Words have power. They can enrage, motivate, depress, uplift. They can change peoples’ minds - persuade them to adopt new positions, policies, attitudes. Words can exploit and encourage the best and the worst in people. Create revolutions. Defend totalitarianism and oppression. A single word can convey a whole wealth of meaning. Think of ‘Brexit’. One word – six letters – a word that didn’t exist a decade ago and which today has come to symbolise the fears and the hopes of millions - depending on which side of the argument you fall.
The Tories know the value of words. When the British Parliament passed the Benn Act preventing the Johnson government from moving ahead with a no-deal Brexit it was immediately dubbed the “surrender” law. Unionism too knows the value of loaded words. When Johnson finally closed a withdrawal deal with the European Union his erstwhile allies in the DUP labelled it the “Betrayal Act.”
Next month, on 6 December, a unionist rally – “Stop the Betrayal Act” will be held in the Ulster Hall. It will be the latest in a number of smaller similar events. Unionism is venting its anger at another British government. Is it any wonder that the DUP party political broadcast for the general election failed to mention Brexit. How could they? Their alliance with the Tories has contributed to this significant moment in Anglo-Irish and unionist-British relations.
So, unionism is again accusing a British government of another act of betrayal. And once again the Ulster Hall will be the venue for Unionists to protest.
In the past the Ulster Hall has held significance for unionism in times of political crises. Tory leader Randolph Churchill addressed a meeting there in February 1886. Churchill understood the strategic value of using political unionism as a weapon against the Liberal government of Gladstone. His stance was opportunistic. He had no great affection for unionists describing them at one point as “foul Ulster Tories” but was prepared to encourage violence. At the Ulster Hall Rally he said: “I am of the opinion that the struggle is not likely to remain within the lines of what we are accustomed to look up as constitutional action …”
Later, in an open letter in the Pall Mall Gazette he provided unionists with their war cry for the decades ahead. Churchill wrote: “Ulster will fight, Ulster will be right …”
30 years later the Tories were at it again. Encouraging open rebellion by unionists. On September 27, 1912, on the eve of the signing of the Ulster Covenant, thousands of unionist men and women gathered at the Ulster Hall. Edward Carson was presented with a yellow silk banner, reputed to have been carried by King William's troops at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
Within a decade violence and the threat of more violence by unionist leaders, encouraged by the Tories, led to the partition of Ireland. The same Carson, speaking in 1921, on the Tory intrigues that had led him on a course that would partition Ireland said: “What a fool I was. I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in that political game that was to get the Conservative party into power.”
The lesson then and in the century since is the same. Westminster and English political parties always put English interests first. That was and remains the primary motivator of their policy in Ireland.
As a result when the Wilson Labour government in the late 60s was confronted by the very public evidence of the Orange apartheid state it forced a very reluctant unionist government, against huge opposition and violence, to accept electoral and other limited reforms. Another betrayal.
The Health government scrapped the Stormont Parliament in March 1972. Unionist outrage at the Darlington Talks and subsequent Sunningdale Agreement led to the Ulster Workers Council strike of 1974, massive intimidation by unionist paramilitaries, and the collapse of the executive. More betrayals.
Ian Paisley made a career out of claiming that unionists were being sold out and betrayed. He established the Third Force, worked closely with the UDA and UVF, and brought hundreds to the top of a mountain to wave their gun licences for the benefit of the media. In 1985 the Anglo-Irish Agreement witnessed a co-ordinated campaign of opposition by the Ulster Unionist Party and the DUP. Even though the Agreement made little real difference the very fact that Thatcher – who had been lionised by many unionists – signed the Agreement, led to mass demonstrations.
In November 1986 at the Ulster Hall the DUP established Ulster Resistance. In the press releases handed out to the media waiting outside the Hall by Nigel Dodds it said that Ulster Resistance was being established as an “organised and disciplined force, which will neither bend nor budge” until the Agreement is destroyed. In the following months towns and villages across the North were taken over by thousands of uniformed and masked men as Unionism accused London of one more betrayal.
In the years that followed unionist leaders constantly warned against the policies of Downing Street. Despite accusing the British of duplicity the Ulster Unionist Party in the mid 1990’s for a time helped to bolster the John Major government. Their objective was to block the peace process. That failed too.
For many unionists – especially the DUP – the Good Friday Agreement was another act of betrayal. The decision by Theresa May to accept the Backstop was yet another. The DUP thought Boris Johnson would be different. He would stand against the EU. Betrayed again.
The word ‘betrayal’ is now common currency among unionists. You would think – hope – that some would begin to recognise the lesson of history. English governments don’t care about unionists. They never act in unionist interests except when their interests coincide. And this attitude goes beyond London governments.
Successive opinion polls have revealed that Brexit matters more to Brexit voters than peace in Ireland. On Monday a Sky News poll, conducted by YouGov revealed that Leave voters in Britain would back the break-up of the ‘United Kingdom’ if it delivers Brexit.
42% of those polled thought Irish unity would be a positive development and a price worth paying. 19% said it wouldn’t. There were majorities when the same question was posed about independence for Scotland and Wales.
So as the debate on Irish unity grows, and unionist uncertainty over the future increases, Irish republicans and democrats must seek to engage with unionist opinion. As Mary Lou said in her Ard Fheis speech at the weekend that’s the big challenge of the next decade.
Finally, I appeal to working class unionists or loyalists reading this column; to farmers, business people and civic unionists. Ask yourselves who is betraying who. The unionist political elites – MPs and others - on their fat salaries and big expenses may huff and puff. But it’s all bluster. It is they who are betraying you. As they have for generations. As they do now with Brexit; by voting against nurses pay increases, by divisive sectarian actions; by refusing to tackle poverty, disadvantage and divisions. By opposing basic and modest rights. Ask yourselves this my friend – who is fooling who?