, many of these artistic and cultural references have been seen as exclusively ‘Irish/Republican’ and we might ask why.

        • The spiral artwork as seen on the stones at Newgrange are pre-Celtic, thought to be over 5,000 years old. In fact, a lot of what passes for Celtic art is far older than the Celts arrival in Ireland.

          Draw a line from Derry to Cork and everybody west was in 1840 Irish speaking, either monoglot or bi-lingual. Though most were illiterate in both languages.

          East of that line, Irish speakers were found in every county.

          Research done by me in my own county of Tipp in a small village and surrounding areas in the 1901 census shows a population of 600. In 1841 it was 6,000. The age group of 70/80, every one still living in the 1901 census was bi-lingual, meaning they were born before or during the genocide and the introduction of the primary education system. My great, great, great grandfather was bi- lingual, my great, great grandfather was not. In the space of a generation the Irish language was lost in Tipp and most other counties. The population of Tipp was 450,000 in 1841, down to 150,000 by 1901.

          Ask yourself why the Irish abandoned their language in such numbers. What scared them so to abandon their birthright so readily? I think you will find the answer in the above population figures

          Thee Gaelic revival was nothing more than an attempt to revive the Irish language to pre-geocide levels to varying degrees of success. The language and culture that thrived pre-genocide and subsequent decades of ethnic cleansing.

          Protestants and unionists while under UK rule embraced Irish culture to an extent and abandoned it with partition with ease. You cannot blame the Irish for that as most Irish people supported a republic and complete independence from the UK.

          The Gaelic revival contained many elements with a crossover of people. The revival was Irish people taking ownership of all things Irish.

          The Irish anguage and culture wasn’t taken from unionists. Unionits abandoned anything Irish and became necromaniac instead.

          • Excellent post by Teresa Ryan – in particular describing the genocide carried out in Ireland whilst Ireland was still under occupation by Britain.

            This kind of honesty in calling out the genocide for what is was – and not pretending that the genocide did not occur – is absolutely essential if we are ever to address the evil of British colonialism and it’s legacy globally, including in Ireland.

            Anything less is gross dishonesty.

            In fairness, there are some British historians prepared to address the horrors of British colonialism and it’s legacy – but it would appear that this narrative has yet to be introduced into the British school system.

          • “The revival was Irish people taking ownership of all things Irish.”

            Yes, that’s one interpretation, and one which might explain why Protestants and Unionists in Ireland backed off from it. But the art and cultural expressions to which it sought to revive were broader than just and Irish movement: it can be thought of as Scottish, and Irish, and Saxon, and even Viking, and spread across the British and Irish Isles from the 7th to about the 10th century. And the Celtic Revival involved more that just Ireland.

            In other words is was not a single identity expression of culture in the way it is thought of today as it was British and Irish and Scottish and Manx and so on.

            I have no problem at all in celebrating all of the artistic and cultural expressions of these islands (I am and actual unionist in this regard!), neither have I an issue with the Gaelic languages – which, again, appear throughout the Irish and British isles, my problem starts when we limit these expressions of who we are to a single group of people and we say, “That’s mine, you can’t have it”, or “That’s yours, I don’t want it.”

            It all belongs to all of us, and it’s about time we moved beyond blame and singular interpretations of history and culture.

  2. @NorthMunsterMan… I take it you’re a staunch republican who celebrates Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen’s attempted rebellion in 1798, correct?

    Whilst I agreed with the United Irishmen’s noble and quite correct aspirations of the time, had they not done what they did in 1798, Ireland would have remained under the 1782 Constitution, and ‘Grattan’s Parliament’ would not only have retained legislative independence from GB but likely would have gained executive independence too… all without a shot being fired, and Ireland today would be like New Zealand.

    ‘Occupation’ as you call it didn’t happen and GB wasn’t interested in a formal political Union with Ireland until Wolfe Tone and his chums indulged in sedition and treason with a foreign power; a move that could very well have led to a bloody conflict that may have stretched on for years and led to more deaths than the famine ever killed.

    If you want to blame anyone, then blame the late Mr Tone… he wrecked it for all of us on the Emerald Isle.

    • What if history doesn’t have any merit whatsoever. That’s like saying the UK should have stayed out of both world wars it didn’t concern them You conveniently forget that Grattan’s parliament was a Protestant Anglican parliament only. The Penal Laws were enforced and these laws forced over 100,000 Presbyterians out of Ireland in the 1700s.

      There’s nothing to suggest that Westminister or the king were going to lift these laws. It took 30 years after the Act of Union and failure to lift them in 1801 forced Pitt to resign.

      Then there was the land issue which took another 100 years to resolve and was only resolved by violence or the threat of violence.

      Occupation didn’t happen you say. What do you think happened in the 1600s? Cromwell’s invasion was the biggest land grab in Europe until Hitler. A whole people lost everything and the population depleted by half by murder and by being sold into slavery. It’s a wonder there’s any Irish people left.

      The British had no right to Ireland so sedition and treason was an impossibility.

      • Teresa,

        It’s about time we moved beyond blame and singular interpretations of history and culture.

        But then I’ve said that already; it would be interesting if you would engage with the idea.

        • What you really mean is my point of view doesn’t align with yours..

          What exactly is singular about pointing out that Grattan’s parliament was a Protestant Anglian parliament only?

          It would be equally be interesting for you to engage with the idea of real history and not the notion that Protestant rule in Ireland was benevolent.

          • Teresa,

            I have made no mention of Grattan’s Parliament, and said nothing about Protestant rule in Ireland.

    • Gerry Mander

      “If you want to blame anyone, then blame the late Mr Tone… he wrecked it for all of us on the Emerald Isle.”
      – Gerry Mander

      Blaming the victim of rape for being raped – “shur she was askin’ for it”.

      Read a book on Irish history – and get back to me.

  3. To Teresa and NorthMunsterman;

    Yes, the 1782-1800 Irish Parliament was composed entirely of landed Anglican gentry, but had the 1798 rebellion not forced GB’s hand into bringing in the Act(s) of Union, Ireland would have likely remained under the Crown but eventually an independent ‘dominion’ territory in it’s own right by the mid-19th century.

    The Brits had no interest in formal political Union with Ireland until the French Revolution, the American War of Independence, and the united Irishmen’s attempted coup in 1798 made them see Union as the only way to protect themselves in the long-term.

    But in doing so – and in particualr the two catastrophic mistakes of both not fully integrating Ireland into the UK similar to Scotland and Catholic emancipation not following immediately thereafter upon the Union coming into force – they created a chain of events we are living with to this day… a chain of events soaked in blood, alas…

    Doesn’t really matter anyway; as of 14:11pm on Thursday, July 18th, 2019, I ceased to be a unionist… those who said/have said partition would be/is a disaster were right… GB is not to be trusted, not ever, not on anything… perfidious Albion; arrogant, imperious bastards the lot of them.

    The sooner a border poll is initiated, the better… I know how I’ll vote…

    Erin go bragh.

    Enough said.

    • “as of 14:11pm on Thursday, July 18th, 2019, I ceased to be a unionist…”

      Well, that’s one of the more interesting primers I’ve read in while, and quite time specific! Was there something in particular you were thinking about? Any number of ‘betrayals’ by our Parliament might be cited, but would you be willing to say which tipped you over the edge?

      Kipling was right, of course, as long ago as 1912, as was Harold McCusker when he spoke following the Anglo-Irish Agreement; but my unionism is not determined or diminished by Westminster’s betrayal, and I am yet to be convinced that modern Republicanism can live up to the the worthy aims of Pearse, Connolly and MacDonagh and cherish all the children of the nation equally. When I see that I might change my mind.

      • “Was there something in particular you were thinking about? Any number of ‘betrayals’ by our Parliament might be cited, but would you be willing to say which tipped you over the edge?”

        Hi again Peter, and the answer to your question is yes… and a HELL YES at that!!!

        At 14:11pm last Thursday, Westminster officially crossed the Rubicon from condescending contempt to outright tyranny in approving the amended moral obscenity relating to N.I. currently going through Parliament… not only a breaking of any measurable standard of respect for devolution and democratic accountability in a constituent part of the UK, but also a clear breach in both spirit (and possibly legal letter) of the Good Friday Agreement.

        We’ve all endured Westminster’s betrayals over the last century with regards Ireland (north and south) as a whole, but this… this was so openly, brazenly, nakedly contemptuous, imperious, disrespectful, and downright venal, something finally broke with me… they didn’t just cross the aforementioned Rubicon last Thursday, they set it on fire, burned the bridges, and threw us all in to it’s deep, murky depths with a smile and saying “hey, it may be tyranny but it’s tyranny for the greater good, so go die quietly like obedient subjects”.

        I could only but recall the words of Oliver Cromwell;

        “It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonored by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice; ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government; ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money.

        Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye have no more religion than my horse; gold is your God; which of you have not barter’d your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth?

        Ye sordid prostitutes have you not defil’d this sacred place, and turn’d the Lord’s temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices? Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; you were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress’d, are yourselves gone! So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors.

        In the name of God, go!

        You are not a Parliament… I say again, you are no Parliament”

        Where’s our modern-day Cromwell in that God-forsaken legislature in London…?

        What a sad thing we have come to that four centuries of supposed democratic progress was crushed under heel last week.

        I may not like everything about modern-day Ireland, but dear God, at least we would be treated as equals with respect and dignity, would be part of a vibrant democracy we could fully participate and be accepted in, a prosperous economy where the six counties could benefit and flourish and not be a forsaken economic backwater, and to not be a beggar state that’s held to the whims of an abusive overlord who only cares about N.I.’s concerns when there’s something to be gained politically from it.

        That’s not a Union… it’s an abusive relationship… and the people of N.I. should not be treated like a doormat any longer.

        It’s not an easy thing to say but nationalism was right and unionism was wrong… so terribly, terribly wrong… how much blood and treasure has been spilt, how many loves lost, how many families wrecked, how much suffering untold and otherwise has been expended just to keep N.I. in a nation state that hasn’t wanted them since partition happened? They would have thrown us under the bus decades ago if they could have, that’s not a friend, not a partner, not a co-equal, not someone to ever be trusted, and certainly not a union based on respect and mutual esteem.

        Sorry for the length of this post, but you asked a question and I wanted to answer it… this has been a decision a decade in the making for me, since I started reading and studying Irish history… I was always rather equivocal about the constitutional situation… that changed definitively and irrevocably last Thursday, make no mistake about that.

        Let there be a border poll sooner rather than later… let the six counties be rejoined to our fellow Irish brethren… let us rid ourselves of perfidious Albion once and for all… and let us be part of a nation that wants us, will respect us, and that we in turn can feel a part of with the ability to be part of government and the overall social fabric in a positive and practical way.

        Enough is enough.

        Erin go bragh.

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