A letter from Ernest Black of Cookstown in yesterday's Irish News repeats a point that is known to most people but too often excluded from conscious consideration: that in 1798 there were "thousands of members of the Presbyterian Church who were members and supporters of the United Irishmen".
Around the time of the United Irishmen there was considerable support from Protestants of all religions for the separation of Ireland from England – many well-know United Irishmen were Anglicans, like Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet, Lord Edward Fitzgerald – and many were Presbyterian. Even those who were not United Irishmen were often in favour of Irish autonomy – Grattan's Parliament, and the bribery needed in order to pass the Act of Union tend towards this conclusion.
Time has passed, and political circumstances have changed. Yet it may be possible that despite the flamboyant demonstrations of loyalty demonstrated by many unionists, a current of autonomy still flows.
The DUP has often, and with good reason, been described as a party of 'Ulster nationalists' (recently here, for example), and the continuing controversy over the insistence by the UUP of retaining the word 'Ulster' in the title of their joint venture with the English Tories shows that they too, are wedded to 'Ulster particularism'.
Unionism and nationalism are often seen as having entirely incompatible goals – union with Britain for one, a united Ireland for the other. This leads to very public differences of opinion and an apparent zero-sum game in Northern Irish politics. But underneath the surface, and perhaps even unseen by the main protagonists, a potential solution may exist – independence for Northern Ireland.
An independent Northern Ireland has always been anathema for nationalists, partly because it has only ever been promoted by Protestant sectarian extremists. In 1972 the Ulster Vanguard movement (of which both David Trimble and Reg Empey were once members) published a proposal called 'Ulster – A Nation' calling for much greater autonomy, though still within the UK. Other loyalists have called for independence with 'Dominion' status. In most cases, though, independence was seen as necessary in order to ensure (by arms if necessary) that the British government did not 'sell out' Northern Ireland to a unitary Irish state. Some of the proposals were clearly sectarian in outlook.
Independence as an objective has been dropped by all unionist parties, and is now rarely mentioned except to be dismissed as a 'crank' idea. The persistence, though, of 'Ulster particularist' ideas amongst most unionist groups and parties shows that the underlying concept is not unthinkable.
What is unthinkable to most unionists is a united Ireland. For a variety of reasons most unionists do not wish to find themselves part of a sovereign Irish state, in which they would be numerically dominated by nationalists (or Catholics, as many sectarian unionists would see it).
Although the stated goal of Nationalists is the achievement of such a sovereign Irish state, experience shows that many are prepared to compromise. It is in this grey area of compromise that a solution based upon Northern Irish independence could grow. An independent Northern Ireland would be as much an Irish state as the republic to the south. Although Ireland would then contain two states, both would be self-governing and would ensure that the Irish people, as a whole, would finally be free of external interference. That they chose to do so in two states rather than one would be of small importance.
As devolution advances, and as the 'Ulster particularists' of the DUP, and to a lesser extent the UUP, realise how marginal they are to Britain, and Britain is to them, could the submerged current of eighteenth century Presbyterianism bubble to the surface? If, at the same time, Sinn Féin became even more of a northern-centred party than it currently is, could the interests of the two groups converge?
As the sizes of the two main political blocks – unionism and nationalism – approach parity, it would be clear that neither could entirely dominate the other. In an independent Northern Ireland, freely agreed by the representatives of both unionism and nationalism, neither side would feel 'defeated' or 'victorious'. A solution that takes both sides' interests into account could attract support from most people, as well as the active support of the two 'godmother' states – the UK and the Republic.
Could the difficult relationship between the 'Ulster nationalists' of the DUP, and the increasingly northern Irish republicans of Sinn Féin be transformed over time into a meeting of minds? A realisation that, despite differences, they are more alike each other than they think? Both sides distrust both Britain and the Republic, and this growing identification as a place apart could become the seed of a common purpose. With a small amount of compromise by both sides, an outcome could be arrived at that both might find surprisingly attractive.