“A Good Day for the Union” proclaimed the Ulster Unionist Party’s Web site. Its leader, David Trimble, echoed that statement on Saturday morning at the press conference announcing agreement in the peace talks in Belfast. “The future of the Union has been preserved”, he said. For such a little word, union has a large number of historical and political resonances.
None more so than in Northern Ireland, which is the only part of the United Kingdom in which this shorthand name for the country — or as the adjective Unionist — is part of the daily discourse of political life for a large part of the population. Elsewhere in the UK it normally appears only on ceremonial occasions. Our colourful flag may be called the Union Jack (more properly the Union Flag, as every pedant will tell me if I don’t get my blow in first) but to most people in England and Wales Union as a synonym for the United Kingdom is little more than a curiosity. The Acts of Union of 1707 (for Scotland) and 1801 (for what was then the whole island of Ireland) are now ancient legislative history. However, the concept is still highly relevant in Ireland and has also been a matter of intense debate in Scotland recently, which is shortly to elect its own parliament for the first time in 300 years, albeit one with devolved powers only.
The word comes from the Latin unus, “one”, which is also the source of our unity and unary (and, among many words beginning in uni-, of unicorn, a beast with only one horn). It seems to have come into English in the middle of the fifteenth century, both in the sense of concord or unity within a country and of a spiritual joining with God. The political connotations of the uniting of separate bodies into one with a single legislature seems to have first been used about proposals to unite Scotland and England, and the names for several other political unions evolved from this sense. In many cases, the term denotes a partial amalgamation of sovereign states into a more-or-less centralised federal body, as with the USA, the old Soviet Union, and, most recently, the European Union, where the word is regarded by many of its opponents as contentious.
From about the 1660s, union began to be used generally for any group of people who came together for some common purpose. In the nineteenth century, it began to be used in particular for an association of workers, in full a trade union. Earlier, the term for such a group had been combination, almost always with the implication of some conspiracy against public order and the public good, as Pepys wrote in his diary in 1668: “Some few ... that do keep out of all plots and combinations”. This negative sense transferred to union after it started to be used in this sense, and in some quarters it is still there.
At about the start of the nineteenth century, the undergraduates of Oxford and Cambridge established unions, primarily debating forums in their original incarnations, their name for which has been adopted for the modern student unions. There are many other current examples of union in the broader sense of an association for some common purpose, including currency union, credit union and rugby union, a form of the sport which provided rather more citations for union in my newspaper last Saturday than did Irish affairs.