Unionism: A Community Rooted in Ancient Hatreds


By Jason Michael

When we listen to the unionists for long enough we always eventually hear the hate that drives the idea of unionism. Whether it is good old sectarianism or racism, it is always there. Do we really want to remain trapped by the bitterness of the status quo?

One of the things I have always found most endearing about Ireland is the absence of any sense of haste. Of course, after an economic boom in the Republic and the effect of EU membership on the north and the south, this more relaxed mode of life is fast disappearing. But it always was a feature of the Irish experience that set it apart from life in urban Scotland. In Dublin my civil servant friend is fond of a story told of the former Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, who, on hearing the expression “Mañana” from a Spanish diplomat, responded that there was no word in the Irish language that conveyed such a sense of urgency.

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A family friendly festival?

Such a relaxed national attitude does however often have its down sides. It means that busses and trains don’t always run on time. Sure, the idea of transport connections is a relatively new concept to travel on the whole island. Another friend, a Lutheran pastor who studied beside me many moons ago, once explained the concept of hope in a sermon as standing at a bus stop in Galway. On one occasion when I fell afoul of this lack in the transport system I was travelling from Glasgow to Dublin by coach. Glasgow to Stranraer was fine. As was the ferry to Belfast, but there was no connection to Dublin until eight the next morning. I had to stay the night in a guesthouse. It was 11 July.

Every year on “the Twelfth” there is a spike in the number of people flying off to the sun from Northern Ireland and – as I was to find out – for good reason. Not a wink of sleep was to be had for the racket of the local and many not-so-local Loyalist bands practicing out on the green. Many of the voices out on the street were Scottish, so I decided to head out and experience what was being advertised as a “family friendly cultural festival.” Don’t get me wrong, I had a good bit of fun that night. There was plenty of drink and a good bit of banter, but I was under no illusions that this good, wholesome fun was conditional; that I wasn’t “a Fenian,” that I kept my mouth shut about travelling to Dublin, and that I didn’t ask questions.

So long as people thought I was one of their Scottish “brethren” all was good, and – for me, that night – it was good. I did have fun. I did travel on to Dublin the next day with a sore head on me. Other than having the craic as an outsider pretending to be an insider, I learned a few things about the culture of Ulster unionism. This faux Britishness – dressed up in blue military marching band uniform with white piping or white shirts, cuffs, sashes, and bowler hats – was chronically outdated. It was like a cargo cult of the London banker of the Mary Poppins era all mashed up with the quasi-theological rhetoric of the sixteenth century.

Under all of it, in every conversation, there was a thick and dark hatred. This was the Mecca of sectarian bigotry masquerading as a British identity that has never existed. Men who had never darkened the door of a church were shouting about the evils of what I thought at the time was potpourri. It turned out they really didn’t like the pope.

Until the Scottish independence campaign all of this has remained alien to my experience of Ireland and Scotland. Now I hear and say this word “unionism” every day. As a concept and as an identity it has become more real to me. We discuss and interact with people who call themselves unionists all the time, but this time they are in Scotland. Not Ireland. Perhaps ten years ago these people wouldn’t necessarily even have thought of themselves as unionists, but they do now. It is true that the vast majority of them are not members of the Orange Order, but – like their Ulster brethren – their social and political identity is being shaped by a unionist vision of Britishness.

Max Weber, the German sociologist, said that all ideology is the product of the conflict of ideology, and no doubt this has shown itself to be true in Scotland. The latent unionism, more or less manifest over the country in times past, has been brought to the fore in recent years with the challenge that the growing demand for Scottish independence has posed to their idolised Great Britain.

We listened to Bob Geldof telling us that Scotland was a mere “feeling,” but that Britain was something “real” – as if the Gaelic fringe of the real and rational Britain was a savage place driven by animalistic emotions and urges. Yet the only real emotion I have witnessed in this debate has been the raw emotion of those who style themselves unionists – sometimes veiled, sometimes open hatred. Be it the fascist “Red Hand of Ulster” salutes in George Square, the coded references to “the Catholics” from Edinburgh University’s retired professor of history Jill Stephenson, or its constant anti-immigration politics, the prevailing mood of Scottish unionism is always hostile.

Not all unionists are frothing at the mouth with hatred – of course not – but there is no mistaking where all of these things are being seen in the current national debate. Looking at this compassionately – as we always must – we must appreciate that hatred is the child of fear. Independence demands a change to the certainties of unionism. It threatens the existence of their idol, no matter how false and constructed this is. Reading what the unionists are writing and listening to what they are saying we hear that panic and fear. It stands to reason that this fear was the only tool they had at their disposal in the last independence referendum.

What this has exposed, to me at least, is that this fear induced hatred has always somehow been an essential ingredient of the Union. It has been packaged and repackaged and handed down from one generation to the next – it has become a culture. We can’t return to that. Yes, before the rise of the independence movement it was much quieter and less apparent, but it was still there. Independence offers us – everyone in Scotland – the opportunity to address this problem. We are now presented with the chance to make a fresh start and secure for ourselves a new country built on the values we most admire.

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Fears of rising sectarianism in Scotland


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2 thoughts on “Unionism: A Community Rooted in Ancient Hatreds

  1. The 2011 census figures show that Catholics make up 16% of the Scottish population. It is very difficult to go from this fact to the SNP being Catholic when it gets 45%+ of the vote.
    These tweets above from Unionists are blatantly factually incorrect.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Of course they are, Kangaroo. But in a country like Scotland – where there has been a historical sectarian problem – we cannot underestimate the power of this sort of language to mobilise those who hate. Thanks for your comment.

      Like

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