Liberal Unionism…Buried With O’Leary

“Romantic Ireland is dead and gone…its with O’Leary in the grave”.

I saw this headline on Slugger O’Toole today. A piece written by BBC Walker. I was almost tempted to read it. I didnt read the full article because I think the headline says so much more than the article can say.


What exactly is “liberal unionism”? I have grown up with that phrase and it never meant very much. Certainly in the 1960s, there were unionist politicians with the reputation of being “liberal”. It is of course a relative term…but usually applied to decent men who had a preference for Norn Iron as a part of the “United Kingdom” and thought the best way was to oppose the naked sectarianism that too often under-pinned a worthy cause and to encourage Catholics and nationalists to engage with Norn Iron. After all, things like health and social security provision were much better in 1960s Norn Iron than in 1960s Republic of Ireland.

But “liberal unionism” still seems too broad a term. I half-remember names and faces of Decent Men. Yet the Debate within 1960s unionism seems to be dominated by two men “liberal” Terence O’Neill and his nemisis Rev Ian Paisley.

O’Neill …the “liberal” became Prime Minister of Norn Iron who had an agenda of making Norn Iron more inclusive. This seems in retrospect to have been little more than sipping tea with Reverend Mothers in the staff rooms at Catholic Girls Schools. O’ Neill may not have been sectarian but he was certainly patronising. His belief that if a Catholic has a good house and job, he will be a good unionist is risible by 21st century standards but it seems a belief based in pragmatism rather than a genuine understanding of the Catholic position.

Certainly Decent Men like Porter and McIvor sat on unionist benches at Stormont…but as Ministers after 1969, any “liberal” instincts were swept aside and they found more release as High Court Judges.

Yet Phelim O’Neill, cousin of Terence, who steadfastly refused to have anything to do with the Orange Order and became a founding member of the Alliance Party is more fondly remembered. And yet there are others lost to History, like Bertie McConnell and Bob Nixon.

Yet Nixon deserves a special mention as the Stormont MP who revealed that unionists in Derry had lobbied to have the proposed second university sited in Coleraine, rather than their own city.

So there is a division at the heart of “liberal unionists”. People who were pragmatists enough to see that the Norn Iron state could not control a restless and growing minority. And people (like Bob Nixon) who were minded simply to do the right thing. Yet somehow these two attitudes merged as pro-O’Neill (circa 1966-69) and a common revulsion against the sectarian street theatre of the Paisleyites.

Effectively “liberal unionism” died with the overthrow of Terence O’Neill. Some would drift out of Politics and others would re-allign to form the Alliance Party.

Effectively Alliance was formed as a “liberal unionist” Party but the violence turned it into a coalition of unionists and “soft” nationalists which pursued a “cross-community” narrative. To some extent that Debate is ongoing within Alliance. But as the furore over Anna Lo making sympathetic noises about Irish Unity in 2014 showed…Alliance has firmly returned to its unionist origins.

Anna Lo WAS Alliance MLA for South Belfast. Paula Bradshaw IS Alliance MLA for South Belfast. I rest my case. Obviously unionism is muted but understood within Alliance. No point in rocking the cross-community boat.

But certainly pragmatic  “liberal unionists” have spent the past two decades courting and promoting the Alliance Party. Integrated Education is at the very core of liberal unionism.

The other side of “the pragmatic liberal unionism” is that Paisley-ism and its successor the Democratic Unionist Party ruined it all.

And this is what makes BBC Walkers article (or at least the headline so interesting). For any pragmatic unionist, who adopted “liberal unionism” and invested support in the Alliance Party , these are not the best of days. Unless DUP-SF intervene to save Alliance’s unworthy bacon, they are finished….no Justice Ministry and no Opposition.

But Pragmatists are….Pragmatists.

If “liberal unionism” has failed under O’Neill and David Ford, then the Pragmatists need new champions to make Norn Iron more British.

All the Pragmatists ever sought was (unionist) stability and the chosen programme was “liberal unionism” via Alliance puppets.

Stability. Stability. Stability.

As the headline suggests….Opposition is unstable and voting patterns may not change. The headline suggests that the best way for Norn Iron to survive is the “stability” of a DUP-Sinn Féin coalition.

“Real” liberal unionists rather than the “Pragmatic” liberal unionists must shudder at that prospect. And how nationalists and republicans should feel….thats a big question.

If Slugger O’Tooles favourite Party…Alliance…can no longer deliver the unionist Utopia….look out for some backtracking and some pro DUP-SF opinion pieces.


This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Liberal Unionism…Buried With O’Leary

  1. observer says:

    B Walker is actually quite a poor writer. His sentences are vague and quite often it’s hard to pin down exactly what he means. There is a lot of presumption in what he writes.

  2. Observer says:

    It’s ironic he begins his title with “Boring to say so perhaps…”

    Because i think his style of writing is boring. And his inability to be crisp is all-too-well illustrated by the 24 word title of that piece.

    • I think that if anyone outside the Slugger inner circle had written a 24 word headline, it would have not have been published.
      I have written a total of FOUR posts for Slugger. On one occasion it took nearly two weeks to get it published.

  3. zig70 says:

    I couldn’t help posting on that Slugger piece, pointless maybe but I feel slightly better. I noticed Brian commented on the Irish times comment section for the piece he later re-quoted. The article by Pol O Muiri that he took exception to wasn’t great, surprised it got his heckles up.
    All this current palava, reminds me of when all my bosses where protestant, often from Portadown or BallyClare. They would regale with stories of how it was better before the troubles and Catholics used to go to the bonefires/12th and enjoy the spectacle. Similarly you would get unionist politicians telling you that they had Catholic friends and I’d think, they are called acquaintances, no doubt they don’t tell you want you really think. So there is a long history of biting tongues, keeping the peace. That is why our wives get away with murder. Anyone who talks about Catholics voting for the UUP or DUP is as daft as a brush in my book. No doubt there are many from Nationalists background who are making there lives in the current situation and not troubled by any notion of nationhood but they won’t vote DUP in a million years. So why do liberal unionists keep pushing the notion? I’ve no doubt liberal unionists are in or vote for the UUP and DUP, I don’t understand how they can turn a blind eye to the completely non liberal stances. Still in this day and age they block housing in North Belfast or Glengormley where it might go to nationalists. 18yrs after the GFA, unionists are still fairly unreconstructed and unwilling to share this corner but times have moved on, I don’t have any unionist bosses now or feel the need to bite my tongue. (except with the wife, still need to grow a pair there)

    • I cant see Catholics and/or nationalists rushing out to vote DUP or even UUP just because of so-called Catholic teaching.
      i dont drink alcohol (lifelong pioneer) but I am not going to vote DUP because they are mostly non-drinkers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s