The crisis of the “Precious Union” – Geoff Bell


“Unionism in the northeast of Ireland is in the greatest crisis in its history. Ironically, the very year it is meant to be celebrating the 100th anniversary of its very own ‘state’. “

By Geoff Bell

Unionism in the northeast of Ireland is in the greatest crisis in its history. Ironically, the very year it is meant to be celebrating the 100th anniversary of its very own “state”.

The evidence for that crisis is easy to detect. There was the election to the leadership of its most popular party – the Democratic Unionist Party – of Edwin Poots, whose previous claim to fame was his pronouncement that Catholics in Northern Ireland were more likely to get Covid than Protestants.

There are the deep divisions this has caused within the DUP, with prominent members of the party walking out of the meeting that was meant to ratify Poots’ leadership.

There was then Poots’ subsequent resignation, to be replaced by Jeffrey Donaldson.

There is the latest opinion poll which reports that Sinn Féin would easily win an election to the Northern Ireland Assembly, with the DUP losing votes to unionist moderates, even more sectarian loyalists and the Alliance Party, which is neutral on the border issue. Behind all of this, of course, are the ramifications of Brexit, and Johnson’s perceived “betrayal” over the erection of a border in the Irish Sea.

There are more fundamental issues. The first is the demographic changes in the north of Ireland which is now heading towards a Catholic majority, and the second is the long-term dilemma within unionism about how to react to these changes. Essentially for decades now unionism and its parties have dithered between continuing to pander to its traditional base and attempting to modernise its politics by reaching out to middle-class Catholics.  The latter strategy has involved stressing the value of the union with Britain in terms of welfare, health and education benefits. But both Brexit and the economic and social progress in the south of Ireland have undercut this message, while the DUP’s stand on abortion and marriage equality has exposed its claims to be a modern, open and tolerant party.  Moreover, based as it is on the Protestant intolerant religious right, to change policies on these and similar issues would lose votes.

Such are the immediate and not so immediate reasons why unionism is now in crisis, but there is an even more fundamental reason which goes back to the partition of Ireland imposed by Britain in 1921. This might be a long time ago, but the nature of that partition virtually guaranteed the instability which followed. The “Ulster” that was created then was composed not of the nine counties in the province, but only six. The reason was that only by having the six counties were the unionists guaranteed a majority – approximately two-thirds in those six counties being Protestant. The problem for unionists was that the one-third Catholic population in the six counties was bitter at being left out of the new Irish state in the south, and angry that the British had ignored the 70 per cent Irish majority which in 1918 had voted for a united, independent Ireland.

After partition, the unionists could have tried to reach out to the Catholic minority by ensuring they had equal access to jobs and housing and by having a fair electoral system, but instead they relied totally on rewarding their Protestant base by discriminating in its favour. To try and further guarantee their stability they established their own militarised security forces and permanent repressive powers curtailing civil liberties, which were directed solely at dissent from the Catholic minority.

All of this worked for a while, partly thanks to Britain, which retained overall responsibility for the six county statelet, allowing the unionists a large degree of control within it. The Westminster parliament was not even allowed to discuss Northern Ireland until the late 1960s. But the sectarian nature of the six counties polity was, in the longer term, always likely to be a flawed experiment. First, because it ensured that the growing Catholic community would never become reconciled to it. Second, because it was always liable to attract international attention, as it did from 1968 onwards when the Northern Ireland police and then the British Army used their repressive powers to try to quell growing Catholic dissent.

The truth of the matter is that unionism always had within it the seeds of its own destruction. It was based on denying an Irish majority, denying Irish-self-determination, and believing it could always rely on Britain to ensure its survival. But the British state has always puts its own interests first, as the Irish Sea border issue has shown. Thatcher, Heath and Major were also, for various reasons, accused of “betrayal” by “loyalists”, but unionism and the statelet of Northern Ireland survived. This shows that the present crisis within northern Irish unionism does not necessarily mean we are witnessing the death, or even the start of the death of the “precious union”, although such is the depth of the current crisis that this is now more likely than ever before. One factor of just how likely involves establishing a voice in Britain which loudly and with determination says that the whole now self-evident farce of the six county state in the northeast of Ireland should end. Building that voice in the British labour movement would be a good place to start.

  • Geoff Bell is an executive member of Labour for Irish Unity and author of Hesitant Comrades: The Irish Revolution & the British Labour Movement.
  • EVENT: Why Socialists Support a United Ireland. Saturday July 3, 14:00. With special guest Francie Molloy MP (Sinn Fein,) Geoff Bell & Chair Rachel Garnham (former Labour NEC member.) Hosted by Labour Outlook. Register at

Leave a Reply