Leading Article: Betrayed by history

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The Independent Online
NOT FOR the first time, the Unionists of Northern Ireland are behaving like the sulkiest children at the party. Here is the best chance in more than two decades to bring peace to the province - and here once again are the familiar negative voices of Protestant Ulster talking of betrayal and surrender. These are not, or not yet, the voices of Official Unionism or even the loyalist paramilitaries. James Molyneaux has been canny in his reactions to the Anglo-Irish declaration. The gunmen, like their enemies in the Provisional IRA, are said to be scrutinising the text like literary post-structuralists. None the less, the sentiments plucked from the Protestant streets and pubs of Northern Ireland, as presented by the British media, are of grievance, defiance and impending loss. The Rev Ian Paisley articulates this mood when, in a letter to John Major, he says with usual temperateness: 'You have sold Ulster to buy off the fiendish republican scum.'

Sold? Betrayed? Mr Major and many commentators express incredulity. They point to the declaration which says that the future of Northern Ireland rests entirely with the wishes of its population. The union with Britain will be safe so long as a majority want it; the British government will not seek to persuade them either way. It seems eminently fair and impartial, and that, for the Unionists, is the problem. Ulster's Protestants see themselves as British rather than Irish, and though for many years they have suspected the British across the water do not return this description, they still do not expect British prime ministers to fall in with the ideology of Irish republicanism and treat their part of the United Kingdom as a colony. When the British government declared that it had 'no selfish strategic or economic interest' in Northern Ireland it might have been speaking of a disaffected territory in the Indian Ocean rather than the neat hedgerows of County Down and the British municipal grandeur of Belfast City Hall. When Nicholas Budgen, the Tory backbencher, wanted the Government to confirm that it still had 'a strategic or economic interest in Wolverhampton', he spoke for that dwindling part of Britain that still sees Ulster Protestants as fellow citizens rather than a foreign tribe.

Of course, the analogy cannot hold: no matter where Northern Ireland's majority feel their identity and loyalty lie, their country has a very different history to the West Midlands. But then so does Scotland, where at the ballot box (though not in the street) anti- Unionist feeling runs at least as high as in Northern Ireland. At the last election Mr Major did not approach this challenge like a disinterested referee. Again and again he spoke passionately for the union. Over 300 years it had moulded the history of the world: 'to toss (the union) aside . . . that is unbelievable. Can you, dare you, conceive of it? The walls of this island fortress that appear so strong, undermined from within . . . Wake up, my fellow countrymen. Wake up now, before it is too late.'

That is the language of Mr Paisley, and the language he would like to hear from Mr Major. But that time has gone. The Protestants of Northern Ireland will be lucky to hear such bonding phrases ever again from a British politician - snipe though Mr Budgen and Norman Lamont may - other than from Enoch Powell in his retirement home. There are practical reasons for their silence, and good reasons, and bad reasons. The practical and the good outweigh the bad. They are that Northern Ireland is a bloody, grievous and expensive mess; if the linguistic moderation and ambiguity of the Anglo-Irish declaration can help treat it, then, when nothing else has worked, that is surely worth a try.

The bad reasons are, in sum, that we do not care. The British, or more particularly the English, have never really tried to understand the character and aspirations of the Ulster Protestant. It may be said that Ulster Protestants have hardly helped themselves here, with their marches and sashes, and flutes and drums, and the rasping theological certainties of their leaders. On BBC television last week Michael Ignatieff remarked bluntly to an elderly Orangeman: 'You are a museum piece.' If so, it is a British museum, with oaths of allegiance to a British crown demanding loyalty to a Protestant state. Protestantism, as Alan Watkins remarks on page 21, is now unfashionable and too readily mocked. We think of rain rattling on the roofs of mission huts and Mr Paisley thundering the prophecies of Micah to congregations of righteous Presbyterians. And yet the democratic organisation and evangelism of the Presbyterian and Nonconformist churches have been powerful and often benign influences on British history and society. If Britain ignores the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone, it ignores an important part of itself.