Unionism Decayed is essential reading for an outsider interested in Northern Ireland. It is well written, but not a historical work and doesn’t pretend to be a balanced discussion of the issues. However, it does provide a window into the mind of a unionist, and such an opportunity is very rare on American shores. The book is an attempt, like that of a salmon, is to swim against the rushing tide of what the author would call appeasement. Mr. Vance is in a minority opinion, and that certainly will not stop him from arguing against what he sees is the decay ofthe Unionist political movement.
The book offers real grievances held by the unionist community. Mr. Vance notes correctly and often personally of the atrocities committed by the modern day IRA, the double standard of media in the UK, the unapologetic opportunism exhibited by Sinn Fein, and the duplicity of many politicians. To his credit he never excuses loyalist paramilitary groups, and condemns their acts with obvious sincerity.
The author mentions but does not dwell upon the unrequited love that exists between Unionists in Northern Irealnd and, ahem, the mainland. The two main parties in the UK have their foolish moments, but neither is so self-destructive as to seriously attempt to organize in the tribal enclave that is Northern Ireland. Unionism is the red headed (not red handed) stepchild that loves its mother, but doesn’t really find that love returned.
Absent at times from the work, which seems at times stream of conscious cynicism, is the Vance wit known to readers of ATW. One suspects the topic and the opportunity are too heartfelt for the author. A shame, as humour deployed in a judicious manner can be very persuasive. But the author is on a mission, and perhaps his tone is the correct one.
We meet politicians, large and small. Most are dispatched as undeserving, unintelligent and unprincipled. Suprise! Mr. Vance was never a main player on the political stage, and his encounters with some of the movers and shakers reads like someone who got front row seats at a concert. A nice chance to see Trimble and Paisley up close and personal, but little chance to engage them directly on the issues. The heavyweights of the Unionist community come in for the strongest drubbing, disappointment being an understatement.
The author sees the claim of the nationalist community as ludicrous, which is a difficult position to start from when a united Ireland has been and is the hope of millions of people. The course of Irish History is left unexamined, and perhaps wisely so, as an objective analysis would undermine the work. Also, the conflict is such that people will disagree as strongly over something that happened centuires ago as they would over something that happened yesterday. The eternal irony of Unionist insistence on majority rule, which of course favors their position, is that it is based on one of history’s great gerrymandering moments in which their majority was created. A necessary moment for the creation of the Republic, but too often played down by the Unionist Community and hinders their understanding of their opposition.
The book is too coy in describing the Orange Order and its parades. One thing the Orange Parade involving Drumcree was not, and that is a simple attempt to memorialize World War I dead. The Orange Parades have always involved triumphal in your face intimidation of the Catholic population, and it serves neither history or the author’s arguments to pretend otherwise. Another issue I have is the failure to give credit where it is due in temrs of the actual peace. True, the IRA and its hooligan element have never really gone away. But they have been placed in check, the level of violence has gone down and there is a hope for the future that never existed before.
Too often, Irish-Americans heard one side of the story, and too often many in the Irish-American community held a view of the IRA that ranged from naive to morally complicit. One of Mr. Vance’s great accomplishments is to point out the details of the bombings, shootings and attacks, so it reads more like a human account with real victims, instead of an impersonal news item. It is important to read works that set forth another view, especially on Northern Ireland, where so many enter the debate and never listen. The Unionists are not going away. Their homes and heritage are there. They have a right to their opinion and a right to seek to maintain what to them is the proper political state. Mr. Vance ends with a quote from the Prophet Jeremiah, after writing more like Job. It is hopeful that the two communities look to their better angels, to develop a future where all might not live in agreement, but at least live in peace.