Former justice minister Máire Geoghegan-Quinn once told TG4 a revealing story. Just as Albert Reynolds and John Major were about to announce the successful signing of the Downing Street Declaration in 1993, Major casually turned to the then Taoiseach to tell him that he planned to open his own remarks with the phrase, "I am a unionist". Their declaration contained five references to Northern Ireland's status as a part of the UK, so Major felt on solid ground here. Reynolds brazenly informed the British Prime Minister that he would bolt if he used that provocative phrase. Amazingly Major complied, and struck out the proposed preface.
Not the least of the merits of Thomas Paul Burgess and Gareth Mulvenna's new book, a series of essays under the title The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants is the way they help us understand how unionist became such a dirty word. Burgess evokes Cork City's largely uncomprehending attitude towards both unionism and loyalism. He shows how far we have travelled from the sentiments of Jack Lynch's landmark RTÉ address in 1970 when he told the unionists that "we have no wish to confront you or destroy you. Indeed we think that a branch has been broken from the Irish tree." Burgess' melancholy asides on contemporary Cork echo Eoghan Harris' historical account of the various southern stereotypes of unionism.
His critique counters Joe Lee's influential meditation on the supposed unionist "siege mentality", and John Hume's belief that the unionists "are one of the most right-wing forces in Europe - nobody else would stand for them, anywhere." This essay concludes that "unionists were not simply clients of the Crown, still less a Herrenvolk (master-race), but heirs to a British republican tradition.
In the background it was not hard to hear echoes of the Putney debates and the democratic demands of the Levellers."
These sentiments draw on Gearóid Ó Crualaoich's powerful essay, 'Responding to the Rising'. Here the folklorist argued that nationalism and unionism were really variations on a single theme. Both valued "the aspiration to a life lived in freedom, with justice for all under the rule of law, and with the fair sharing of the produce of human labour". The time had come, he felt, "when we can even dare to envisage a sense in which 1916 is 1688."
Malachi O'Doherty's essay offers an engaging, even hilarious take on what Paul Bew once called Stupid Unionism. The stupidity in O'Doherty's account being their poor media skills. In one of his famous public relations seminars, he recalled asking one ex-paramilitary how he would respond to a journalist who rang up on the back of a recently issued press release. What might he say? "I'm going to tell him to fuck off", said the UDA man. "You've got the press release; that's all you're getting". Henry McDonald, contributes another excellent essay. He discusses the stoical side of modern unionism, and recounts what happened after Enniskillen when some Belfast loyalist factions tried to interest their rural border brethren in retaliation against Catholic civilians. The UVF men were practically run out of town on a rail "with the message that border Protestants/unionists wanted nothing to do with terrorism; that they preferred to support the legitimate security forces; they would stick by the forces of law and order." This is a book for all serious students of the varieties of unionist experience.