Unionist Identity, External Perceptions of Northern Ireland, and the Problem of Unionist Legitimacy *

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A common view in journalistic and academic commentary is that the recent internationalization of the Northern Ireland conflict and peace process has had a positive impact. (1) This perspective, however widely shared, carries subtly tendentious implications. While there are important exceptions, (2) unionists have in the main been significantly more suspicious of the involvement of external actors such as the United States and the European Union in the conflict than have nationalists, regarding such involvement as unsympathetic. (3) Britain has been the "external actor" that most consistently provided counterbalancing support for unionists. In recent years, however, even British policy has seemed to shift toward a position of neutrality between the two communities, leaving unionists feeling more and more isolated. Affinities between the most powerful forces in British politics and unionism are weak at best. In consequence, many unionists and loyalists perceive that there is an asymmetry between British and Irish political leaders' attitudes to their respective erstwhile allies in Northern Ireland. (4) Supported by a historical context, this tension between British policy and unionism is represented powerfully within unionist identity in a fear of British or other internal betrayal which at times almost exceeds or obscures fear or animosity toward the nationalist/republican "Other." (5) The fear of British betrayal is often linked in unionist demonology to the idea of a pan-nationalist alliance or conspiracy involving the Irish state's wholehearted backing of mainstream republicanism in the North. Not only is the existence of such a coherent pan-nationalist alliance actually a myth, but many researchers fail to see much difference between British and Irish political parties' attitudes toward Northern Ireland. (6) Viewed from the context of unionist politics, however, the considerable ambiguity in British attitudes to unionism exacerbates unionist insecurities and creates a series of tactical dilemmas. (7)

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Unionists have thus experienced greater difficulties than nationalists and republicans in securing support and endorsement from any significant audience external to Northern Ireland. This cannot be explained simply by reference to particular ignorance among or influences upon audiences in Britain, the United States, or continental Europe, since unionists' lack of external political support in three such locations seems likely to be underpinned by some common factors. The importance of such factors can hardly be overstated, since they have had such a critical disruptive influence on the current peace process. Many unionists sense that in view of this lack of outside support for their position, a peace process influenced by external actors cannot in practice enshrine the trumpeted goal of parity of esteem between "the two traditions" in Northern Ireland, but in fact accords privilege to nationalists: Hence not only is a high proportion of opposition to the peace process unionist, but such opposition has repeatedly jeopardized progress in the process to date, and may yet prove fatal. (9) To an extent these problems are also cumulative: It may be suggested that, relatively deprived of external support, unionists have been discouraged from further cultivating such support, (10) have tended more to entrench their position than undertake self-criticism, (11) and, in the words of one commentator, have "retreat[ed] characteristically into that sullen, charmless introspection which has deprived the unionist cause of influence." (12)

Unionists' problem of international political legitimacy is thus a critical element in the recurrent problems that have marked the fragile peace process. This is a question particularly deserving of investigation in the current historical moment. As the recent elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly (November 2003) demonstrated, much to the chagrin and surprise of outside observers, neither the levels of electoral support for anti-agreement unionism nor difficulties in the peace process show any sign of abating. …