A unionist mural in Belfast (Robert Wallis/Corbis via Getty)

March 15, 2023   8 mins

In May 1950, Philip Larkin was appointed sub-librarian at Queen’s University in Belfast. He knew little about the city, or indeed the university, but needed a change. His application for a job in London had been rejected. Belfast offered an escape; a near abroad that was both familiar and foreign. As he sat on the deck of the ferry leaving for his new life, he wrote. “‘I travel/To unknown from lost.”

The city then was an exciting upgrade from the drab post-war austerity of the east Midlands, a far cry from Belfast today. For the five years he lived there, Larkin liked the city and how it made him feel, describing its “draughty streets” and “faint archaic smell of dockland” in his poem The Importance of Elsewhere. These were the kinds of things which “prove me separate”. 

Yet, while this separateness could make him feel far from home, it also made him feel at ease. In Belfast, he was an outsider, but accepted as such. “Strangeness made sense,” he wrote, “The salt rebuff of speech, insisting so on difference, made me welcome.” It was almost harder being back in England.

“Living in England has no such excuse:
These are my customs and establishments
It would be much more serious to refuse.
Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.”

The poem captures something profound about the feelings of home and abroad which crash together in Northern Ireland. A friend of mine, an academic at Ulster University, told me that when he is in England, he feels much as Larkin did in Belfast: different but welcome. That contrasts starkly with how he feels when in the Republic of Ireland. While he is Irish and his grandfather was born in Dublin, he doesn’t feel at home there — its culture does not underwrite his existence. “England allows me to be Irish in my fashion,” he explained. “Ireland doesn’t. It wants to possess me, with no right to refuse.”

For many nationalists in Northern Ireland, the story is almost the opposite. For them, the Irishness of the south is their Irishness too, or at least something close to it. And it is not the Republic which seeks to possess them, but Britain. 

Visit Northern Ireland today and it is clear that it is not Irish nationalists going through an existential crisis about home and identity. It is Northern Ireland’s unionists who seem lost, trapped somewhere between elsewhere and home; nothing fixed, nothing secure, everything in flux. On one side, Irish nationalism is on the march, calm and confident, rich and secure, with a version of Irishness that isn’t theirs, singing “up the ‘Ra” as it goes; on the other, the Brits on the mainland seem ever willing to bargain away Northern Ireland as the price of the latest national project. The question unionism faces today is what to do about it.

Larkin looms large in my mind when I visit Belfast. It’s just his kind of cold, grey and “draughty” day as I wander down the Newtownards Road, past abandoned concrete scrub, old docks and “peace walls” still standing, a quarter of a century after the peace. 

At the East Belfast Constitutional Club, I meet Jamie Bryson, the public face of loyalism in Northern Ireland these days, along with two of his associates who do not want to be named. Bryson is a controversial figure in Northern Ireland: a regular on the media and close to the DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson but also regularly questioned about his links to the UVF — the banned paramilitary group the Ulster Volunteer Force. Bryson rejects such links as “outrageous”, insisting the UVF speak for themselves. Either way, Bryson, it strikes me, is a loyalist for our social media age, fighting the old cause with new tools.

The three of us venture upstairs to a hall which played host to the first loyalist rally against Johnson’s proposed Protocol back in October 2019. Three and a half years later, and the raw anger remains, undiluted by Sunak’s new deal.

Bryson lets his two associates do much of the talking: a briefing from the loyalist grassroots. “If the DUP accept this, they’re finished,” says the older hardliner, who was interned at Long Kesh during the Troubles. He is dismissive of Rishi Sunak’s latest agreement with the EU, the so-called Windsor Framework which the Prime Minister has claimed will give Northern Ireland a uniquely beneficial position in both the UK and EU markets. “People in England just don’t seem to get it,” he says. “This is not about money. It’s about the constitution. It’s about how safe we are in the United Kingdom.”

This older loyalist spent his entire life fighting this battle, but risked the anger of his own community in 1998 to vocally campaign for the Good Friday Agreement — something he now regrets. “Hundreds of my friends died to stay British,” he says. “We wanted peace, but there has been far too much given away to Republicanism. It has been give, give, give, but now we’ve got nothing left to give — we can’t compromise any further.” Bryson agrees, insisting that the Good Friday Agreement had been a mistake, giving Irish nationalism the tools to achieve all it wanted: “Equality was just a staging post to supremacy,” he says. Bryson’s other friend was, if anything, even more depressed by the situation. “Britain has done what we never thought was possible. They’ve kicked us out.” 

For other unionists that I know, however, such moroseness has gone too far. “You didn’t think this would happen? I mean, what the fuck?” snapped one when I described the interaction. “The big surprise is not that we ended up in this situation after Brexit, but that there has been enough concern in the Conservative party for them to claw the situation back this far.”

Here then is the challenge for the DUP and unionism today: keep fighting for a cause, no matter how lost, or try to own whatever partial victory they force from London and the EU? Northern Ireland’s history, after all, is not simply one of loyal rebellion to protect its “cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom”, as the Ulster Covenant put it in 1912. It is also one of constant forced compromise. The original loyalist insurrectionists, remember, didn’t even want Northern Ireland to exist — they were Irish unionists opposed to Home Rule. They accepted partition and a parliament in Belfast as the least worst option. They accepted a place apart, with its own prime minister and House of Commons when no other part of the UK had such devolution.

Today’s crisis is just another chapter in this long story: of a loyal Ulster locked in a permanent battle to protect its status, only to be forced to accept special treatment when it has no other option. Sunak’s settlement with the EU is now the settled will in Westminster, backed by both the Tory and Labour parties. Further opposition in Northern Ireland could wrestle a few more concessions — but it is hard to see anything substantial.

Unionists have every reason to feel aggrieved. Northern Ireland has been placed in a different legal and economic order from the rest of the United Kingdom. Northern Irish businesses must be “trusted” to be able to move goods freely back and forth from the mainland. And all so that there would not be any checks whatsoever on trade between the UK and Republic of Ireland. 

Among many loyalists there is also outrage. They’re angry that this has come about — in their view — because Republicans raised the threat of violence should there be any land border at all. That is mirrored in the posters cropping up across Belfast with the image of Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his warning from 2018 that “the possibility of a return to violence is very real”. Behind this warning, the posters’ producers had placed an image of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings carried out by the UVF in 1974, which killed 33 people. The message is clear, and menacing.

This is the backdrop against which the DUP must make its decision. Do they back Sunak’s deal as a marked improvement on Johnson’s — or reject it as a marked deterioration on what existed before Brexit? If they choose the former, they risk legitimising the very division of the UK which they exist to oppose, alienating their electoral base in the process. But if they choose the latter, refusing to go back into government with Sinn Fein, they risk delegitimising the very state they wish to preserve.

Yet Bryson does not represent all of unionism, let alone Northern Ireland. He is one part of the mix. Other leading figures in the DUP spot an opportunity, however much they might dislike the British Government’s handling of events. If Sunak’s deal really does mean “the best of both worlds” — inside the UK and EU markets — it makes it harder for nationalism to argue in the future that Northern Ireland should give up one of these worlds. Bluntly, if Northern Ireland can find a reasonable settlement that all sides of its sectarian divide can live with, there will be many ordinary people who will be happy enough to leave it at that, able to be Irish and British as they please, moving between elsewhere and home as it suits them. Unionism’s tactical defeat, in other words, might prove to be its strategic masterstroke, securing the union for longer than might have otherwise been the case.

This argument works only up to a point, though. A special arrangement for Northern Ireland may well stabilise the union in one sense, with a new argument to persuade the agnostic middle classes to stick with the constitutional status quo. But there will be a cost. If Sunak’s agreement gives Northern Ireland the best of both worlds, then Scotland will want to know why it can’t have a similar arrangement. Then so will England. It could destabilise the whole of the UK. 

Northern Ireland, though, is not a nation like Scotland. It is something more ambiguous: part of a bigger nation, but set apart. It remains unique. It is the only place in the Western world with the guaranteed right to secede and join another state should a simple majority so wish. Baked into Northern Ireland’s very existence is a constitutional uncertainty. Even the process and act of Irish unification is uncertain and deliberately so. Would Northern Ireland exist after voting to secede — in a union with the Republic — or would it simply be subsumed? No one knows.

Northern Ireland’s unionists do know, though, that the union they support is fragile, their constitutional rights only temporarily guaranteed, the existence of their nation up in the air. English people lecturing them should reflect that they have no such uncertainty. 

For now, unionism seems stuck. The DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson voiced his first criticisms of the Framework while in America this week, claiming it will “require further clarification, re-working and change”. But he has delayed making a decision, setting up a panel of grandees to report back on Sunak’s Windsor Framework by the end of the month — “organising the officer class before trying to get the soldiers in line”, as one observer put it to me. Donaldson has always been an arch devolutionist, unlike his one-time mentor Enoch Powell or other leading figures in the party in the Seventies and Eighties who believed Northern Ireland should lose its special status and simply be re-integrated back into the Westminster system. As a principle, in other words, Donaldson wants to see the restoration of the power-sharing institutions. His challenge, if he is minded to acquiesce to the arrangements now in place, is to find a way to bring unionism with him.

My trip to Northern Ireland suggests this will be almost impossible without a unionist split. The only question is how big that split will be.

This challenge is indicative of Northern Ireland’s very essence; one of constant uncertainty and ambiguity. The constitutional compromises required for stability only keep it in this state of instability, imposing upon those who want to keep it going a duty to find a way to make it work. Unionism’s fate, then, is to find itself bound in an endless struggle with a reality it doesn’t like, always seeking an unreachable settlement. 

Like Larkin on the deck of his ferry sailing to Belfast, Ulster unionism once again finds itself strapped to a boat travelling to unknown from lost. Its job is just to keep the ship floating on, guided by the light of that elsewhere, the only source of stability it has got.

is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.