The DUP is now describing the Brexit backstop as poison, as though its existence is preventing them from reaching some kind of nirvana with other Brexiteers in a brave new world. They would do well to learn a few lessons from history.
One of the watershed events in the history of Northern Ireland, apart from Brexit, and the conflict from 1968 to 1998, is the Siege of Derry.
In 1689-90, a smaller force of Protestant defenders (Episcopalian, Presbyterian and Non-Conformist), held out for six months against a greater Irish Catholic force loyal to King James, and by the slimmest of margins and the luckiest of circumstances, managed to break the boom on Lough Foyle thus allowing relief ships to come to their rescue. This courageous defence secured Ulster for King William and ensured Protestant domination there for 300 years until today.
But not everything was rosy thereafter in Ulster’s garden.
A little-recounted fact is that for all their allegiance to King William, the Presbyterians in particular were to be sadly disappointed in thinking that their loyalty to the king would count in their favour. Firstly, English landowners
killed the flourishing Irish cattle trade by procuring laws from parliament prohibiting the importation into England of Irish cattle, sheep, pigs, pork, bacon — and even butter and cheese. The Navigation Act was passed under which Irish ships were prevented from any share of trade with the colonies and was thus annihilated.
With the Irish cattle trade killed by the jealousy of the English, the Presbyterians and other unionist landowners turned to sheep to produce wool of excellent quality. But English woollen magnates once again moved swiftly to ruthlessly kill the competition from Ireland. In 1699 the British parliament enacted a law of such crushing severity that the export of Irish wool was prohibited to any country in the world. The Irish were told to switch to linen instead.
They fared better at this enterprise but already many Presbyterians, disillusioned by their treatment at the hands of the smug Walpole parliamentarians, and the savage suppression of their agricultural and industrial success began to emigrate to the new colonies of America in large numbers. Their descendants became US presidents such as Andrew Jackson, James Polk and James Buchanan. The heroic frontiersmen Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett were of Ulster Protestant stock. Among the most fanatical and ferocious fighters against the British in the American War of Independence were the seed and breed of Ulster Protestant emigrants.
There is ample historical evidence to adduce that the Ulster Protestants, apart from those defending Derry in the siege, were treated humanely and fairly by their Catholic neighbours.
Up to the ending of the siege, Irish Catholics held the overwhelming power in Ulster.
The whole of the province apart from Derry and Enniskillen, lay at their mercy, yet the Protestant population lived almost unmolested either by Irish troops or the Catholic peasantry. Indeed the Protestants of this area later maintained that they never suffered from the Irish army such damage as was inflicted upon them by William’s commander, Schomberg. John Graham, a Protestant clergyman and fervant unionist was at pains to list the names of 10 Catholic priests who had befriended their Protestant neighbours in times of trouble.
Nor did the leaders and defenders of Derry under siege fare better. They were treated by the English government with a shabby meanness. Colonel John Mitchelbourne, the city’s military governor, whose entire family had perished in the siege, was arrested in London in 1709 after he went to press his claim for compensation and thrown into the Fleet debtor’s prison. Another, Colonel William Hamill, who had pursued a claim for Derry’s victims for thirty years, was imprisoned for debt, having spent thousands of his own money seeking redress for the soldiers of the siege.
There are such harrowing examples of English ingratitude too numerous to mention.
The lessons are salutary. Irishmen of every stripe, Protestant, Catholic, Presbyterian and dissenter, should be under no illusion as to their dispensability if it comes to a choice between them and Britain. It happened before and history has meticulous records of it. Indeed the phrase perfidious Albion was not coined by an Irish Catholic at all but by an Ulster Protestant. It may be that the time is ripe once again for history to repeat itself. For the DUP, it may not be the backstop that is poison but those whom they perceive as their English political bedfellows.