‘Not knowing your place’ – by Brian John Spencer

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In 1921 the founding father of Northern Ireland Edward Carson implored unionist legislators to govern the nascent state with justice and equality for the Catholic minority.

Unionists opposed a Dublin parliament because they feared injustice and inequality. In the end the unionist parliament in Belfast disposed of Carson’s dictum, treating Catholics in the very manner they so graphically feared. Unionist paranoia and misrule turned Northern Ireland into a “cold house for Catholics”, the antithesis of what Carson wanted.
Today the TUV oppose mandatory coalition, the anti-agreement party wants voluntary coalition. In the 1970s Bill Craig tentatively suggested voluntary coalition. The proposal was ruthlessly condemned and castigated. It was to be nothing less than old-style majority rule, with our First Minister and the late Ian Paisley leading the charge. As Trimble said:

“Voluntary coalition was a good idea in 1975. It would have worked then if Paisley under pressure from the element which now form the backbone of TUV had not turned turtle.”

Jim Allister, the unreconstructed Paisleyite, was party to this doctrine of majority rule. He opposed voluntary coalition then, but wants it now.

The international agreement brokered in 1998 enshrined involuntary coalition because unionism showed itself to be incapable of fair and equitable administration under the traditional matrix of Government-and-Opposition.

Under power-sharing Northern Ireland is now a warm house for Protestant and Catholic. There remain detractors. For dissidents it is an oppressive British statelet. For hardline unionists it is a province being slowly emasculated of its British muscle and fibre.

Britishness is not disappearing from Northern Ireland or Ireland, it is simply being rebalanced. In the south the representation of Britishness has increased. In the north the representation of Irishness has increased.

Britishness is not in abeyance, and Irishness is not in ascendence – we are seeing an accommodative and balanced settlement on the question of identity. Identity on this island, North and South, is not monolithic. Nor is history or our narrative.

Imagine this, Sinn Fein at a Remembrance Service at Stormont. That is a massive row back on green book republicanism, a serious concession.

It is only fair that unionism make a gesture in return. Foregoing the Anthem is a fair and pragmatic motion. Britishness is not diminished, the very ceremony has Britain in its DNA. Britishness is in fact upheld and strengthened by the attendance of Sinn Fein; that is civic, modern, progressive unionism. Imagine the cries, despair and cringe of traditional republicanism, the heresy of it.

Northern Ireland is a contested place and if it is to work it needs a degree of consensus and an arrangement that recognises and respects both traditions.

A huge swathe of the Catholic population is indifferent to the constitutional question. Upon this community the security of the Union rests.

Their ballot will not be won under a blue-blooded unionist ticket. Their ballot with be won with moderation and conciliation.

On Wednesday November 11th 2015 the TUV press officer broke into an unscripted, immodest and vulgar rendition of God Save the Queen.

The grace and dignity in the face of Martin McGuinness stood in sharp contrast to the tone cut by the loutish Calvinist Sammy Morrison.

To use a unionist trope, the anthem was deployed as a weapon to embarrass nationalism. The Anthem was exploited for cheap political gain. It devalued the Anthem and stripped solemnity from the occasion. It was a childish and graceless stunt by a rural unionist oaf.

The stunt was straight out of the Paisleyite playbook. Exactly the spectacle that makes Northern Ireland the ire of Great Britain and paints unionists as ill-mannered and makes them the “despised tribe” and “despised hangers-on.”

I am glad Sammy Morrison did what he did.

Regardless of how foolish an act it was, I believe in free speech and Morrison has a right to express himself.

Also, by putting himself in public view he makes his views accountable to the public.

Morrison is a central cog in the TUV machine, the party which is the organ grinder to the unionist pageant and spectacularly counter-productive swing to the right.

The Free Presbyterian fundamentalist is a micro-lemming that makes Poots look like JFK. Much of his work and agitation drives the conversation and controversies in Northern Ireland.

He helped kick off the KKK-painting row. He helped drive the Ulster rugby-poppy row. He started a petition for Ashers.

A kind of pound-shop Jamie Bryson, minus many of the Donaghadee man’s eminent qualities is fomenting argument in Northern Ireland and creating distraction from the real issues of the day.

Alex Kane and Newton Emerson have both stated that Northern Ireland has a sizeable demographic of cosmopolitan people.

Yet unionist politics is singularly in the throes of deeply conservative, and in the case of the TUV, profoundly reactionary politicians.

The pervasive presence of the Free Presbyetrian Church and the Caleb Foundation in unionist politics is widely and outrageously out of step with civil society.

The middle and cosmopolitan classes have completely abstained themselves from the arena. As Brian Feeney and Mick Fealty said, much of this has to do with the “threat of violence.”

As liberal protestant and poet Maurice James Craig said, in Northern Ireland “the last are the first and the first are the last.”

Something serious needs to be done to rebalance the absence of moderate and conciliatory voices within unionism. The future success of the Union depends on a unionist politics that is warm, practical and aspirational.

Northern Ireland has had a glut of reactionary unionists and a shower of self-appointed “spokespersons” and agitators, but imagine if some from the progressive classes could direct some of their energy, ideas and creativity into the political forum.

Unionists need to work with their fellow citizens and Nationalist brothers and sisters. That means a new kind of unionism that is not loud, immodest and “traditional.” It needs to be new unionism with new modes and customs, much like it is in Scotland, England and Wales. Chilled out unionism would represent the most terrifying opponent Sinn Fein has ever faced.

Britishness in Northern Ireland is about the loyal orders, bonfires, parades and flag-flappers.

Britishness on the mainland is so much more relaxed, benign and passive. This non-confrontational Britishness is the kind that is required to make this place work.

If unionists can’t accept making some change the alternative is to go back to living separately and violent confrontation.

I will finish with the words of Edward Carson, the father figure to all Ulster and Irish unionists, wisdom first shared in 1921:

“From the start be tolerant to all religions, and, while maintaining to the last your own traditions and your own citizenship, take care that similar rights are preserved for those who differ from us.”

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About Author

Brian is a writer, artist and law graduate.


  1. Michael Coleman on

    Many good points. Though the balancing in the north is dripping too slowly to be reasonable. Water still has 2 tides in the north. Us Nationalists are still on the low water mark. Again like other thinking Unionists Spencer does not really grasp the Nationalist UI/NewIreland ambition. Its obvious by voting for SF/SDLP Nationalists are CLEARLY expressing their desire for this ambition. But simple, agenda-loaded opinion polls are of useless value in measuring this. A radical new, properly funded, creative and permanent Constitutional position would easily carry a majority of electorate. The only “Poll” with near 100% electorate turnout is the census. Irish or n/Northern Irish (Capital N is optional, like which end of our eggs we slice off I know, but…) are the majority group. These are the people who are willing to create something new.
    I have never heard any Unionist suggest that 12/12 July Public Holidays should lose their special status, its like ALL Unionists cannot see the trees for the wood, so to speak. Think about it!! Really imagine if you were a Nationalist on these days – every July of your life here.
    Nationalists would dump these Pub Hols, to a man.
    We must……………..do something, umh, well what? For a start we must be Black Swan Thinkers. Who cud ever have imagined that Partition could last this long? Very few of its main architects did. So anything is possible. But perspective change must become a habit for us all.

  2. “Britishness” can mean so many things. One dimension of “Britishness” is represented by all those who opposed the First World War. Some pacifists, but many of them not. Men and women like Bertrand Russell, James Keir Hardie, Ramsey MacDonald, Sylvia Pankhurst, Fenner Brockway. . . These are the people whose lives and witness we should celibrate and remember at this time. They are part of a radical tradition which ultimately goes beyond specific cultures and nationalities. There were Germans who also refused to fight, refused to engage in the collective madness which was the First World War where the ultimate winners were Hitler and Stalin. If Britishness means anything, it is the values these people represented not the narrow, sectarian bigotry demonstrated by Morrison of the TUV. That too is a form of “Britishness” of course, but outside of Northern Ireland few would recognise it as such.

  3. Stephen Hamilton on

    What utter rubbish. It is quite obvious that the writer of the article hardly knows Sammy Morrison. His characterization of the man is wide of the mark. “Loutish” he is not. Neither is he an “oaf”. And if it is a crime to be “rural” then the vast majority of our fellow-citizens in N. Ireland are to be condemned forthwith. This piece is not serious journalism, but a hatchet-job. It is clear from the above that as far as the charge of bigotry is concerned Spencer is but a pot calling the kettle black. In his new, tolerant society there is no place for Free Presbyterians or their opinions, however distasteful he might find both. Unionists who do not agree with the rolling back of Protestant rights must be silenced, according to him. His uncanny ability to judge Morrison’s motives is also worth noting. The distinct possibility that the young man, whose relatives were dug out of the rubble at Enniskillen’s war memorial after an I.R.A. bomb, might find it irksome that the architects of that dastardly deed were at the fore-front of the Stormont event seems to have escaped Spencer’s mind. Then again the possibility that the deliberate omission of the Anthem of the country whose war-dead were being remembered at the event might also have been a factor in his decision to lead an impromptu singing of it appears not to have been considered. It is a sad day when the National Anthem of the country is deemed offensive, and its dignified singing regarded as “a childish stunt”. But Mr. Spencer thinks not. His little diatribe could well have been penned by a Sinn Fein Press Officer. Then again, perhaps not – the correct spelling and punctuation are a dead give-away. One other thing: Brian Spencer forgot to include the fact that in the rest of Great Britain, where citizens who sing the Anthem of their nation are supposedly less boorish, there is no concession made at civic events – including Remembrance Day Services – to those whose aim and objective is the overthrow of the British State. The presence of Sinn Fein’s godfathers of terror would not be tolerated, for example, at the Cenotaph in London on such an occasion. The very sight of Martin McGuinness at a solemn act of remembrance might be enough to produce some very real “loutish” behavior from rightly outraged Englishmen.

    • michael coleman on

      So what will you do about me? And my grandchildren who are a majority demographic in the north? Is victory your ambition or co-existence?

    • did only unionist and uvf die in the first world war !!!! ??? no nationalist no Catholics no men and women from the south of Ireland
      the funny thing is that after all your bladder and murder you ended up with home rule which you then went on to abuse !!
      it seems to me that bigots in the unionist community have learned nothing over the past 45 years first you got power-sharing 1974 not acceptable , Anglo Irish agreement not acceptable then sdlp /uup not acceptable and now sinn feinn /dup so what next !!! answerers please on the back of your John players cigarette box please

  4. Death of an Irish Airman(WBYeats)

    I know that I shall meet my fate,

    Somewhere among the clouds above;

    Those that I fight I do not hate,

    Those that I guard I do not love;

    My country is Kiltartan Cross,

    My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,

    No likely end could bring them loss

    Or leave them happier than before.

    Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,

    Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,

    A lonely impulse of delight

    Drove to this tumult in the clouds;

    I balanced all, brought all to mind,

    The years to come seemed waste of breath,

    A waste of breath the years behind

    In balance with this life, this death.

  5. Hopefully this isn’t a duplicate comment, I tried posting but it didn’t come up, then I tried again and it said duplicate comment detected. Here goes again:

    Poor form to use ‘rural’ as a pejorative. I’m sure all the non-loutish rural members of the loyal orders would say it’s the urban ones that cause all the trouble. Apart from that it was mostly a good article.

    Martin McGuiness at a remembrance event! Enda Kenny laying a wreath! Things that would have been unthinkable mere years ago. Unionism must be more strategic & accept the progress that has been made & view concessions as part of the journey, not as setbacks or insults.

    On the subject of majority rule & mandatory coalition, if there was majority rule and voluntary coalition: same sex marriage might have passed; due to the number of unionist parties, the nationalists might win assembly elections; if unionists could form coalitions among themselves they would be forever breaking down; majority rule might force a sea-change in NI politics, though.

    Finally a pet peeve of mine, too much lionising of ‘progressivism’. Everyone is progressive, they just want to go in different directions. I understand that it generally means left-leaning secularist human rights promoter, but it has its roots in Marxist dialectical class struggle and implies an inevitability about things that are not inevitable. e.g. Trudaeu junior’s “because it’s 2015” comment about the make-up of his cabinet is at best banal and at worst ironically sexist.

  6. An Inbred Culchie on

    Anyone getting their farmers kneeckers in a twist over the word rural should wind their neck in hai bai. Being a “citybai” or “shafty” or, and my absolute favourite for its implicated bluntness, “useless cunt” or any other of the many witty and hilarious nicknames i had when i worked in a Tyrone engineering firm commuting from Belfast means i know you culchies feel the same way about us lot! Its us and them!! Its ok tho, its an endearing us and them division. Culchies and Townies, the never ending battle of wit. We can still have a pint together and talk about our favorite bands or football teams together without wanting to kill or maim the other. Unlike how some catholics and protestants feel about each other!

    So feck away off back to yer dorty farm ye filthy inbreds! And i’ll head back to my leafy suburb and wreck my car by trying to fix it because im a “useless shafty”.

    Disclaimer: I no longer live in belfast.

  7. Really tiring reading your constant attempted character assassinations of conservative unionists. The local BBC chose to cut out the crux of Morrison’s argument – he had two relatives seriously injured in the Enniskillen Rememberance Day bombing and to accommodate two or three figures figures who played a leading role in that organisation was not something he was interested in. Morrison wears a poppy to commemorate our dead in all our wars – the official reason for the day. That we accommodate a faction who were at one stage looking to add to the tally and even now only commemorate some of those soldiers in one of the wars with a separate wreath, well there’s a strong argument for Mr. Morrison’s stance.

    That’s not to say I don’t understand why Nesbitt did what he did, because his reasoning too is wise, but you’ve failed once again to look outside any perspective other than your own view of unionism and so I’m not sure if you ever intend on talking with people rather than at them.

    Reading through the comments, John F seems more articulate and less flamebait than Spencer. I wonder if Mallie could insert some much needed editorial quality control at some point? Spencer is a one-trick pony and there isn’t really a shortage of commentators who simply continually attack the unionist right.

  8. There are any number of useful points raised in this article, not least that the singing of the National Anthem at the end of this Act of Remembrance was not only inappropriate, but also loutish and a double-barrelled shot in the foot.

    However, as with a recent Alex Kane piece, (and I assume the one referred to), I really to fail to grasp the reference to a certain flavour, or more specifically *flavours* of Protestant Christianity: Calvinism and Free Presbyterianism, not to mention the Caleb Foundation (which is much more of a pressure group than a Church).

    Not only are ‘Calvinism’ and ‘Free Presbyterianism’ not (and not even ‘not necessarily’) the same thing, but neither are ‘hardline unionism’ and any kind of Christianity necessarily the same thing.

    Northern Ireland politics and religion are an endlessly complex mix, and yes, “the TUV press officer broke into an unscripted, immodest and vulgar rendition of God Save the Queen.” – it was most unseemly and did nothing for the cause of Unionism; but much greater nuance of the connections, and lack of them, between politics and religion is required if commentators such as BJS and AK are going to avoid falling into the trap of, well, not really ‘knowing the place’ where they live, and misrepresenting a vast swath of religious people who are uncomfortable with the type of unionism describe here.

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