Stuart Brooker

Anxious unionists in little mood to celebrate Northern Ireland centenary | Northern Ireland

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Covered up and boxed in a storage vault in the town of Enniskillen, two historic oil paintings gathered dust. King William III commissioned the portraits of himself and Queen Mary after he routed Catholic forces in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, a turning point in Irish history that established Protestant ascendance.

Unionists revere King Billy, also known as William of Orange, as a hero who saved their settler ancestors. The portraits used to gaze down from Enniskillen town hall, a reminder of their link to the crown, until the council voted to remove them in 2002.

For some unionists in this corner of County Fermanagh, it felt like a foreshadowing of their own fate. Next week they were supposed to celebrate Northern Ireland’s centenary, the 100th birthday of a state made from six of Ireland’s 32 counties in 1921 with one overriding goal: a permanent Protestant and therefore unionist majority.

But instead of festive, the mood is anxious and focused on loss – loss of power, cohesion, confidence – and with fear of worse to come, of history closing the lid.

“Northern Ireland has been a success story in many ways but people now see their Britishness being eroded. We feel diminished. It’s a lonely position,” said Stuart Brooker, an assistant grand master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland.

The portraits’ banishment – at the behest of a nationalist-controlled council – reflected a wider erosion of unionism, he said. “Things like that hurt. They hurt.” Though the paintings emerged from mothballs in 2018 and now hang at the county museum, they will not be returning to the town hall.

Stuart Brooker: ‘People now see their Britishness being eroded.’ Photograph: Paul McErlane/The Guardian

The centenary comes at arguably the most fraught moment for unionism in the state’s eventful 100 years. Catholics are on the cusp of outnumbering Protestants for the first time – a demographic shift apparent in Catholic majorities in schools and universities. Opinion polls suggest Sinn Féin could lead the next governments north and south of the border. A referendum on Irish unity seems a matter of when, not if.

Brexit has produced a trade border down the Irish Sea, which in unionist eyes economically decouples the region from the rest of the UK. Unionist parties are in disarray. The Democratic Unionist party (DUP) has just dumped Arlene Foster as its leader and Northern Ireland’s first minister, blaming her for the sea border, but party sources admit there is no masterplan, no new strategy to unpick the Northern Ireland protocol. The Ulster Unionist and Traditional Unionist Voice parties lack heft. In the vacuum hover loyalist youths and shadowy paramilitaries who recently rioted.

Little wonder few have appetite to celebrate the centenary. “I think it’s more something to be recognised,” said Tom Elliott, a former Ulster Unionist leader and MP. “I’m very pleased and proud to be in the UK and feel it’s the best way forward. It would have been better if all of Ireland had stayed in the UK.”

Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew won Elliott’s Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat in 2017 and held it in 2019, in effect ending his political career and consolidating nationalism’s ascendance in the constituency.

Elliott worries about the union with Great Britain – the possibility of Scotland seceding heightens concern – but he thinks that could galvanise unionists to sell the union to voters. “If you have some nerves going into a big game it makes you more diligent.”

Tom Elliott
The former MP Tom Elliott at Enniskillen’s war memorial. Photograph: Paul McErlane/The Guardian

In Enniskillen for a long time, his side kept winning. A totemic unionist bastion, it was the site of a King Billy victory named in the ballad The Sash. Its castle symbolised loyalist preeminence. Before the Troubles, gerrymandering and discrimination helped unionists dominate the council.

That changed after a hunger strike by IRA prisoners. Bobby Sands won a byelection for the vacant Westminster seat before dying in the Maze prison on 5 May 1981, which gives Northern Ireland another fateful anniversary next week. Sands’ election was a seismic breakthrough for Sinn Féin, which soon started winning council seats around Enniskillen and across Northern Ireland.

For Sinn Féin, the “Armalite and the ballot box” strategy was a legitimate response to an unreformable, sectarian state, which eventually forced the British government to negotiate, culminating in the 1998 Good Friday agreement, a power-sharing executive at Stormont and belated equality and respect for Irish nationalism.

Others say the violence was unjustified and left open wounds. Of 116 people killed during the Troubles in Fermanagh, 101 were killed by the Provisional IRA, including 11 murdered in the 1987 Remembrance Day bombing. Of those cases, 95 remain unresolved, said Kenny Donaldson, 40, the director of services of the South East Fermanagh Foundation, a victims’ rights group.

Colourful quilts cover his office walls. They seem cheerful until closer inspection reveals each square commemorates murder victims. “The pain of injustice is still very profound,” said Donaldson, speaking in a personal capacity.

Kenny Donaldson
Kenny Donaldson, a victims’ rights campaigner, in front of a tapestry remembering murder victims. Photograph: Paul McErlane/The Guardian

In 1979 the IRA shot and seriously wounded Foster’s father, a farmer and part-time police officer, near his home outside Enniskillen. Foster was eight years old. “My father came in on all fours crawling, with blood coming from his head,” she recalled decades later.

Last week Sinn Féin held a tribute for Séamus McElwaine, the IRA man allegedly behind the attack, who went on to be killed in an SAS ambush. Nationalists suspect that Foster’s loathing for the IRA and its supporters poisoned her ability to set a conciliatory tone and work effectively with Sinn Féin during her six-year tenure. She famously compared the party to a crocodile.

Some unionists, in contrast, think their leaders were too pliable and lacked the steel of James Craig, Northern Ireland’s first prime minister, who boasted of Stormont being a Protestant parliament for a Protestant state.

They view the prosecution of former British army soldiers for Troubles-era killings as driven by Sinn Féin. When the Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, recently expressed sorrow for the 1979 assassination of Lord Mountbatten, it cut little ice in Enniskillen, which was home to Paul Maxwell, a 15-year-old blown up with Mountbatten and his family.

“When army veterans are being vilified, we see that as an attack on who we were,” said Brooker, who served in the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR). He mistrusts Sinn Féin’s push for an Irish language act. “It’s almost being used as a political weapon. Our Britishness is being chipped away.”

Such sentiments simmered for years – and then came Brexit. While many unionists voted remain, others – especially DUP supporters – seized the chance to assert British identity and exceptionalism.

It backfired when Boris Johnson agreed the Northern Ireland protocol, which put trade checks in the Irish Sea. Rather than a manageable technical issue, many unionists and loyalists view it as a constitutional threat. The most radical think now is a time not for centenary candles but petrol bombs.

Denzil McDaniel
Denzil McDaniel, former editor of the Impartial Reporter in Enniskillen. Photograph: Paul McErlane/The Guardian

Denzil McDaniel, 68, a former editor of the Impartial Reporter, a venerable Enniskillen newspaper, sees a faultline within unionism. Business and civic leaders recognise that change is coming, be it a united Ireland or some other constitutional arrangement within the UK. The question is when and how messy. Unionist politicians refuse to see this, said McDaniel.

“They’re in denial about the breakup of the UK. Scotland may leave, plus there is a government at Westminster that is a basket case and doesn’t give a stuff about Northern Ireland. Unionists still listen to Boris Johnson and he shafts them every time.”

When Johnson visited Enniskillen last month – a tightly controlled foray ostensibly to promote a vaccination centre – Foster greeted him not with a barrage of eggs but smiles and a polite critique of the protocol. The most robust challenge to the prime minister was from a member of the public asking why he no longer appeared on the TV show Have I Got News for You.

With nationalist parties opting to ignore the centenary, the UK government has planned low-key events next week and over the summer – an online concert, tree-planting, academic talks, a commemorative stamp.

Enniskillen will illuminate its castle and an arts centre in purple, the corporate colour of Fermanagh and Omagh district council. This modest plan squeaked through the council on a 19 to 18 vote. “It is the day Northern Ireland was created and no matter what our position, it’s important we reflect on that, whether you come from a persuasion which sees that as devastating to your community or whether it’s something to be celebrated,” Deborah Erskine, a DUP councillor, told her colleagues.

Zara Ferguson
Zara Ferguson, a navy reservist from Enniskillen. Photograph: Paul McErlane/The Guardian

Amid the mood of political crisis across the region it is easy to overlook the positives. Northern Ireland is at peace. Growing numbers of voters reject tribal labels and identify as neither nationalist or unionist. All sides take pride in the success of homegrown artists and sports stars.

In Enniskillen, personal relations between unionists and nationalists tend to be good. Everyone is happy to claim Adrian Dunbar, the Line of Duty actor, as a local son.

Optimism bubbles from Zara Ferguson, 22, born in 1998, the year of the Good Friday agreement. She never got to meet her uncle, Alan Ferguson, a UDR soldier shot in 1978. The killer was not caught, but Ferguson learned from her mother to not hate. “If she can do it, so can I.”

Ferguson, a navy reservist who studies engineering, is proud of Northern Ireland and its position in the UK. “There are so many benefits. We’re so lucky.” She wishes the union a happy birthday and a long life. “I’d say I’m Northern Irish and British. I’m not Irish. I don’t live in Ireland.”