Looking in the mirror: reflections on the DUP and ‘the Irish problem’

by | 16 Jun 2017

The chatter, comments, and headlines are clear: the perennial ‘Irish problem’ has returned to haunt the British stage. But what is there to hear in the silence that frames the chatter?

To the surprise and unease of many in Britain the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has been thrust front-and-centre onto the political stage of their liberal democracy. While this appearance has elicited much comment and chatter amongst the good people of that liberal democracy, the real question perhaps should be, beyond this comment and chatter which will undoubtedly die down when the ‘coalition of chaos’ comes to its inevitable end, what does this appearance tell us about British society and politics at a more general level?

In Britain, since the first mention of the possibility that Theresa May and the Conservative Party were seeking a deal with the DUP in an attempt to cling to power, a ‘community of decent people’ has rallied together to assure us and themselves that they are not like ‘them’; they have quickly moved to condemn the DUP’s homophobia, xenophobia, racism, sexism, religious fundamentalism, climate change denial, defence of creationism, and, even in some cases, their links to pro-British loyalist death squads in Ireland. Some have even taken to the streets to protest this. All this, of course, is to be welcomed. That elements of this community of decent people have been called into being and are being courted by a media that has often espoused views not a million miles from those of the DUP, however, is perhaps more disconcerting.

In the days after the election, as I watched the reaction of this community of decent people unfold, as I read the comments and listened to the chatter aroused by the DUP’s appearance, I wondered what could be read at the edges of this appearance and the reaction it had evoked. Was there anything to be perceived in that zone where the visible appearance blends into the invisible background? I asked myself what was the meaning of the blank page that was arranging the words in the newspaper comments I was reading? What was there to hear in the silence that framed the chatter?

Descending into the comment sections of some of the newspapers it quickly became clear that the DUP had, for some, become the standard bearers for the ‘backward’ Irish, bringing their ‘nutty’, ‘crazy’, ‘fundamentalist’ political ideas ‘over here’. Some of the chatter I was hearing was not much better. It wasn’t long before the comments and chatter began to solidify in the newspaper headlines, the front-page of the London Evening Standard on Friday 9th June alerting the now vigilant community of decent people to ‘May’s Irish Bailout’. The chatter, comments, and headlines were clear, it would seem that the perennial ‘Irish problem’ had returned to haunt the British stage.

The French anthropologist Pierre Clastres once wrote that ‘when the mirror does not reflect our own likeness, it does not prove that there is nothing to perceive’.1Pierre Clastres, Society Against the State (Robert Hurley and Abe Stein trs, Zone books 2013) 20. Surveying Clastres’ oeuvre, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro takes this comment to its logical conclusion and uses Patrice Maniglier to explain that for Clastres the promise of anthropology is that of ‘[r]eturning us an image in which we do not recognize ourselves’.2Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, ‘The Untimely, Again’ in Pierre Clastres, Archaeology of Violence (Jeanine Herman tr, Semiotext(e) 2010) 14-15. The point, then, is that if we take the ‘exotic’ Others seriously we may learn something about ourselves, aspects of ourselves that we do not recognise may be revealed. It seemed appropriate to keep Clastres’ insights in mind as the comment and chatter grew.

Notwithstanding the irony of the DUP being branded as Irish, their exoticisation in the comment and chatter of the community of decent people is reminiscent of earlier colonial discourses used to justify the British colonisation of Ireland. One of those great ‘civilizing missions’, the Plantation of Ulster, saw the settling of thousands of English and Lowland Scottish colonists (Planters) on land confiscated from the Gaelic Irish. Writing at the time of the Plantation, the British Attorney General of Ireland Sir John Davies contrasted the ‘civil’ colonisers with the ‘natives’ whom he compared to weeds. Davies was merely reflecting the long-held British establishment view of the Irish as being ‘barbarous’, ‘wild’, ‘savage’, a ‘graceless cursed race’, ‘freaks’, ‘inferior’, ‘an alien people’ – all contrasted to the ‘civility’ of the English.3Clare Carroll, ‘Barbarous Slaves and Civil Cannibals: Translating Civility in Early Modern Ireland’ in Clare Carroll and Patricia King eds, Ireland and Postcolonial Theory (University of Notre Dame Press 2003). Of course, a central plank in this ‘civilizing mission’ was 17thC Protestantism, it was initially intended that the Plantation would see the displaced Gaelic Irish relocated to areas close to Protestant Churches as part of the civilizing process.

Earlier this year The Detail in conjunction with the Irish Times launched a new project examining the current political divisions within the North of Ireland and how they related to the Brexit vote the previous year. Drawing upon British government statistics the project charted demographic shifts throughout the North over the years and showed, outside of the main population centres, a population still largely geographically divided along the lines inherited from the 17thC Plantation. Paul Nolan, asked to analyse the project’s findings, wrote that,

[t]he incoherent and jumbled mix of areas left over from the Ulster Plantation of the early 17th century has left two communities – then known as the planters and the Gaels, now as Protestants and Catholics – frozen in separate but parallel lives’.

He then went on to explain that this division ‘reflects in large part historic settlement patterns: the Ulster Plantation was concentrated in Counties Antrim and Down, and those are still the bastions of unionism while west of the River Bann the map shades into green’.

Following up on the original report in the wake of the recent Westminster election, The Detail noted that Nolan could have been predicting the election results when he spoke of Planter and Gael, now represented politically by MPs from the DUP and Sinn Féin respectively. The areas where the Plantation was most concentrated had largely returned DUP MP’s to Westminster.

Given many of the positions advocated by the DUP and its membership, those positions that have shocked the community of decent people in Britain, it is unsurprising that numerous commentators would refer to the DUP’s politics as representing a throwback to the 17thC. And, when Owen Jones refers to the DUP as the ‘political wing of the 17thC’, he isn’t far wrong. But that is only half of the story, after all isn’t it much easier to moralise and rouse a laugh when you are dealing with some exotic other, when the mirror does not reflect your own likeness? What happens, however, when you take them seriously, when you look closer and examine the image that you do not recognise in the mirror?

Look a little closer and we see that the soldiers and missionaries of 17thC Britain’s ‘civilizing mission’ have returned and wish to collect their dues for the hard work that they have been carrying out on behalf of the community of decent people. Indeed, the actions, often violent, of the ancestors of these returned civilizers, while largely forgotten or ignored by the Constitutional law courses we teach, were foundational events in the birth of British liberal democracy.

Not so much a return of the ‘Irish problem’, then, as a manifestation of a long displaced or repressed British problem.

All of this, of course, is in the past, and when it comes to relations between Britain and Ireland it is only in Ireland that the past remains present. Moderns don’t dwell in the past after all….

….Martin Magee died at the age of 43 of liver failure earlier this year. As one newspaper put it, his death was ‘linked to the “traumatic experiences in his teenage years” from which he never fully recovered’.

At 2:25pm on the 5th February 1992 two masked gunmen from a loyalist death squad, one carrying a VZ-58 assault rifle (a gun often mistaken for the more familiar AK-47 Kalashnikov) and the other a Browning 9mm handgun, walked into the Sean Graham’s betting shop on Belfast’s Lower Ormeau Road, a predominately nationalist community. They both opened fire in the busy confined space killing five people and wounding seven others. One of the survivors described the scene,

…it seemed to go on for a lifetime, I prayed please God let the shooting stop. There wasn’t a sound for a few seconds, everybody was so stunned, but then the screaming started. People were yelling out in agony and others were crying. You could hardly see anything. The room was filled with gun-smoke and the smell would have choked you.

Among those killed was 18 year-old Peter Magee, Martin Magee’s twin brother. This was Martin’s traumatic experience that the newspaper had referred to, and the long-term effects on Martin were visible to anybody that knew him. One friend explained, he

was never able to come to terms with Peter’s murder. It was too much for this child too, as he was back then. He was a tortured soul ever since and despite best attempts to support him by his family and friends he eventually succumbed to his illness.

The VZ-58 assault rifle used to kill five people in the Sean Graham’s massacre was one of 200 assault rifles that were part of a 1988 consignment of weapons which also included 90 Browning 9mm pistols, 500 fragmentation grenades, 30,000 rounds of ammunition, and 12 RPG-7 rocket launchers. The weapons had been supplied by the apartheid government in South Africa and, upon arrival in Ireland were divided out three ways between the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), two of the largest loyalist death squads, and the Ulster Resistance (UR), a paramilitary organisation founded in 1986 by a number of senior members of the DUP.

The arrival of these weapons greatly enhanced the killing capacity of the loyalists, in the six years before the arrival of the South African weapons shipment loyalist death squads had killed around 71 people, and in the six years after their arrival they killed 229 people, including five in the Sean Graham’s massacre. A large proportion of the weapons that were allocated to Ulster Resistance have never been recovered, nor were they any part of the decomissioning process undertaken as part of the peace process.

The DUP, however, has claimed that it severed its links with Ulster Resistance in 1987. This, though, did not stop Sammy Wilson, one of the MPs returned in this month’s Genera Election, asking in 1991 whether Belfast City Council would ‘be prepared to congratulate all those who have done a good job on two sides of the border?’ in reference to the killing of Eddie Fullerton, an elected Sinn Féin politician, by a UDA reinvigorated by the South African weapons shipment.

Of course, the community of the decent people has been vociferous in expressing its horror at a Party with such a history appearing on the stage of their liberal democracy, the chatter and comments are very clear on this, as are newspapers from across the political spectrum – ‘we are not like them’, they assure us.

But, again, this is just half of the story, what is not being said here?

In the mid-1980s Brian Nelson, the UDA’s most senior Intelligence Officer, travelled to South Africa in order to set up the weapons deal. Brian Nelson also worked for British Military Intelligence and the British Ministry of Defence has conceded that his trip to South Africa was funded by his British Military Intelligence unit. It has also been claimed that not only was his trip cleared at a senior level in the Ministry of Defence, but that it was also personally sanctioned by a senior Minister in Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. What is very clear, from Nelson himself, is that he kept his unit informed at every stage of the arms importation operation.

The upshot of this is that under a Conservative government British Military Intelligence facilitated the importation of a large cache of weapons from apartheid South Africa, greatly enhancing the killing capacity of loyalist death squads. Among the beneficiaries of this operation were the Ulster Resistance, the organisation founded by senior members of the DUP. When we consider this, it is perhaps not surprising that one of the key stumbling blocks in getting the power-sharing institutions and the peace process in Ireland back on track after their recent collapse has been the refusal of the Conservative government to release funding for, and information to, inquests and investigations into deaths which occurred during the conflict in Ireland. The Conservative justification for this is their claim that, despite the statistics showing the opposite, prosecutions of conflict-related legacy cases in the North of Ireland have disproportionately focused on British State actors. The Conservatives and the DUP have long been at one on this point. It is obvious, however, that such investigations would eventually raise questions about the South African weapons and Britain’s role in their importation.

Why, then, the surprise and horror at the possibility of a Conservative and DUP alliance on the Westminster stage? The appearance of the DUP on the stage of British liberal democracy is nothing new; they and what they represent have always been there in the background and silence that shapes Britain’s liberal democracy. What we are seeing is simply the same politics but with a different mode of appearance – the appearance of the DUP on the stage has given us a brief glimpse of the secret at the heart of British liberal democracy, the violence that is at its core.

And soon this coalition will run its course and the DUP will again move backstage, out of the spotlight. As the DUP is once again displaced to ‘over there’ the community of decent people will pat itself on the back having assured themselves that they are not like ‘them’, that liberal democracy has won out and proper order has been restored. They will be assured of this by the media and they will forget that the event which set in motion the chain of events that brought about the appearance of the DUP upon the stage of British liberal democracy was a Brexit vote, a Brexit vote in which some members of the community of decent people let their xenophobia, racism, religious prejudice and, for some, a nostalgia for Empire, get the better of them as they cast their ballot.

They will also forget that Martin Magee’s 85 year-old mother, like many others, will not have received the apology that she and other family members of those killed in the Sean Graham’s massacre have called for with regard to the British Government’s role in supplying the weapon that killed one of her sons directly and the other indirectly.

The community of decent people need not worry about this, however. The establishment of this good liberal democracy, aided by sections of their media will again rally the decent people to assure them that they are not like ‘them’. In order to prove this they will call upon the community of decent people to channel their energy solely into the cause of claiming compensation from Libya for Colonel Gaddafi’s arming of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Relax and rest assured, Britain is working hard to resolve ‘the Irish problem’, the problem ‘over there’ — just be careful not to look too closely in the mirror lest you catch a glimpse of the British problem.

Paddy McDaid is a PhD Candidate at Birkbeck Law School.


  • 1
    Pierre Clastres, Society Against the State (Robert Hurley and Abe Stein trs, Zone books 2013) 20.
  • 2
    Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, ‘The Untimely, Again’ in Pierre Clastres, Archaeology of Violence (Jeanine Herman tr, Semiotext(e) 2010) 14-15.
  • 3
    Clare Carroll, ‘Barbarous Slaves and Civil Cannibals: Translating Civility in Early Modern Ireland’ in Clare Carroll and Patricia King eds, Ireland and Postcolonial Theory (University of Notre Dame Press 2003).


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