Northern Ireland centenary: James Dingley on how the Northern Irish should have no fears about their identity

Northern Ireland came into existence for good reason, writes Dr James Dingley of the Francis Hutcheson Institute

Tuesday, 22nd June 2021, 9:30 pm
Updated Tuesday, 22nd June 2021, 9:46 pm
The Saintfield-born philosopher Francis Hutcheson epitomises influence of Ulster Protestants in the development of western civilisation, but also closer to home and the society that became Northern Ireland
The Saintfield-born philosopher Francis Hutcheson epitomises influence of Ulster Protestants in the development of western civilisation, but also closer to home and the society that became Northern Ireland

Happy birthday Northern Ireland

What a milestone, to reach a century, when so many pundits predicted in 1921 that it would not survive as a country for more than a few years.

It is easy, sitting in 2021, to take Northern Ireland for granted, and not to realise how it came into being or why.

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Francis Hutcheson story by Patrice A Blue Plaque for Francis Hutcheson displayed on First Presbyterian Church, Saintfield Co Down

At the Francis Hutcheson Institute, we try to use the writings and thinking of the Saintfield-born philosopher Hutcheson to frame events, and to explain the influence of Ulster Protestants in the development of western civilisation, but also closer to home.

Northern Ireland came into existence for good reason, and for much of the last 100 years it was the beacon of science and industry and modern values on this island.

That existence and history of Northern Ireland over its century has been undermined in part because unionists are only perceived as saying no.

Consequently, the defenders of Northern Ireland become the negative ones, ‘the problem’, allowing those who want Northern Ireland to fail to set all the agendas.

Eamon de Valera venerated the traditional peasant world, a Romantic thinking illustrated by a radio speech that he gave

They imply that they are the progressive ones, the unifiers, and that Northern Ireland’s very existence is the problem. 

Defenders of the status quo rarely offer solutions to Northern Ireland’s undoubted problems, hence everyone ends up following and responding to an Irish nationalist or republic agenda.

Political unionists, for example, often seem to have nothing else to say than no (even louder). 

This is disastrous politics.

Dunluce Castle, for example, represents the ancient ties — predating the plantation — between Ulster and Scotland, where the head of an Highland Clan (MacDonald) also had his castle in Dunluce as part of his Antrim Lands as a McDonnell

There are very good reasons to say no to attempts to dismantle Northern Ireland.

But the defence of NI should not just be left to a narrow unionism, or what is sometimes now seen as a form of Ulster nationalism.

 Unionists must seriously grapple with Irish nationalism, and its underpinnings, and why Ireland (and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland) was partitioned. 

To be fair, this is a problem the UK as a whole has failed to address, as Welsh and Scottish nationalism indicates, and it is an area in which unionists could begin contributing (positively) to UK national debates. 

And the aim of this and subsequent articles is to begin this process, explaining why Northern Ireland exists and should be proud on its centenary. 

Unionists have a genuinely good, and progressive, case but their terrible anti-intellectualism has caused them not to make it over 100 years.

First, nationalist claims of Irish unity assume Ireland was always a single political unit and that partition was an artificial British imposition.

This is far from the truth. 

Before the Norman-Welsh invasions (12th century) Ireland was simply a geographic unit with 12-13 petty ‘Kingdoms’ constantly warring. Meanwhile the Northern Kingdom of Dalriada comprised large parts of Ulster and Scotland. 

Dunluce Castle, for example, represents the ancient ties — predating the plantation — between Ulster and Scotland, where the head of an Highland Clan (MacDonald) also had his castle in Dunluce as part of his Antrim Lands as a McDonnell.

The Norman-Welsh invasion had been blessed by the Pope to impose discipline and order on the Irish Church, it was so undisciplined.

Anything ‘national’ about Ireland was totally lacking, especially since the idea of nationalism was an 18th century political philosophy construction. Previously, the world consisted of states which were polyglots of different ethnic, linguistic, cultural groups sometimes united or divided by religion.

In pre-1870s France less than 50% of the population spoke French (the other languages were Breton, Basque, German, Flemish, Italian and Occident). Meanwhile, pre-unification Italy (1860’s) consisted of 12 independent states, frequently warring, and speaking local dialects often incomprehensible to each other. Germany contained over 300 independent states, some not speaking German, who often loathed each other, especially over religion. 

They were just like the British Isles, yet became unified nations in the 19th century.

Their unity was forged by progressive, modernising elites pursuing ‘enlightened’, progressive political philosophies, just like the unionists in Ireland.

They saw the Union of 1801 as a highly progressive moment, and they had good reason to see this.

Unionists saw the past as unenlightened, backward and ignorant, full of superstition and bigotry.

Like America, they wanted to create a new world, liberal and democratic, using science and rationalism to break down old barriers of prejudice.

Unionists advocated equality, freedom of thought, inquiry, civil and religious liberty and pursuit of happiness, whilst not infringing their neighbours’ rights: the ideals of Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746). 

This ideal was of enlightened, United Kingdom, i.e. breaking down the old internal national and religious barriers and divisions, and freeing the individual from old bigotries.

Like the Germans and French they sought a larger united nation speaking a single language, making mobility, freedom and trade easier.

They sought the separation of church and state, making religion a private matter, and replacing it in the public sphere with the universal laws of science, reason and commerce, which brought men together.

Far from being anti Catholic, many of the most influential supporters of the Union saw the removal of the last barriers to Catholic representation as essential (Catholics had already been granted the vote in the late 1700s).

They did not get the right to be Westminster representatives until the 1820s, in part because there was still a lingering fear of Catholic rebellions of the 1600s and mid 1700s.

Such enlightened ideals (also copied by Italy and Germany) were inspired by the Ulster philosopher Hutcheson, were embraced by Irish unionists and help explain why the UK emerged as a major and wealthy state, including Ireland.

These ideals had also been shared by the United Irishmen (1798), but were neglected by more modern Irish nationalists, who had a more dogmatic and clerical outlook.

Rejection of these ideals by nationalists became the major issue behind unionists objections of Home Rule,  and the 1912 Ulster Covenant, but such ideals are very much the embodiment of the UK.

The region that became Northern Ireland was part of a broader ‘Enlightenment’ trend across Europe against the old order of established churches, including Roman Catholicism, autocratic nobility and absolutist monarchs who opposed modernity.

Indeed, even Roman Catholicism was often divided over Rome’s opposition to modernity and progress (the Pope was both a spiritual and temporal absolute monarch).

However, the forces of reaction (a 19th century movement known as Romanticism, which directly influenced Irish nationalism) praised the old order that enlightened opinion rejected, and praised peasant society.

The traditional peasant world became venerated, whilst science and industry was rejected as artificial and stifling.

Eamon de Valera illustrated this Romantic thinking as late as 1943, in his radio speech (venerating rural life, ascetic living and comely country maidens).

Irish nationalism was thus in fact backward looking in some of its core perspectives, not progressive, opposed modern liberal freedoms and needs to be challenged, but rarely is.

It was British values that ensured liberal freedoms.

Irish independence in its early decades illustrates these points.

It enacted very reactionary social legislation banning divorce, contraception and abortion, introduced some of the most repressive censorship in Europe, whilst replacing technical subjects in schools with Gaelic (that few wanted to learn).

In these essays, we will try to explain the positive reasons for partition and why Ulster, Ireland’s centre of the Enlightenment, separated from nationalism’s reactionary vision of Ireland.

Ulster possessed the most cosmopolitan, industrial, scientific and liberal culture in Ireland both before and after 1921.

Northern Ireland thus rejected an Irish nationalism that, since the Young Ireland Movement (1840s), had been a reaction against liberal modernity and progress. 

This is reflected in southern Ireland’s still unrealistic and unsuccessful idea to revive Gaelic, its submission to Roman Catholic theology on social and moral issues and its insistence on sectarian education.

Irish nationalism rejected modern industry and economics, was indifferent to science and hostile to liberal values.

Thus in comparison to Northern Ireland Southern Ireland became reactionary, isolationist and anti-modern in its economic and social policies. This would have been thus harmful to Northern Ireland’s international industrial needs. This ethos persists today in Sinn Fein, ‘ourselves alone’.

Northern Ireland on its centenary has few outside defenders and appears isolated and unfairly maligned. But from the perspective of Ulster Unionism Irish Nationalism still appears regressive when compared to the benefits of being within the UK.

Here the UK dissolves barriers for a genuinely multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society, despite fundamentalist fringe groups. Meanwhile the Republic of Ireland became intensely mono-cultural (although is less so now after modern waves of immigration).

Romantic versions of history rarely observe that it is Irish nationalism that was divisive and reactionary, dividing the people of these islands. 

A large section of unionism was also tribal and conservative and reactionary and narrowly religious. In much of the 20th century, this was seized on by critics of Northern Ireland to depict the society overall as bible thumping and repressive.

But defenders of Northern Ireland with a deeper understanding of its origins and history, indeed the Northern Irish, should have no fears about their national identity.

Northern Ireland has a rich, industrial and cultural history within a highly regarded global trading nation and can punch well above its weight as part of the fifth largest economy in the world.

Dr James Dingley is chair of the Francis Hutcheson Institute chairman. The board members are Johnny Andrews; Bryan Johnston; Bill McKendry; Robert Perceval-Price; and Aaron Rankin. There are five other essays by the institute in the coming pages of this supplement [print edition — only an essay by Johnny Andrews is also online]

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