The real lesson from Carson

Mark Cosgrove’s News Letter article was perhaps the most reasoned I read on the subject of the Covenant over the past month or so.
However, even it contained a crucial and uncomfortable omission. For all the fine words about Carson’s “vision”, we have to recognise that the outcome of his actions was the precise opposite of that vision – and that this was entirely foreseeable even to Carson himself.
Carson’s vision – at its most agreeable – was of a united Ireland within a United Kingdom with prosperity based on global trade. However, what was created was a bitterly divided Northern Ireland within a partitioned Ireland with an economy reliant on subvention – the precise opposite. This was entirely foreseeable because, whatever his generosity of spirit, Carson’s centrepiece was a Covenant open only to a particular segment of Irish and Ulster society – hence not a single Catholic, even those who were openly and avowedly Unionist, felt able to sign. For someone whose stated vision was an inclusive Union, it is strange that his actions were so obviously exclusive.
A century on, we again hear much good intention about a Union cherished by all. Yet when it comes to actions – from failing to condemn obviously offensive and provocative behaviour towards Catholic fellow citizens to claiming the legacy of Craig (someone who openly supported the notion that we are a “Protestant State” in direct opposition to Carson’s vision) – most of us continue to fall short.
If we are to achieve something from this decade of centenaries, we must not only mark our heritage but also learn from past mistakes.
Around Ulster Day, Carson’s vision is surely worthy of reflection. However, given the outcome of his actions was obviously and foreseeably at odds with that vision, it is scarcely worthy of celebration.
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6 thoughts on “The real lesson from Carson

  1. Clare says:

    Mark Cosgroves argument against sectarianism is persuasive, it’s a shame he dosn’t see the irony of such a huge involvement in the covenant celebrations by such overtly sectarian organisations such as the Orange Order and the DUP.

    • And the UUP, whose Leader *specifically* said on the radio last week referred to the “Protestant side” as the side he was “elected to represent” – about which more next week.

  2. Seymour Major says:

    I think worms have turned in the heads of many unionists in recent years including, perhaps, cosgrove himself. I get the feeling that at long last, most UUP supporters really do want an end to sectarianism. But it is not enough.

    Carson warned his supporters that Catholics should not be mistreated. That he could not lead his party beyond 1921 may have been because he knew that he could not hold the line on that view.

    I have said many times that the UUP really needs to “come out” about its own past and acknowledge its role in creating the problems suffered by Northern Ireland for many years since 1921. David Trimble’s “cold house for Catholics” speech on accepting the Nobel peace prize was the nearest that party ever came to making such an admission. Until they can actually do that, the likes of Nesbitt and other UUP leaders will not gain credibility outside their own party. They will simply not be able to shake off the Party’s continuing association with Protestant sectarianism.

    • I think UUP supporters have in general (not all) wanted to end sectarianism but it’s the usual “on our terms”. They have no idea actually how to go about it, not least because they spend their time speaking almost exclusively to other non-Nationalists.

      One really good example is the City Hall flag debate. Would it *really* be such a problem just to fly it in line with the Flags Order (and the majority of civic centres elsewhere in the UK)? It would just say to your average Catholic “We don’t want to ram the fact that you haven’t got your favoured constitutional status down your throat, and in fact we hope in time you may even come to respect the flag as that of a modern, pluralist UK”. Instead it’s all still “It’s OUR country and if ‘they’ don’t like it they can shove it!” – even though ‘they’ happen to have more Cllrs…!

      They really don’t get it, and there’s no evidence they ever will.

  3. Clare says:

    To be fair though Ian, the UUP isn’t as anti-catholic in quite the same was as the Orange Order or the DUP.
    To my knowledge, and I asked this question once to Jeffrey Donaldson to receive nothing but indignation, the DUP has no Catholic members. Naturally the same is said of the Orange Order. It’s debatable that the UUP is so overtly sectarian though many of it’s members show those traits.
    At least there are anti- sectarian sounds coming from the UUP even if it’s DNA is anything but free from it.

    • The UUP is largely precisely as sectarian as the DUP, that is its problem. Again, remember, its own Leader claims to have been elected to represent Protestants – doesn’t get more official than that!

      Of course, there is a “civic unionist” *wing* in the UUP which there isn’t in the DUP, essentially represented at the Assembly by John McCallister and Basil McCrea. Judging by recent leadership elections, it commands only 20-30% support within the party, however – the rest is indistinguishable from the DUP.

      The UUP’s basic problem is that it should be the “civic unionist” party, forcing the DUP back where it came from. On the contrary, it is overwhelmingly the same form of blatantly “Protestant unionist” (and overtly so) – thus rendering its very existence somewhat pointless.

      It the leading “civic unionists” in the Party were to depart, no matter where, its existence separate from the DUP really would be unsustainable.

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