Book Review: Unionist leaders should read this vital defence of Northern Ireland, and its place in UK

‘The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ by Belcouver Press priced £12.99 is reviewed by HENRY McDONALD:

By Henry McDonald
Saturday, 20th November 2021, 9:21 am
Updated Saturday, 20th November 2021, 10:55 am
The book's contents could be a tool to rethink unionist political strategies into the next few decades
The book's contents could be a tool to rethink unionist political strategies into the next few decades

Brian Keenan, the late ferociously feral IRA commander, once warned a top British state agent within the Provisionals’ ranks that they should never, ever “trust the English because they invented cricket”.

What the strategist of the Provo bombing campaigns in Britain from the 1970s was implying was that the Anglo enemy liked to play the long game, wearing the opposition down through a test series of extended innings with exhausting stealthy statecraft.

It is appropriate that the cricket metaphor is employed too by the editors of a ground-breaking new book in defence of the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

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The front cover to 'The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland'. The book is edited by John Wilson Foster and William Beattie Smith. Contributors include Lord Trimble, Graham Gudgin, Ray Bassett, Mike Nesbitt, Jeff Dudgeon and News Letter editor Ben Lowry. There is a foreword by Baroness Hoey. The book is available for £12.99 through Blackstaff Press, Amazon and bookshops

At the back of the dust jacket for ‘The Idea of the Union’ the bottom strap line compares the intellectual case for maintaining the link with the rest of the UK to a fully drawn out test series.

“Irish separatist nationalism has had a fair innings. Now it’s time for reason and reality to go to bat,” the editors tell the reader.

Twenty contributors go to the crease to hit home the runs for the union in a book which turns out to be as fascinating, eclectic and strategically adept as the first 11 of any battle-hardened veteran international test cricketing outfit.

The collection edited by academics John Wilson Foster and William Beattie Smith (see below a link to an article where they explain why they compiled the book) also contain both politico-economic fast and spin bowlers who are capable of dismissing nationalist assumptions as efficiently as the world’s best bowler Trent Boult can dispatch New Zealand’s opponents from the field.

The former first mininster of Northern Ireland Lord Trimble. All three leaders of unionism should read this book, and they should certainly read Lord Trimble’s contribution and take heed of his prophetic warning towards the end of it

One of the highlights of this ‘innings’ from the pro-union end of the pavilion comes from the economist Dr Graham Gudgin. His chapter is a particularly devastating ‘over’ that bowls out some of the new smug notions about the Republic’s economy. Dr Gudgin takes to task southern economists who point to higher Irish GDP and the supposed integration of an all island economy as reasons why people would be better off joining an all-Ireland entity rather than opt for Northern Ireland to stay in the UK.

On the supposed all island economy Dr Gudgin sticks to facts such as only 6 per cent of Northern Ireland’s exports going south to the Republic and only 1 per cent of ROI output of goods and services going into Northern Ireland.

Dr Gudgin also argues cogently that living standards in Northern Ireland remain higher in the Republic even if the latter has one of the highest Gross Domestic Product figures in the EU. He berates those Dublin based economists who do not factor into their calculations the fact that prices especially house prices are far cheaper in the north than the south. Which means households in Northern Ireland get more goods and services still for any given amount of spending.

“The result is staggering. It means that after 60 years as a tax haven and 48 years inside the EU, the Republic of Ireland has not managed to raise the living standards of its people to Northern Ireland levels,“ Dr Gudgin notes.

His deployment of economic facts and statistics is apposite because other essayists in this collection contend that the battleground to save the union must be shifted from the traditional ones of faith and crown to hard-headed socio-economic arguments for remaining in the UK.

Several deal with the biggest public opinion paradox in Northern Ireland: a falling vote for unionist parties in elections and a consistent majority support for the union in every credible, scientifically based opinion poll.

In contrast to Gudgin’s forensic demolition of the economics of a united Ireland, David Trimble’s essay is surprisingly painful and personal. It is laced with a sense of betrayal regarding the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The Nobel peace prize winner’s anguish over Boris Johnson’s post Brexit betrayal of unionists is encapsulated in two emotionally charged passages on page 340 which are worth replicating here:

“Despite strong opposition within my own community who resented the concessions to those engaged in indiscriminate killing. I campaigned for a Yes vote in the referendum on the Agreement, arguing that it made the Union safe and the future of Northern Ireland was totally in the hands of its people through the ballot box. They put their trust in my assurances and gave me and the Agreement their backing.

“That is why I feel betrayed personally by the Northern Ireland Protocol, and it is also why the unionist population is so incensed at its imposition. The Protocol rips the very heart out of the Agreement.”

Leaving aside his own distress over the fate of the Belfast Agreement he helped shape and bring into being in 1998, Trimble’s essay is the first detailed analysis of the legal implications of the protocol. Forever the lawyer he reminds the reader that the EU laws which Northern Ireland will have to comply with runs to 70 pages and contains hundreds of thousands of regulations. Trimble also points out that these future EU imposed laws will govern nearly 70 per cent of Northern Irish economic activity.

All three leaders of unionism should read this book and use it as a tool to rethink their political strategies into the next few decades. Perhaps those in power in London, Dublin and Brussels also might care to dip into this challenging series of essays if they really want to understand the dangerous tensions bubbling just below the surface of post-Brexit Northern Ireland.

They should certainly read Lord Trimble’s contribution and take heed of his prophetic warning towards the end of it.

“So, far from keeping the peace, the protocol risks a return to violence despite claims from its supporters that it is all about protecting the Agreement.”

‘The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ is edited by John Wilson Foster and William Beattie Smith. Contributors include Daphne and David Trimble, Owen Polley, Mike Nesbitt, Baroness Hoey, Arthur Aughey and Ben Lowry.

It is published by Belcouver Press priced £12.99 and is available through Blackstaff Press. It is also for sale in Amazon and bookshops.

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