The British left needs to start taking Ulster Unionism seriously, listening and engaging with its concerns, history, and political character.
To many on the British left, Northern Irish Unionism is self-evidently on the losing - and wrong - side of history. This attitude has hardened since 2017, following the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) agreement to prop up Theresa May's Conservative government in a 'confidence and supply' arrangement. The chief irony here is that Ulster Loyalist communities are akin to the white working-class constituencies of the North of England and West Midlands that the British Labour Party is so concerned about losing in present times. They too feel disillusioned and abandoned by political elites. Cast on the scrap heap by deindustrialisation and angered by parliamentary expenses scandals, many have not used their vote in recent years except to support Brexit. (1) They are also akin to supporters of Donald Trump in the United States. They appreciate leaders who 'don't give a damn', and are attracted by tough talk and easy scapegoats. (2) The comparison between Trump voters and Ulster Loyalists was alluded to by civil rights veteran Bernadette McAliskey in a 2016 interview:
As the American system disgracefully refers to some of its poorest people as 'white trash,' loyalists are perceived within British nationalism as an underclass. Many from loyalist communities have internalized that themselves. When I work with people from that background I'm often surprised that they will set on the table first, 'Okay, so, we know we are no good.' I have talked to young loyalists who say, 'We know we are scum.' I don't understand any human being starting a conversation saying that they are not human. There is a clear lack of self-esteem and also a loss of confidence. (3) As in the US, Europe and Britain, the danger is this group falling prey to the far right; especially if working-class Protestants are repeatedly told they are already worthless and/or 'fascist'. In the end, the only people sure to engage deprived Loyalist communities will be fascists.
For many years now, there has been a debate within the British Labour Party as to whether it should stand candidates in Northern Ireland. Forming a judgement on that complex question, however, will only be possible if the British left starts to take Ulster Unionism seriously, listening and engaging with its concerns, history, and political character. Against basic principles of solidarity in the labour movement, there are numerous examples of entire Ulster Protestant communities being tarred with the same reactionary brush by voluble journalists and academics. (4) Familiar cliches and caricatures, of 'Protestant Unionist privilege' and 'communal domination and entitlement' litter recent works discussing the 'inevitability' of a united Ireland, often emanating from those with British Labour Party associations. (5) These accounts not only propagate the factual inaccuracy that Protestant communities lack a left-wing or labour history, but often imply that Ulster Protestants lack any real 'culture', as in a literary or creative lineage that exemplifies the community's past achievements and future potential. This is one of the reasons a united Ireland is apparently 'inevitable': any British-identifying culture or population is so retrograde and negligible that it requires washing away into a 'new Ireland'.
These two narratives - of Protestants having a regressive political history and a non-existent cultural heritage - reinforce each other. This was demonstrated particularly clearly by paramilitary-turned-writer Ronan Bennett (a former parliamentary researcher to the current Labour Party leader), in an infamous article published just before the 1994 Ceasefires, entitled 'An Irish Answer'. Bennett proclaimed that Protestant culture was fundamentally 'inward-looking' and 'restricted to little more than flute bands, Orange marches and the chanting of sectarian slogans at football matches'. (6) Bennett's attack was a well-placed condemnation of Unionism for a welcoming liberal English readership, though it is a portrayal that continues to filter through to international coverage of Northern Ireland. Contemporary American visitors report that an institution such as the Londonderry Bands Forum represents 'an integral part of Protestant culture', affirming overall presentations of Ulster Protestants and Unionists as conservative, purely Orange, and philistine. (7)
Unionism and social democracy
This is, however, an unhelpful caricature of a diverse and contested political constituency, with a rich cultural life, from the novels of Maurice Leitch and Jan Carson, to the poetry of Michael Longley and Jean Bleakney, to the painting of William Conor and the music of Van Morrison. Most urgently for British Labour, however, it reflects its ignorance of the social-democratic (and left) tradition of the Protestant working class of Northern Ireland. (8) Especially in the period between the end of the Second World War and the beginnings of the...