Ulsters Last Stand?: Can Unionism Move Beyond Insurance Policy Politics?

How has Ulster unionism arrived at where it is today – fractured and uncertain, yet dominated electorally by the DUP, a party that tells us it offers unionists sure footing in uncertain times? In his latest book, Ulster’s Last Stand? Reconstructing Unionism after the Peace Process (Irish Academic Press, 2010), Prof. James McAuley from the University of Huddersfield tackles that question.

McAuley claims that the hegemony of the DUP depends in large part on the party’s ability to talk about events associated with the peace process in terms that appeal to unionist sensibilities, values, and fears. The DUP does this so well and so convincingly that it seems to offer unionists the best ‘insurance policy’ for maintaining the current constitutional arrangement (page 193).

Although it lacks a sustained analysis of the role of religion within unionism, the book is a competent academic survey of much of the recent literature on unionist politics. While this should be of interest to students of Northern Irish politics, it could also serve as a useful introduction for a general audience comprised of outsiders to unionism, who – McAuley says – tend to view unionists as a strident, reactionary, monolithic block.

The chapters on ‘new unionism’ and ‘new loyalism’ are especially helpful in providing insights on diverse currents of thought within unionism. New unionism, exemplified by Prof. Arthur Aughey, Norman Porter, and the politics of David Trimble in the latter part of his career, is presented as an open, inclusive, civic philosophy that has room for competing identities and perspectives.

New loyalism, exemplified by David Ervine, Gusty Spence, John McMichael and Garry McMichael, is described as a viable, left-leaning political alternative that could free working class unionists from the tactically limited and unimaginative politicians in the larger unionist parties.

But McAuley recognises that the ideological options offered by new unionism and new loyalism seem to have lost the battle for the hearts and minds of contemporary unionists. In his chapter on ‘Unionism and Loyalism in a Settled Peace?’, he says (page 189),

The subsequent ‘dislocation’ [of the peace process] allowed alternative political discourses, such as those of new unionism or the PUP’s emphasis on communality and the particular experiences of Protestant working class communities, to be heard.

In part at least, this marked an attempt to realign the frames of interpretation as new unionism sought to reposition its politics around a more inclusive form. For some this alternative frame did gain a measure of credibility within unionism. New constructs of unionism, however, cannot be forced into a position of dominance, especially if the majority of those who claim unionism see this as an illegitimate articulation of their central beliefs. Thus, the fate of both new loyalism and new unionism was to remain at the margins of political life, seen by the majority as unable to represent unionism’s core values.

More specifically the articulation of new unionism and new loyalism, promoting ideas of sharing responsibility and cultural pluralism, ran counter to the everyday understandings and experiences of many unionists. The DUP interpretation thus became more creditable within unionism because it drew directly on existing collective memories and broad cultural frames that are understood and believed by a majority of unionists.

While I think there is some legitimacy to McAuley’s characterisation of the DUP as offering insurance policy politics, the book doesn’t adequately consider the extent to which the DUP may have itself changed and incorporated some ideas, policies and discourses from new unionism or new loyalism. I think that the DUP has done so, at least for some audiences (for me the more interesting question is whether such change is cynical or represents a genuine change of heart). For instance, I recently took students on our Master’s in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation to hear Ian Paisley preach at Martyrs Memorial Church. When he graciously invited the students to speak with him after the service, what he said could easily have been mistaken for a form of civic unionism. Neither does the book get much into the nitty-gritty of the way the DUP has strategically played the electoral system to its advantage as well as moderated some of its policies – ground that has admittedly already been ably covered in Christopher Farrington’s work.

Unionism’s fixation on the constitutional arrangement is historic and understandable. McAuley’s book claims that unionism has not moved very far, if at all, beyond the constitutional question and that this can slow down the fermentation and dissemination of other political options and ideas.