Unionists across the water troubled by the break-up of Britain
Whatever social distancing rules are still being enforced, the ferries crossing from Cairnryan to Larne will have felt heaving this weekend. Any number of sweaty, lager-swilling Billy Boys, bedecked in Rangers tops and bellowing ‘No Surrender’, is going to make vessels of any size seem severely overcrowded – especially to those who kick with the other foot, as they say. Having had this Monday on their minds for several months, staunch Scottish loyalists are making their annual pilgrimage to their mini Meccas – countless pyramids of wooden pallets stacked to the skies for the big bonfires the night before the Twelfth of July.
The fact that the channel between Scotland and Northern Ireland is now divided by a sea border is, by far, the most incendiary aspect of Brexit. Not only because supplies of sausages, essential for a proper Ulster fry before and after the ‘bonnies’, might run out in the province’s supermarkets. For Northern’s Ireland’s diehard Orangemen, and their Scottish kith and kin across the water, the way Boris Johnson has set about implementing the UK’s separation from the EU puts him on a par with ‘Lundy the Traitor’.
For those innocent souls not familiar with seventeenth century religious wars on these islands, Robert Lundy was the governor of Londonderry who was prepared in 1689 to enter into a negotiation with the Jacobites rather than have his walled city mercilessly besieged. His incensed neighbours preferred to endure over a hundred days of hell, during which they were reduced to eating dogs, cats and rats fattened on dead bodies (which rather puts any sausage shortage into perspective). But there was No Surrender!
Such defiance is still in evidence on gable walls across the Protestant ghettoes of East Belfast and elsewhere. On the Carnany estate in Ballymoney there’s a street mural adorned with the verse:
The blood our comrades shed
shall not have been in vain
We honour Ulster’s dead
and staunch we will remain.
That merry rhyme was scrawled on a wall next to a play park. It sits alongside another crude painting depicting masked gunmen smashing their way into somebody’s home with a sledgehammer whilst another loyalist volunteer waits in a getaway van. A scroll beneath proclaims: ‘Ulster’s present defenders’. Ballymoney’s versions of Banksy bring to mind those oft-quoted words of Winston Churchill around the partition of Ireland in 1922:
The whole map of Europe has been changed … but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.
The map of Europe has been changed again by Brexit. But the situation is not as bleak as it was a century ago: however dreary those steeples might still seem from a distance, look closely and you might spot some small shafts of sunlight reflecting upon the stonework. They come through a little more clearly in a new book of interviews compiled by the veteran journalist Susan McKay. Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground is a sequel to her pathbreaking Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People. The latter was first published in 2000 and has (rather confusingly) also just been republished with a new introduction by the author. Whichever version you plump for – Jaggy downloaded the brand new one on Kindle – the message is loud and clear: Northern Protestants are not the same people today they were 21 years ago. Much water – and only a trickle of blood – has passed under the bridge in the past two decades.
This isn’t to suggest they aren’t still unsettled. They are, and not only by the new sea border. Ulster loyalists were equally unsettled by a survey which revealed that a majority of Conservative Party members would have been content to lop Northern Ireland off completely from the UK to get Brexit done. Just as unsettling is the fact that they’re giving up the numbers: today almost half the population of this onetime Orange statelet is Catholic and Protestant schoolchildren have begun to be outnumbered by Catholic kids (in still mainly segregated schools, mind you). This demographic timebomb is scarier to staunch loyalists than any crude devices a small band of dissident republicans might construct in their basements or garages.
The break-up of Britain is the doomsday scenario for Ulster’s assorted Unionists. Irish republicans vent their fury at the ‘Brits’ but, actually, it was mainly Scots who colonised the north of Ireland in one of the most massive land grabs in the history of these islands. After the Union of the Crowns made an Edinburgh-born monarch the first King of the United Kingdom, 59 Scottish landlords were enriched by spearheading the Plantation of Ulster. Many were minor lairds but some were prominent aristocrats with positions in the then Scottish Government. (James I never succeeded in uniting the parliaments of Scotland and England). Keen to sustain and develop ancestral connections, the Ulster Historical Association has mapped the migration of the first Scottish settlers between 1606 and 1641:
Descendants of these Scots settlers are deeply unsettled by current political developments in Scotland. One voice Ms McKay recorded – down an alleyway behind a betting shop in Coleraine (she’s a very intrepid reporter) – was that of Russell Watton. A former UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) paramilitary who survived the Troubles – unlike some of his fellow armed defenders of the Union – Mr Walton is now a PUP (Progressive Unionist Party) councillor. Today he is troubled not only by what sees happening around him but also on the other side of the North Channel:
I’ve never seen as much demoralisation and dejection and sense of betrayal. People just feel we are defeated…There’s no appetite to get back to violence because there’s no clear-cut enemy at the minute. The Scottish independence thing is affecting people too, because if Scotland went independent we are absolutely beaten.
Equally pessimistic about her people’s prospects is a former leader of the PUP, Dawn Purvis, who believes Loyalism has lost the strong sense of identity it had around the time of the peace process. She expects Brexit to be an unmitigated disaster resulting in the disintegration of the UK:
I think that’s what we’re at: the beginning of the end now. I think you’ll see Scotland having their indy referendum…If we have Scotland for the Scottish, England for the English, Wales for the Welsh, that leaves the last remnants of the Brits in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland for the British. What does it mean?
Similar views were expressed to Susan McKay in Ballymoney by a retired RUC detective who insisted on a pseudonym. Jonathan (as the author agreed to call him) scrambled for one of the severance packages on offer in 2000 when his beloved Royal Ulster Constabulary was reconstituted as the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). He voted for Brexit, but soon lost trust in the man who used it to get into Number 10:
I have an Irish passport a long time, being that I’m Irish, and a British subject. But if you start to analyse it, and you’re talking about the United Kingdom – what is the United Kingdom? Scotland wants to go its own way, so does Wales. Are you going to end up being united to England? I have no great love for the English, and I’m not a unionist as such. I really enjoy going to southern Ireland and I am not averse to some sort of united Ireland if there’s justice for everyone in it.
Not everyone is surrendering to the inevitability of a United Ireland, of course. Sammy Wilson, a Democratic Unionist MP, sees it differently. But he does tend to be arsily defiant: during lockdown he posted a picture of himself licking a chocolate cone in a Larne ice cream parlour, in defiance of the Northern Ireland Executive’s policy on mask wearing. ‘You can’t eat if you’re muzzled,’ the caption read. Many people (including some in his own party) would like him permanently muzzled, but Jaggy is a fervent advocate of free speech so here’s what Sammy says:
My view has always been that the biggest threat to the union is not from Northern Ireland or Scotland because good sense will prevail, but from England. People in Northern Ireland don’t need to be convinced of the benefits of the union. The Scottish just love to tweak England’s tail, sickening the English.
Guess it’s easy to form that impression when seated behind Ian Blackford and his Feeble 45 at Westminster. But, so blinded by Europhobia is the Member for East Antrim – who urged David Davis to go into the talks with Brussels with a “no surrender attitude” – I suspect he is completely incapable of seeing the writing on the wall for his cause. When in 2019 an SNP MP warned that a no-deal Brexit could lead to food shortages for the poor, Sammy Wilson was heard to yell: “Go to the chippy!” It could well turn out to be Northern Protestants like him who have had their chips.