Irish unionism: a Reconsideration of the Unionists’ Claim to
College, Dublin, Ireland
The notion of a right to self-determination is one that provokes
significant discussion, debate and disagreement within the fields
of philosophy and politics. This
notion achieved considerable prominence in the twentieth century,
with the collapse of the old empires and the reawakening of
nationalist sentiment. The
definition of self-determination is itself often as hotly
contested as the specific circumstances in which any particular
group may invoke such a right.
The idea of self-determination is, in general terms, based
around the idea that communities, possessing certain
characteristics or fulfilling certain criteria, have a right to
determine their own political destinies.
The usual context in which such a right is invoked occurs
where a community, seeing itself as a cohesive political entity,
is subsumed within a state dominated by another group. The general
proposition involved in the principle of self-determination is
that such communities have the right to decide collectively those
matters that are the primary concern of their members.
within the notion of self-determination arises over disagreement
about how this right should be expressed.
Should it be by means of an independent state?
Should existing states ensure pluralistic institutional and
social structures that allow for internal diversity?
Or should such diversity be quashed in the cause of
integral unity or economic demand?
Such questioning raises issues of identity, of nationalism
and of citizenship. All
these issues are visible in – and central to – the debate on
the Ulster unionists’ right to self-determination.
Calls for self-determination, variously defined, have long
played a part in unionist discourse.
Ulster unionism is an interesting test case for the
philosophy of self-determination, especially given the religious
diversity of its adherents and the internal confusion between
appeals to ethnoculture and assertions of a form of
The central question is, then, do the unionists of Northern
Ireland – on either of these grounds – have a right to
In this paper, I will seek to define the notion of
self-determination and list possible characteristics of such a
right. I will also
critically assess the various circumstances under which that right
might be exercised. This
will require an analysis of the current literature on
self-determination, on nationalism and on secession.
This paper will assert that self-determination can be
understood apart from
notions of self-government and secession and that the right to
self-determination may have been undermined through conflation
with these other ideas. Central
to this paper is consideration of the Margalit-Raz model, which
posits a number of characteristics that groups seeking
self-determination ought to show.
Through application of this
model and discussion of other self-definition theories, I will
engage in an analysis of Northern Irish unionism.
I will describe, in brief, the origins and defining
political beliefs of unionism and will examine appeals to a right
to self-determination from within the unionist community.
Ultimately, I will argue that elements within Northern
Irish unionism have mistakenly conflated loyalty to the
institutions and symbols of the British state (a type of
‘constitutional patriotism’) with a right to
self-determination. This paper will, however, accept that unionism is entitled to
a self-determination of
sorts; that unionists have a right to a voice in determining
the nature of their government; and, thirdly, that these rights do
not include that right to secession implicit in many theories of
Yael Tamir notes that the core consensus appears to be that
self-determination enshrines the idea that a people, if it wills,
is entitled to independence from foreign domination and may
establish a sovereign state in the territory it inhabits and where
it constitutes a majority.
Central to Tamir’s own definition is the notion that a
right of self-determination is best predicated on a cultural
emphasises a primary right to preserve the existence of a nation
as a distinct cultural entity, differing from individuals’ right
to govern their lives and freely participate in politics.
Both the description of the self-determination debate and
Tamir’s perspective are distinctly nationalistic.
The emphasis is on the right of a group, conscious of its
ethnocultural unity, to detach itself from ‘others.’
The idea of a state apparatus dedicated to the protection
of a particular culture is an overt part of the nationalist
project. A right of
self-determination on these grounds envisages a state dominated by
one particular group, but does not accord a similar right to
minorities within the national state, as to do so is seen as a
potential threat to national cohesion.
One can distinguish between
such an idea of national
self-determination and the general liberal notion of
self-determination. ‘Self-determination’ Michael Gallagher argues, ‘implies
a degree of choice for each individual, while national
self-determination holds that the nation, acting as a whole, can
decide its own future.’
The former definition is resonant of liberal-individualist
political philosophy. Liberalism’s
hostility to those who would devalue the individual in the name of
the collective makes it wary of the very concept of a group or
‘national’ right. Also,
if a right to self-determination is recognised on such
liberal-individualist grounds, then the principle of reiteration
seems logically to follow – in justifying my own group’s claim
to be self-determining, I also justify the corresponding claims of
This, then, is a central divide in the debate on
recognising a right to self-determination, which matters more –
the right of a national group to viable self-determination in a
nation-state, regardless of other sub-groups’ claims, or the
right of every group, regardless of nationalist demand, to decide
its own destiny?
for Implementation of a Self-Determination Right
The traditional approach to establishing grounds for recognition of a
group’s right to self-determination involves a three-step
process. In asserting
a right to political self-determination, minorities ‘have a
primary right only not to be treated unjustly, a secondary right
only to compensation for violation of this primary right, and
finally a tertiary right to reorganise politically if their
primary and secondary rights are violated.’
These criteria are based on the notion that individual
human rights should be the main concern of communities and posits
that only when these rights are violated should communities seek
breaks the nationalist link between individual well-being and independence.
Many self-determination theorists emphasise that where a
group’s rights and culture are respected and protected by the
state – even if a different ethnocultural group dominates the
state – no automatic right to self-government may be accorded. Self-determination is not a universal right of secession, but
rather a right to have one’s rights and culture recognised by
the parent state.
last factor is particularly important in the case of Ulster’s
unusual feature of the dominant unionist claim to
self-determination is that it sees its self-determination right as
best fulfilled in continued
membership of the British State.
The unionist community in Northern Ireland is predominantly
unionists are almost equally divided between Presbyterians on the
one hand and Anglicans (Church of Ireland) and Methodists on the
other. The Ulster
Unionist Party (UUP), currently led by Nobel laureate David
Trimble, is the larger of the unionist parties, traditionally
attracting middle-class Anglicans and those who favour a more
‘mainstream’ unionism and a British identity.
In recent decades, though, parties that take more radical
or separatist stances have flourished in Northern Ireland.
So-called ‘loyalists’ tend towards ‘fundamentalist
Protestantism, conditional unionism, and an Ulster identity.’
This overwhelmingly Presbyterian and working-class
constituency is represented by the Democratic Unionist Party of
the charismatic Ian Paisley and, increasingly, by smaller, secular
loyalist parties such as the Progressive Unionist Party and the
Ulster Democratic Party, which speak for various paramilitary
UUP does not assert its claim to self-determination against the
parent state, Great Britain, but rather asserts its right to
continued membership of that state.
That membership is traced back to the plantations of Ulster
in the seventeenth century, when predominantly Scottish farmers
were forcibly settled on farms in northeastern Ireland.
The Act of Union between Britain and Ireland in 1800
created a United Kingdom, with a central parliament at
the partition of Ireland in 1922, the northeastern six counties of
Ulster remained in the Union and, for the next fifty years,
enjoyed a form of devolved self-governance.
The combination of a large Protestant population and a
majoritarian electoral system turned Northern Ireland into the
personal fiefdom of Ulster’s unionists.
In the 1970s, with the growth of the Catholic population,
of the civil rights movement and of sectarian violence, government
powers were retracted by Westminster and direct rule under a
Secretary of State introduced.
Since then, several experimental forms of self-government
have been attempted in Northern Ireland, most recently a
power-sharing executive set up under the 1998 Belfast Agreement.
a unionist claim to self-determination is asserted against something it is probably against the Irish Republic’s
claim to sovereignty over Ulster.
This claim expressed itself in Articles 2 and 3 of the
Republic’s 1937 Constitution, which were only deleted following
a referendum on the Belfast Agreement.
The unionist example proves, to an extent, that – in
contradiction of nationalist notions – self-determination can be
distinguished from self-government and, particularly, from
secession, since unionists require neither secession nor
self-government from the Republic.
Ulster’s unionists are not a repressed minority within
the Republic of Ireland. Since
most unionists do not make a claim to an independent state, the
liberal issue of reiteration appears somewhat askance.
If a unionist right to self-determination (defined as
having a state that enshrines one’s values and protects one’s
identity) is recognised, however, then the reiteration principle
equally recognises Northern nationalists’ right to reject the
British state. The
calls for a more nationalistic style of self-determination come
from the ‘conditional unionists’ within the DUP and some
smaller loyalist groups. Such
is the quandary at the heart of the Northern question.
Qualifying Conditions for a Right to Self-Determination
The Margalit-Raz Approach
Avishai Margalit and Joseph
Raz have offered a set of six relevant characteristics to help
identify groups that ‘qualify’ for a right to
The first requirement they posit is that the group
concerned has a common character and culture that encompass many
varied aspects of life. Serious
candidates for self-determination will possess pervasive cultures
and identities determined, at least in part, by their culture.
Tamir identifies the cultural aspect of the right to
self-determination as its most important constitutive element.
Members of national minorities, Tamir argues, are entitled
to national rights (which include a right to self-determination)
because they have an interest in preserving their unique cultural
The rights of a group, according to this interpretation,
should not refer to issues like size and viability, but rather to
the extent to which the public space reflects the group’s
culture. If it does
not or does, but unsatisfactorily, then a right to
self-determination may be invoked.
Allied to this is the second
point of the Margalit-Raz model, which asserts that people growing
up among members of the group in question will acquire the group
culture. The group thus comes to share a culture and a history, since
it is through history that cultures develop and are transmitted.
A cultural argument for the right to self-determination is
sometimes applied to Ulster’s unionists.
The unionist tradition has incorporated and exalted a
number of cultural features that may be pointed to as core
elements of a unionist ‘character.’
The Protestant faith is, obviously, of deep importance, as
are the traditional liberties seen as inherent in British
citizenship. In recent years, some attempts to emphasise unionism’s
cultural distinctiveness have focussed on the potential of an
Ulster-Scots language to provide evidence of unionism’s cultural
uniqueness. Many unionists see continued rule under the apparatus of the
United Kingdom as the best means by which its ‘culture’ can be
protected and therefore unionist ‘self-determination’
expresses itself in a desire to uphold that union.
Others, however, see this ‘culture’ as the grounds upon
which a claim to a right of self-determination, defined as
secession, might be made.
The third and fourth
characteristics listed by Margalit-Raz concern the connected ideas
of recognition and identification.
Group membership is, in part, a matter of recognition.
‘Typically, one belongs to such a group’ they argue,
‘if, among other conditions, one is recognised by other members
of the group as belonging to it.’
Membership thus becomes a matter of being recognised as
part of a particular group by others generally and by other group
members particularly. The
fourth, connected point suggests that self-identification is vital
in asserting a right to self-determination.
Group membership, according to the Margalit-Raz model, is
one of the primary clues for people in interpreting the conduct of
others. This point is
developed by David Miller who claims that one’s group provides
the background against which individual choices about how to live
can be made.
In this sense, one’s recognition as a group member and
one’s self-identification in that context is vitally
constitutive of self. If
the structures that enable and protect this identification process
are destroyed or do not exist, then the individual is left in a
The logic of
self-determination, then, is that it prevents the creation of such
a vacuum and provides the means through which individuals can find
such recognition and self-identification.
Unionism has a developed sense of its group ‘self,’ a
sense constructed from within.
Similar recognition is not, however, so forthcoming from
those outside the
unionist community, especially in Northern nationalism, in the
Irish Republic and in certain sections of the British
Establishment. This crisis of recognition and identification has led, in
part, to the ‘siege mentality.’
This lack of recognition has, Arthur Aughey argues, been
compounded by Ulster’s ambiguous political position within the
expressive formality of the constitutional people’ he argues,
‘depends upon conditions of political security. Of course, Unionism has rarely, if ever has such political
security [and it] has always felt under siege.’
If unionism does not successfully claim recognition, is it
in a position to claim a right of self-definition?
Membership, according to
Margalit and Raz’s fifth characteristic, is a matter of
belonging, not achievement. One
does not have to prove oneself or excel at anything to belong and
be fully integrated as a group member.
This theory of non-voluntary group membership posits that
one cannot choose to
belong, but rather that belongs because of who one is. The theory is one
that, if Margalit-Raz is accepted as the threshold for
consideration of a self-determination right, cannot allow for
A central fact of Ulster unionism is that unionism is not
a group into which one is born, since it is primarily a political
philosophy which, at least theoretically, is arrived at by a
process of rational decision-making.
The logic of unionism allows for the possibility that those
who do not identify with a Protestant or ‘Orange’ culture
might still believe that their best political and socio-economic
interests lie in continued membership of the union.
This last possibility is
inherent in Aughey’s assertion that unionism may be seen as a
form of ‘constitutional patriotism,’ a rational adherence to
an all-protecting constitution, that predates the theorising of Jürgen
Habermas and Attracta Ingram.
Aughey claims that it is not Britishness as a spiritual
substance or cultural tradition that defines unionism, but rather
the acknowledgement of the authority of the constitutional nexus
An appeal to constitutional patriotism is incompatible with
an appeal to the right of self-determination on ethnocultural
grounds – and this is vital to any critique of unionist demands
in this area. The
final characteristic of the Margalit-Raz model posits that,
because the groups concerned are ‘anonymous,’ they develop
conventional means of identification that help to quickly identify
‘them’ and ‘us.’ Unionism
has certainly bedecked itself with symbolism but, this paper
argues, these means of identification are not necessarily based on
a right to self-definition, but rather illustrate the notions of
loyalty that characterise unionism’s brand of constitutional
The Post-Colonialist Approach
Before I progress to my
substantive argument, I would like to first consider the
international perspective. The
United Nations Organisation (UN) has attempted to lay down
ground-rules for the exercise of the right to national
self-determination and secession.
The principle of self-determination implicit in UN practice
is that only states and former colonies have a moral right of
while the UN proclaims a broad right of self-determination,
implying a right to secession, it restricts this right, quite
arbitrarily, to people trying to free themselves from colonial
This principle is clearly inconsistent with the liberal
democratic philosophies of the state and self-determination
outlined earlier. UN
policy accepts the reality of colonial borders, despite the fact
that these borders were arbitrarily drawn, by the colonial powers,
regardless of territory, ethnic composition or even the principle
The result of this general
principle, therefore, has been a philosophically confused
intervention policy, exemplified by the UN’s attempted crushing
of Katangan secession in the 1960s, whilst simultaneously
supporting the Congo’s liberation from Belgian rule.
The UN declarations on the right to self-determination,
especially that of 1960, were intended to give independence to
colonial states as monolithic units.
They were not intended to recognise the rights of groups,
however strong the claims to self-determination of those groups, within the former colonial states.
The result has been that colonies are usually given
independence with the old colonial borders intact.
Despite substantial argument that Ireland was not, at least
after 1800, a colony of Great Britain, the relevance of this
principle to the Irish situation has been referred to by Michael
Gallagher. If the 1960 position had pertained at the time of the Irish
Revolution (which it, of course, it did not), he argues, then
Ireland, as a British colony, should accordingly have been given
independence as a single entity and no one portion of it should
have been retained by the colonial power.
International precedent, then, would not give a
self-determination right to unionists.
on Northern Irish Unionism
Ulster Unionism and Appeals to
Arthur Aughey, in his recent
dissection of Ulster unionism, lists a number of current, though
contrasting definitions of unionism.
These range from Miller’s notion of unionism as a
covenanting traditional of conditional loyalty, through
MacDonald’s insistence on a colonial mentality approach, to
Lee’s depiction of unionism as a ‘Herrenvolkean democracy.’
This list encapsulates the problems involved in defining
Ulster unionism and points to the difficulties inherent in
assessing unionist claims to self-determination. Unionism, in its current politicised form, emerged in the
late nineteenth century, when a distinct Ulster party
semi-detached itself from the conservative Tory Party.
As its leader, Edward Carson gave the party a strong,
individual identity in the early twentieth century.
Its defining moment came with the 1920 Government of
Ireland Act, when devolved government was granted to the six
northeastern Irish counties. The Unionist philosophical tradition, however, predates this
Most commentators point to
those English and Scottish settlers who came to Ulster from the
seventeenth century onwards as the progenitors of modern unionism.
With them came Protestantism, that feature perhaps most
equated with unionism. Unionism,
though, rarely professes itself to be an ethnocultural phenomenon,
despite its links to history and religion.
Unionism typically asserts itself as a type of political
loyalty. The relevant
concept in Unionism, Aughey argues, is not the ‘nation’ of
Protestant Scots or English, but rather the ‘citizen.’
According to this interpretation, unionism is a democratic
citizenship ideal, embracing different nations, religions and
colours as equal citizens under the authority of the British
state. This seems to
place unionism outside of traditional appeals to
self-determination on cultural grounds.
The question is, then, whether the unionist appeal for
self-determination can be based on cultural grounds (as in the
first and second of the Margalit-Raz characteristics) or whether
its definition as a citizenship principle means that its
self-determination takes the limited form of an appeal to the
state to protect its culture features.
Self-Determination as Identity
based on Loyalty
Most unionist claims to
self-determination do not express themselves as claims to
independence on the grounds of ethnocultural peculiarity.
Some attempts have been made to give unionism a more
distinctive cultural edge, but unionism is, at core, a form of
political identification which, at least theoretically, transcends
cultural appeals. There
are some grounds for recognition of unionists as a distinct
‘people,’ given their historical tradition, their general
cultural cohesiveness and their fifty year experience of
self-government but, importantly, most unionists do not see
themselves as a separate people.
Assessing unionist claims to self-determination on such a
ground is, then, ineffectual.
Independence on these grounds is, in any case, a virtual
impossibility in Northern Ireland, given the ethnic cleavage
within the North and the contentious issue of whether the
‘indigenous people’ of the territory should have rights
superior to those of ‘settlers.’
Despite Miller’s enthusiasm for national independence
rights, he accepts that the internal situation in Northern Ireland
makes recognition of such a right impossible –
Protestant majority in Northern Ireland had and still has a good
case for separation from a Catholic-dominated Irish Republic,
whereas the Catholic minority in the North can reasonably claim
that their identity has not been respected in the Protestant
State. Until there is
movement on one side or the other, neither solution – separation
or union – can be preferred on nationality alone.
Unionist self-determination is
something different. It
may be, as Aughey has posited, a form of ‘constitutional
central ideas of unionism are not cultural particularism or
political separatism, but rather loyalty and citizenship.
Aughey asserts that this is a mature form of political
recognition, one that subscribes to the idea that the modern
British State has developed an autonomous principle of unity
located in the very structures of the state.
For Aughey, this is a ‘mature’ stance, since it
theoretically transcends the divisive appeal to arbitrary notions
of ‘nation’ or ‘race’ inherent in many nationalisms. Such loyalty will stand for as long as unionists see
themselves reflected in the state structures and governing
reorganisation will only be contemplated when the nature of the
state is threatened. Claims
to independence, particularly by the DUP and more nationalistic
elements within the UUP, as the expression of a unionist
self-determination right have been strongest in reaction to events
like the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Framework document, in
which the British state appeared to abdicate some of its
responsibilities towards the unionists and allowed for a change in
the nature of British rule in Northern Ireland.
Fitting Unionism into the Discourse on Self-Determination
The conclusion of this paper
is, then, that unionists do
have a right to self-determination, but a right that cannot be
conflated with self-government or independence.
The important principle is that a unionist claim to the
right of self-determination is not asserted against
an oppressive and alien parent state.
Therefore recognition of a right on social justice or
retribution grounds is of no relevance.
Unionists actively identify with the parent British state.
Similarly, a unionist right to self-determination cannot be
recognised on cultural grounds, since few unionists themselves
emphasise their cultural distinctiveness from Britain.
One can argue, however, that unionists’ cultural
difference from the majority in the Irish Republic does provide
grounds for assertion of a right not to be incorporated into that
state’s ‘alien’ culture.
Unionist cultural identification is with the British state,
so self-determination in this context means continued membership
of that state.
Unionists fit some of the
Margalit-Raz self-determination model, having both a strong sense
of identity (albeit one not necessarily shaped by cultural
factors) and a tradition of recognition within the British state.
Unionism is not, however, something into which one is born
– rather, it is something into which one buys,
at least theoretically. National
self-determination is, therefore, not really applicable to
unionists, since their version of self-definition is about
voluntary recognition and loyalty to a particular state.
Unionists do not fit the post-colonial model either, as
such a precedent would deny them self-determination altogether.
Thus shorn of ethnocultural elements and ideas of
‘natural community,’ unionist self-determination is probably
best understood as pre-Habermasian constitutional patriotism.
Unionists have a right to self-determination, in the constitutional patriotic
sense that all groups have a right to self-expression and a right
to expect that their state will protect and, in some way, reflect
their core values and culture.
Unionism is not nationalism, but rather a political
self-identification that has gathered nationalistic ethnocultural decorations over four hundred years of turbulent
The current impasse in the
Northern Irish peace process, resulting from disagreements over
the implementation of the Belfast Agreement, raises difficult
questions about the future direction of unionism.
The moderate Ulster Unionist Party has, under David
Trimble, found itself grievously weakened by its decision to
compromise many long-standing tenets of unionist philosophy in
order to find a peaceful accommodation with nationalism.
There is a growing sense within unionism that neither
continued membership of the Union with Great Britain nor union
with the Republic will secure the existing rights and cultures of
Ulster’s Protestants. This
unease has led to a marked increase in support for the hard-line
Democratic Unionist Party at recent local and general elections,
and reflects a similar hardening in the nationalist community,
wherein support has seeped from the moderate Social Democratic and
Labour Party to Sinn Fein, which has strong links with republican
divide in Northern Irish politics has shifted somewhat, with
politicians now defined as ‘Pro-’ or ‘Anti-Agreement’ –
a dichotomy that cuts across traditional political labels.
While a political solution to the conflict in Northern
Ireland is still out of sight, the vacuum opened by the cessation
of military hostilities has reopened the debate on unionist
unionism is, as Aughey asserts, a mature form of constitutional
patriotism then unionists should be able to give allegiance to any
political structure that guarantees to protect their existing
rights and identity. It
appears, however, that many unionists do not agree; increasingly,
unionist rhetoric declares that Ulster has been ‘sold out’ by
the British government and that both the British and Irish
governments, through the Belfast Agreement, are engaged in a
process of ‘unification by stealth.’
With the removal of traditionally unionist symbols such as
the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the presence of Sinn Fein
politicians in the power-sharing Executive, a siege mentality
seems to have returned to Ulster’s unionist community.
If this trend continues, it will take every last scrap of
moderate unionist reserve to maintain its ‘constitutional
patriotic’ identity within the new political framework.
If the moderates fail then self-determination by Ulster’s
unionists may, regardless of the philosophical constraints
detailed here, develop into a separatist political ideology.
Aughey, Arthur (1997). “The
Character of Ulster Unionism.” In Peter Shirlow & Mark
McGovern, eds. Who are
‘The People’? Unionism, Protestantism and Loyalism in Northern
Ireland. London: Pluto Press.
Aughey, Arthur (1991).
“Unionism and self-determination.” In Patrick J. Roche &
Brian Barton, eds. The
Northern Ireland Question: Myth and Reality. Aldershot:
Beran, Harry (1988).
“Self-Determination: A Philosophical Perspective.” In W.J.
Allan Macartney, ed. Self-Determination
in the Commonwealth. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press.
Buchanan, Allen (1991).
“Self-Determination and the Right to Secede.” Journal of International Affairs, 45:347-365.
Gallagher, Michael (1990).
“Do Ulster Unionists have a right to self-determination?” Irish Political Studies, 5:11-30.
Habermas, Jürgen (1992).
“Citizenship and National Identity: Some Reflections on the
Future of Europe.” Praxis
Ingram, Attracta (1996).
“Constitutional Patriotism.” Philosophy
and Social Criticism, 22:1-18.
Margalit, Avishai, &
Joseph Raz (1990). “National Self-Determination.”
Journal of Philosophy, 87:439-461.
Miller, David, ed. (1998). Rethinking
Northern Ireland: Culture, Ideology and Colonialism. London
& New York: Longman.
Miller, David (1995). On
Nationality. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Ruane, Joseph, & Jennifer
Todd (1996). The dynamics of
conflict in Northern Ireland: Power, conflict and emancipation.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Tamir, Yael (1993). Liberal
Nationalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Wellman, Christopher H.
(1995). “A Defence of Secession and Political
Self-Determination.” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 24:142-171.