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'Blood Red Lines': Brexit, Northern Ireland, and the Mythology of Death

by Conor

"Arlene Foster said on Tuesday that the maintenance of the integrity of the union is a blood red line. That kind of overheated language emerges only when people know they are protesting too much."

Never Westminster

In a BBC interview on 2nd October 2018, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party declared that any special exemption for Northern Ireland in the UK’s withdrawal agreement from the EU would betray their alliance with Theresa May. “The red line is blood red,” Mrs Foster said.

In response to Foster’s blood red lines, The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee urged her readers to imagine Sinn Fein riding heroically into Westminster to defeat the meaningful vote on Brexit: ‘[They] won’t, but more’s the pity as it would be the hero of the hour who could retreat again, having saved the day for all Ireland, bringing Irish unity a step nearer.’

It shows a poor understanding of Northern Irish politics to imagine that Sinn Fein could do such a thing or that it would ultimately serve the goal of Irish unification. Sinn Fein are unwavering in their support of the Republic of Ireland’s Dail as their spokesperson and are not at this moment coordinating with the Dail on the issue of Brexit.

Just as the DUP believe a special status for Northern Ireland would be an affront to the Union, a Sinn Fein MP taking their seat in Westminster would be an immeasurable betrayal to those who believe Westminster has no authority over any part of Ireland.

The Northern Irish Protestant or Unionist communities who wish to remain constituents of one United Kingdom arguably now face greater threats to their political project than that of the Catholic and Nationalist communities. The possibility of unification has become far more likely as the DUP have become increasingly out of touch with young, issue-focussed moderates, due to the party’s opposition to gay marriage, abortion and the Irish Language Bill.

Moderate Unionists have argued that unification could lead to Northern Ireland coming under the heel of the Papacy. Despite its historical entrenchment within Irish institutions, however, this line seems weak in lieu of the Republic’s popular acceptance of gay marriage and abortion.

The DUP’s former leader, Peter Robinson, recently spoke at its party conference to urge the members ‘to be careful not to allow the most vociferous voices in your party lead you’; to drop their opposition to the Irish Language Act; and refrain from swapping a stable power-sharing government in Northern Ireland for short-term leverage in Westminster.


The defeat of Orange

Since the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 (sometimes known as the Hillsborough Agreement) and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 there has been an immense sense of betrayal felt among many Unionists that still resonates. Many lamented that the former, which established the legitimacy of the Republic’s advisory role in Northern Irish affairs, ensured the permanent risk of reunification. As Protestant Northern Irish poet Tom Paulin put in his poem ‘The Defenestration of Hillsborough’: “All our victories / were defeats really.”

Among the many instances of the Protestant defeat mythologised, Frank McGuinness’s play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, produced in the Troubles, is peculiar.

The play depicts the relationships between Protestant volunteers of the 36th Ulster Division during the First World War, and their subsequent death at the Somme. It is told from the perspective of one elderly survivor, Pyper: “There would be, and there will be no surrender. The sons of Ulster will rise and lay their enemy low, as they did at the Boyne, as they did at the Somme.”

The play was celebrated as an act of reconciliation during a period of intense violence (McGuinness himself was Catholic). The heroism and bravery of the volunteers almost reaches across the barricades.

However, Tom Herron, lecturer at Leeds Beckett University, contests this interpretation. To praise McGuinness’s play as the act of a Catholic attempting an understanding of the Protestant community, ignores the fact that each member of the division is summoned to the stage as a ghost to ask the question “what happens when a community is figured as spectral, when even the most substantial elements of a culture are rendered phantasmagoric?”

What we see in the play is the spirit of the men of the 36th. Their cause and their identity is summoned to witness Ulster destroyed: ‘Ulster lies in rubble at our feet. The temple of the Lord is in darkness. He has ransacked his dwelling.’

The events of the play act like a dance of death; its ending is in actuality the start of the drama, with the elderly survivor calling out to the ghosts of the fallen as he did in its beginning, asking them to dance again and return to the Somme. Herron maintains that the play can only be taken seriously if we consider this element. To allegorise as ghosts the people re-enacting their annihilation at the Somme, and their defeat by political enemies, places ‘death at work in the very spirit of Ulster Protestantism…a place and culture haunted.’

One scene follows the men of the 36th moments before they are told they will be going over the top to ultimately die. They struggle to think of how to pass the time until one suggests they re-enact the Battle of the Boyne. They do not in fact re-enact the Boyne, but rather the mock Battle of Scarva. Every 13th July, members of Unionist and Protestant sects go to the field of Scarva to perform a ‘sham fight’ pageant battle between King William of Orange and James II & VII:

ANDERSON: How the hell can two men do the Battle of the Boyne?

MCILWAINE: They do it without much more at Scarva.

ANDERSON: Very thing, Battle of Scarva.

MCILWAINE: They have horses at Scarva.

ANDERSON: We’ll get the horses. To your feet, Millen. You’re a horse.

During their re-enactment, the younger Pyper – playing the part of King William’s horse – trips, causing the secretly Catholic Crawford – playing the part of King William – to fall. The performance ends abruptly with Anderson instructing the participants, ‘And remember, King James, we know the result, you know the result, keep to the result.’ But the damage is done; the men see this omen as ‘not the best of signs.’

Writing on the annual marching of the Protestant orders at Scarva, Neil Jarman observes that these performances carry massive risks and consequences for the participants: ‘The victory is confirmed for another year, and the Ascendancy is confirmed. For the performance to be disrupted or cancelled would be to transform history, to rupture the simultaneity of past and present and make the future uncertain.’

The eloquence of blood

Narratives of victimhood and betrayal have stalked the Protestant community of Northern Ireland since the First World War. The partition of Ireland; the secret discussions between the UK and Irish governments during the Troubles; and now Brexit have caused them to resurface. As they do, the relative civil peace (despite a directionless Stormont) of Northern Ireland is thrown in to jeopardy.

Discussion over the future of the Union from the DUP feels entirely short-sighted. They have only shown contempt for the project of reconciliation within Northern Ireland, refashioning century old rhetoric about the sacralised position of Protestant Ulster under the Crown. It was the failure of the Good Friday Agreement to assume good faith on both sides towards the project of reconciliation within the state.

Ultimately, the Agreement never anticipated that one half of the power-sharing government would repeatedly deflect and block the other half’s ability to legislate. Neither did it anticipate that Westminster would, admittedly during a period of crisis, permit a situation in which one faction remains dominant without even having to form a functioning government. In a lecture at Queens University Belfast, the journalist Fintan O’Toole addressed Arlene Foster’s statement:

‘Arlene Foster said on Tuesday that the maintenance of the integrity of the union is a blood red line. I think the phrase was in poor taste but I think it was also in its own way eloquent, I think it told us something. That kind of overheated language emerges only when people know they are protesting too much. We reach for those rhetorical heights when we know the ground beneath is shifting… That underlying the earthquake we are all living through at the moment, is the problem of the Union itself. And it’s a problem that’s not going to go away by simply reasserting, in ever more profound and potent terms, the sacredness of the Union.’


Want to get involved? We are accepting submissions for Issue #5, Mythology, up until May. Contact for all enquiries


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