Paradox and Unionist identity

  • Ashleigh Perry

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Unionism in Ulster is often considered to be paradoxical and paradox is commonly thought to make its politics radically incoherent. From this perspective, Unionists are simultaneously too British and not British enough, a perspective which lends itself to the explanatory categories ‘crisis of identity’ or ‘false consciousness’. The most celebrated formulation of paradox can be found in the title of Miller’s 1978 book Queen’s Rebels in which the contrast between formal allegiance and actual experience in Unionist politics is starkly asserted. This thesis explores systematically the notion of paradox in Unionist identity. Part One of the thesis – ‘Identifying Paradox’ – considers academic understanding of identity. This section examines how both Britishness and Unionism have been understood in terms of their respective paradoxes. Attention is then focused on the synthesis of Unionist Britishness in Northern Ireland and it is argued that the conceptual framework of elective affinity can be deployed effectively to contain and to explain the supposed radical incoherence of Unionist identity – a paradox resolving paradoxes. Part Two of the thesis – ‘Investigating Paradox’ - tests that conceptual framework on Ulster Unionist identity in a period of constitutional and political uncertainty in the United Kingdom, beginning with the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and ending with the 2016 European referendum and its aftermath. Semi-structured interviews with 34 Unionist politicians were conducted between 2015 and 2016 and their responses to questions on identity, the Union, Europe and the ‘narrative’ of Unionist Britishness are framed in terms of the paradoxes set out in Part One. Part Three of the thesis summarises the responses and concludes that the negative interpretation of Unionist paradox – especially the ‘crisis of identity’ trope - is misconceived. A much more positive reading of paradox is possible, one which shows that the paradoxes of Unionist Britishness are central and not marginal, as Miller thought, to politics in the United Kingdom.
Date of AwardMay 2018
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorMaire Braniff (Supervisor), Cathy Gormley-Heenan (Supervisor) & Arthur Aughey (Supervisor)


  • British
  • United Kingdom
  • Northern Ireland
  • Unionist
  • Unionism
  • Britishness
  • Identity
  • Paradox
  • Brexit
  • European Referendum

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