‘Republicans have done a unionism’ argues Brian Spencer

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We’re all unionists now. Being a member of a group of nations that pools power and decision-making is all the vogue.

For unionists, having a partition between east and west is abominable as partition between north and south, and between Ireland and Europe is, for nationalists.

Being Irish and British, British and Irish is, for many, as natural as breathing. 

Ireland and Scotland-England-Wales (SEW) are at it’s closest point 11 miles apart. The formal title of these two islands, the archipelago, is the ‘British Isles’.

The two islands are a Venn diagram of shared and overlapping habits and customs. They breathe the same air (you know you’re in a different country when you land in Europe, America or Asia) and share the same mental circuit; the same nervous system of language, trade, culture and blood. Historian A.T.Q. Stewart wrote that people used to row from County Down to Stranraer:

“Incredible as it now seems, hundreds of ordinary people who had been deprived of their ministers rowed across the North Channel to Scotland on Sunday afternoons to take communion, and returned the same day.”

Frank Frankfort Moore (1855–1931), unionist writer born to Presbyterian parents in Limerick and educated in Belfast at RBAI, wrote in ‘Truth About Ulster’:

“We reckoned it no feat to cross that narrow channel, and to watch the Galloway hills, already seen to be green by anyone looking out from Donaghadee or Ballywalter, become clearer and brighter with every hour’s sailing, until the beautiful undulations of the shores of Lough Ryan were on each side of us, and we could run our boat comfortably into a natural harbour with a sandy ground to drop our anchor into. And when we hailed one of the fishermen outside his own cottage, we found him and his people speaking exactly the same dialect as was spoken on the Irish coast which we had left a few hours before; for the Scotch of the County Down coast from Bangor to Portaferry, is the Scotch of the coast of Galloway.”

Heaney put into symphony the special relationship and complicated intimacy of these two islands when he said:

“There’s a hidden scotland in anyone who speaks the Northern Ireland speech.”

Our shared accents and vernacular show that the Irish Sea is no border; we grow from the same turf. I may be Irish but I have a Caledonian umbilical cord.

During the Home Rule crisis and in the months preceding Easter 1916 Dublin was a British city full of “Britishers”, unionist and nationalist. Todd Andrews wrote:

“Dublin [in 1901]was a British city and accepted itself as one.”

Like it is between Ireland and Europe today, a home legislature connected to a supreme legislative body then seemed eminently sensible.

Today republicans like Robert Ballagh snarl with indignation at the idea of Dublin or any part of Ireland having a memorial to British soldiers. “Ireland commemorating British soldiers would be as bizarre as Britain commemorating German soldiers.” he says.

Some Irish will find the Ballagh-analogy perfectly appropriate, but just as many will find it an outrageous suggestion. For so many Irish people, O’Connellite nationalists and your unionist brothers, SEW is not properly foreign, now or then. For Edmund Burke and Henry Grattan and so many Irish patriots you could seek a separate parliament but never fully separate the two islands. George Orwell wrote:

“It is very rare to meet a foreigner, other than an American, who can distinguish between English and Scots or even English and Irish.”

Nationalists and republicans like to say unionists, by rejecting their Irishness, suffer an identity crisis. Yet nationalists and republicans, by rejecting their Britishness or even the profound British links, are showing an identity overdrive. Anglophobia isn’t healthy; it gave us the fior gael, the Irish-Irelander.
And here we are now, with the new wall at Glasnevin acknowledging dead British soldiers, republicans are doing a unionism – green psycho-squawking babies.

Unionism is very good at amplifying its rage in a way that diminishes its cause. Republicans are almost always too smart to let this happen, they can even spin rage aimed against them into political capital. But with the Glasnevin concession being made, on sacred republican home soil, it was obviously just too much for some.

The term ‘Big Mad Children’, from a British Irish Association chairman, is a very apt descriptor for the unbending unionists and republicans whose company we must endure.

Call me a get-a-longer latitudinarian but I’m bewildered as I sit between the two camps of zealots – one super-Irish without a drop of Britishness, the other super-British without a drop of Irishness.

The Good Friday Agreement ushered in the age of the duality. You can be whatever you want, and everything, they say, is to be shared and cross-community. Nationalist and green culture has enjoyed a northern resurgence, to the chagrin and pushback of the DUP and other hardliners.

This has been reciprocated in the south. We have seen the acknowledgement of the minority culture and the British connection. However, with no unionist community, it will never be as controversial even though fringe republicans protested at the Queen and the opening of the Cross of Sacrifice.

The southern Catholic ascendancy and northern Protestant ascendancy as Victor Griffin (former Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral) observed no longer exist.

Seosamh de Brún, an Irish Volunteer who spent Easter Week in Jacob’s biscuit factory wrote in his diary during the Rising:

“I have been to confession. First time for years. I feel better for it. I do believe that the Catholic religion and Irish nationality are better in meaning than synonymous – they are so interwoven. The spirit of Christ and Irish Nationality the spirit of progress and sacrifice.”

No longer is Irishness coterminous with Catholicism. No longer will Northern Ireland privilege Protestantism.
No longer can Northern Ireland be unionist only, and no longer can Ireland be republican only.
It has been remarkable and enlightening to watch the Glasnevin-gate. So much in the North has been about equality and parity of esteem, and about the non-hierarchy of victims. Yet as soon as the tables are turned this has gone out the window.

Compare this with IRFU’s 1916-2016 charitable walk and cycle. It’s perfectly balanced between green and orange, but appealing almost only to the muted and middle-of-the-road community that nobody will even notice it and the sterling reconciliation work it is doing.

There are many who watch the Big, Mad Children with total bewilderment, the cynical and apathetic type. Yet so much more of Ireland, North and South (as typified by the IRFU scheme), is mellow and multifarious when it comes to identity. It is time to bring forward that voice and their mellow example to the foreground; and the media have a role and responsibility.

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About Author

Brian is a writer, artist and law graduate.


  1. I fought in the Battle of the Bog in 1969 so I’m of a certain vintage…….’The Wall’ made me stop with a sharp intake of breath……I’m a work in progress and I’ll leave it there for now but I appreciate your article.

  2. When my wife moved up from Dublin we were walking along the shore at Cultra on a sunny day and she asked what the land yonder was? I replied – “Scotland” to her complete disbelief. Margaret took some convincing, but now is happy to point it out to any visitors that have since been North, to their constant surprise that we are so close to our Scottish neighbors.

  3. A.T.Q. Stewart’s account does explicitly say, it’s incredible but in context – in a highly devout period – not so much. We certainly don’t like dictats from London or SEW now, whatever your politics. The people taking the regular pilgrimages by boat these days between that short channel crossing, wear sashes to bleat about Protestant superiority or celtic supporters going to sing about killing british soldiers. I like Orwell but I don’t like his writings about Ireland or catholics and actually highlights that in many ways we are foreign countries despite middle ground, british irish lions etc. They are not different ideas fostered from de Valera onwards, ‘little Irelanders’, you might say. They were apparent in language, religion, culture, in the politics that the british SEW attempted to ground out. They got 3/4 (catholicism remained), and when a gaelic revival began it took hues and then direct politicisation by irish republicanism and inspired many to join in 1916 to fight. Why we are now closer than ever, and able to commemorate British dead is the British accept Irish dead fighting it’s empire, and accept it has aspirations that although mostly completely mirror Britain (like most EU countries), we do differ on some. The same can’t be said of Britain’s attitude to Irish neutrality in the past or how the north was governed for all of the 20th century and into the 21st.

  4. I always enjoy reading your posts Brian as you seek to conflate identity with sovereignty at every chance you get.

    ‘Being Irish and British, British and Irish is, for many, as natural as breathing. ‘

    I’m sure it is, but having a group of people,frankly an overwhelming majority, who self-identify as Irish wanting to have self-determination on an island clearly defined as Ireland wouldn’t make you any less British/Irish/Jedi/who cares really, or have I missed something?

    We can say, ‘ah, but Southern Ireland was a cold house for unionism’ and you would be right, as unionism is diametrically against Irish self-determination, but that doesn’t make it a cold house for Protestants, as my uncle from Holywood would attest to as well as thousands of others.

    Perhaps its the Northern thing of identity = sovereignty, but I find its best to ignore this as it’s merely a distraction or misdirection.

    Ireland is for unionism? Hmmmm, not of the Ulster variety I find, but that’s something you need to figure out.

  5. Raymond Armstrong on

    As an Irish Protestant, I can attest to the cold house for protestants attitude of the Irish State, my father served as a firefighter in Belfast during the WW2. He returned to Dublin in 1947 only to be sent to Coventry by his RC colleagues because of his perceived connection with the Orange Order (he was never an orange-man) this situation persisted for 13 years in spite of valiant efforts by his superiors to resolve the situation. Eventually he was obliged to sell his home at a loss to enable him to bring his family to Belfast. Sadly this experience was not unique to him but the strange thing was that his few Northern Irish colleagues were not affected. It seems that his offence was that he was a Southern protestant and for no other reason.

  6. At the very least the Republic should join the Commonwealth. To not do so just because the English are in it is ridiculous. The Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans, as well as just about every African Commonwealth nation, suffered horribly under colonial Britain, not to mention Australian Aborigines (and convicts), NZ Maori and all the rest. Being in the Commonwealth isn’t subservience to Britain, it’s solidarity with the fellow-nations that suffered under it. And a chance to flog them at sport occasionally.

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