“…laughing at unionists is not the revenge that Booby Sands had hoped”.

Today Newton Emerson gives the most plausible explanation as to why Unionism is finally out punching and out pacing political nationalism I’ve read since the start of Slugger O’Toole. It’s a real keeper. What follows is highlights. You really do need to read the whole thing

My Irish News colleague Fionnuala O Connor has asked why unionism seems comparatively “perked-up” beside “stale nationalism”.

The answer may be something many unionists do not believe in – evolution. As an unpopular people with an unfashionable cause, unionists live in an exceptionally harsh environment. One response to this would be a descent into victim-hood, like everyone else. But unionists are so unpopular that we cannot even get away with that, as revealed by numerous failed attempts.

So there is no choice but to adapt and some remarkable transformations have been witnessed. Consider the recent cases of flag protester Jamie Bryson and deselected DUP councillor Ruth Patterson, who have very publicly called for moderation and engagement, recanting the whole tenor of their political lives to date.

This has not been driven from within unionism. Quite the opposite, in fact – it is barely two years since Bryson was briefed by unionist leaders at the Haass talks. His transformation is due to an external environment of ridicule that made the failure of his tactics and the hopelessness of his position undeniable, despite all the flattery and celebrity that might have deceived him otherwise.

In contradistinction…

Republicans operate in kinder climes. Fringe figures far worse than Bryson are less likely to be mocked than to be honoured as the legion of the rearguard. At most, they will be told their cause is just but their methods are presently unsupported.

This expectation of respect extends well into the mainstream, as revealed by this week’s ‘Booby Sands’ misprint in a Sinn Fein election leaflet. The thin-skinned reaction of republicans to being laughed at, which in fairness was noted as much by nationalists as by unionists, reveals a worldview that cannot accept it has made even a tiny little mistake.

Of course, republicans have changed – but in the abandonment of violence, to take the most significant example, their rationale is only ever that they were right all along, becoming more right in retrospect as they go along. This is increasingly humoured by others, yet if mistakes are not acknowledged they cannot be learned from, making for shallow and dangerous victories.

Dangerous to whom? If I am reading Newton right the inability to unlearn from past mistakes is mostly dangerous to the project itself.  Unlearning past behaviours is a lot tougher than it looks. And in politics it’s almost impossible if all external pressures to change have been removed.

Perhaps Colum Eastwood’s admission that Nationalism has failed to find a means to realise its abiding ambition contains a modicum of evolutionary promise. The evolutionary rule of thumb is vary (by trying lots of new ideas); select (and test them); then amplify (just those things that work).

Nationalism has an awful lot of unlearning to do. Just go and read the whole thing.

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  • Brendan Heading

    I struggle to understand how anyone could see anything positive in the flag protests. There was huge disruption to business and daily life.

    But leaving that aside, what message did it send loyalists ? Once again they were cajoled onto the streets for a political purpose and came away defeated and with a bunch of young people jailed or in possession of prison sentences. Meanwhile politicians clinked glasses at having restored East Belfast to unionist control in 2015.

    Had we come to that decision on the basis of cross-community agreement it would have been different – but Alliance made a big mistake in helping one tribe impose an extremely controversial move on symbolism and identity on the other tribe

    There is no decision that Alliance could have taken that would not have involved “imposing an extremely controversial move on symbolism and identity”. Let’s review the choices that they had.

    1. Vote to keep the status quo. Not only is this clearly endorsing the supremacy of the union flag in what you describe as a post-GFA world, this is the position that Unionists couldn’t bring themselves to support on several councils where they were a majority, and exposed both Alliance and Unionist councillors to the possibility of legal action. It is the threat of legal action that caused unionists to switch to designated days on other councils.

    (asking Alliance to support a flag position that Unionists couldn’t support themselves is pretty far out on the hypocrisy scale)

    2. Abstain. The Nationalist motion to remove the flag entirely would therefore gone ahead and the outcome for unionists would have been even worse.

    3. Vote for designated days. This is in line with Alliance policy, is legally defensible, respects the flag and the position of the region within the UK. Sounds like a Unionist win to any sensible person.

    If there is a fourth option that I have missed, I’m more than willing to hear what it was.

    Please don’t mention “cross community” or “shared future” on the context of political unionism. It never understood, endorsed, or implemented any of those things.

    The City Hall is an important landmark for the whole of Greater Belfast, which is overall overwhelmingly unionist

    Being truly “cross community” means that a region being “overwhelmingly unionist” does not necessarily mean that the region’s important buildings must be exclusively dressed to mark that fact. You are using the exact same argument – to the letter – deployed by Sinn Féin to justify the naming of the Raymond McCreesh park.

    Losing the odd flag, having to put up with the odd TV or radio programme broadcast in Irish or the odd Irish street sign, are pretty small prices to pay in the scheme of things in exchange for substantial acquiescence on the question of partition from within the nationalist community. I’d suggest that Unionism should bank it.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Like I said, I would have avoided pushing the flags issue in the first place – not a good idea and there was huge disruption.

    Alliance had an option, which was to push for what they wanted but insist it couldn’t be done without cross-community consensus – or defer to a commission or other authority to make the decision externally. So vote against in that instance. I don’t buy that there would have been successful legal action as a result – that seems far-fetched.

    You see this as unacceptable because “this clearly endorsing the supremacy of the union flag” – but the union flag does have supremacy under the GFA. That isn’t a nice word but legally it is correct. I wonder sometimes if some nationalists actually read the document. It places NI squarely within the UK and confirms the complete legitimacy of that position. As such, the union flag is the undisputed official flag. The GFA did not agree joint sovereignty or anything like it. It also confirmed the legitimacy of British identity on the island. So it seems odd for nationalists to make out that the flying of the national flag from a public building is somehow really difficult for them to take. I get that it annoys some – but surely they simply need to ask themselves what they are actually annoyed about? A reminder of the fact NI is in the UK? But it is – it just is.

    That said, the spirit of the agreement, I would say, requires a de-escalation of the assertion of national identity on both sides. I would like to see the flying of flags generally massively reduced and that includes on public buildings. In principle, I have no issue with the limiting of flag-flying to specific days. What I would take massive issue with is nationalist parties demanding that the flag not be flown at all, as they did. At times, it seems they want to get around the Good Friday Agreement and strip Northern Ireland of any outward sign of British sovereignty. That would be wrong and a denial of what was agreed in 1998.

    You also say “this is the position that Unionists couldn’t bring themselves to support on several councils where they were a majority”. But it was done by the choice of people on those councils, from both communities, is the point. I’d like unionists in Belfast to have done that too, but they were entitled not to. There is no agreement that unionists ever entered into that forces unionists everywhere to limit the flying of the national flag. It would be good if we could all reach agreement over flags, but the reality is we haven’t done. If something is to be imposed, I’d have thought it would be a last resort, done at national government level by Westminster, in consultation with Dublin, after all avenues of negotiation over the issue have been exhausted. Not just imposed by one side’s councillors, aided by Alliance. We do need an agreement on these issue but in the meantime, a softly, softly approach is surely the best way to avoid confrontation.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    hadn’t seen that. Latest in this hilarious phenomenon of a group of well educated people mocking a group of less educated people for being thick … you’d think there’d be some pause for reflection but apparently not. Some of it is quite funny, but really, in this day and age, come on, a bit of self-awareness lads.

    I much prefer this gorilla: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=beCYGm1vMJ0

    “The production on that album is amazing …”

  • MainlandUlsterman

    isn’t it the lack of self-criticism which explains why nationalism has been so slow to come to this realisation though? I mean: it’s 2016 …

  • MainlandUlsterman

    but everyday unionism, as opposed to political unionism, is quietly winning the day among the apolitical public – by quite some margin. Does this not show that unionism has more to it than nationalists have allowed?

    People may be turned off by the personalities and the eccentricities of some elected unionists but the unionism – the idea that N Ireland is best off staying put in the UK – does seem extraordinarily powerful. This isn’t just due to nationalist failures. It’s because the core idea is a sound one and accepted by most as better for them and the place they live than any alternative.

    Every time a nationalist commentator or artist depicts unionism in terms of Orangeism (a small minority cult really, if an influential one), “triumphalism”, or any of the other reductive cliches by which we are misapprehended, it is irritating but it’s also reassuring in its unperceptiveness. It puts paid to any notions of nationalist cultural superiority for one thing. And as long as the negative caricatures of unionist people continue, we’re safe from too many of our number being persuaded towards nationalism. So I’m never sure whether I really want political nationalists to wise up or not.

  • Brendan Heading

    Like I said, I would have avoided pushing the flags issue in the first place – not a good idea and there was huge disruption.

    Alliance did not “push” the issue and had no control over the timing of the vote.

    Alliance had an option, which was to push for what they wanted but insist it couldn’t be done without cross-community consensus – or defer to a commission or other authority to make the decision externally

    No, Alliance did not have this option.

    The SDLP and SF brought a vote to the council chamber on whether or not to remove the flag entirely.

    So vote against in that instance. I don’t buy that there would have been successful legal action as a result – that seems far-fetched.

    If the threat of legal action was far fetched, then why did several Unionist-controlled councils vote to implement designated days ? Why did Unionists agree, quietly, to the designated days policy being introduced up at Stormont without complaining ?

    What I would take massive issue with is nationalist parties demanding that the flag not be flown at all, as they did.

    The polite thing to do, in that case, would be to credit Alliance with ensuring that the nationalist demand was not met.

    But it was done by the choice of people on those councils, from both communities, is the point. I’d like unionists in Belfast to have done that too, but they were entitled not to.

    The fact that they chose not to is the entire issue here. Unionists have no problem with designated days. They temporarily pretended that they did for electoral reasons.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    In fairness, i don’t know koko’s educational credentials, i just found him funny.

    From my years of working min wage jobs in Glasgow I would have said the educated classes had their work cut out for them in the humour stakes…

  • mickfealty

    How? You keep veering off at a tangent, rather than pointing out the weakness of the point at large. Which suits most unionist fine btw.

    A toothless and over self indulgent nationalism is grand for unionism. But I don’t actually think it is actually very good for NI.

    Fool me once, fool me twice?

  • tmitch57

    Trimble’s two biographers would both disagree with you and I will defer to their greater expertise rather than your biased view.

  • Greenflag 2

    Big “finance ” is not going to change until there’s blood on the streets and perhaps not even then . The established politicians have not just lost touch with large numbers of people they have become as remote as the Bourbons in terms of relating to the lives of 60% to 75% of voters and perhaps 100% of non voters . The reason why Trump and Sanders in the USA are winning out over establishment candidates is because they proffer ‘hope ‘ that they can change the ‘status quo ‘ .

    Expecting ‘big finance ‘ to persuade politicians to ‘change ‘ their tack is like expecting the wolf to decline the prospect of a new born lamb in favour of broccoli . The banksters who were too big to fail and too big to jail are now even bigger . They compete against each other and against the newly emerging giant banks of the East (China , India ) etc . I read just this morning that HSBC have decided after all to keep their HQ in London . One can only imagine what bendover acrobatics Mr Cameron had to perform behind closed doors for HSBC to give up their threat to quit London?

    As always and it seems history works no other way history will work it’s way from the bottom up . Pikes and pitchforks are no longer in vogue and boycott may again become popular .

    I would’nt write off Jeremy Corbyn just yet and in any event what is becoming increasingly clear is that the imbalances between capital and labour are increasing in western societies and that will only end in the usual way . Closer to home this is why SF are appealing to younger voters and why our established parties are losing ground . The same is happening in other western countries . Our politicians have run out of answers as they are forever on the rack (yes and often its of their own making ) by the forces of to call it by it’s simplest though misleading name ‘big finance ‘ .

  • Greenflag 2

    I’m not a biographer just an ordinary voter who makes up his own mind rather than leaving it to be made up for him by ivory tower academics . Even Alan Greenspan (the expert of experts in the economics field ) admitted he got the ‘human nature’ of the bankster class wrong .
    Trimble was not the worst NI PM but then he had some serious competition to claim that status.

  • Greenflag 2

    Good for you . If by ‘here’ you mean NI then the reason why there is no Pro Union party confident in it’s ‘Irishness’ is because virtually the entire political history of ‘Unionism ‘ in Ireland has been Anti Irish whether in the narrow sectarian simple anti RC sense or in the wider Anti any Irish political independence sense . So much so in fact that ‘Unionism ‘ in Ireland and in particular Northern Ireland could’nt bring itself to trust the British Government in 1922 and demanded it’s own local ‘Parliament ‘ i.e Stormont .

    As for Irish must equal nationalist or unionist must equal British I can agree with you . There are also those who feel they can be both at the same time or mostly one or the other . Denying British cultural /economic /historical influence in Ireland would be daft just as denying the equivalent Irish influence in NI was and still is in a few cases .

    I’m not all that ‘moved ‘ by the Irish or British ‘frolics’ as it were . I’m just interested in getting the politics of what we used to call democracy working effectively for all the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic . And I don’t see an NI State in it’s present format being the solution although I readily admit that what passes for government in NI as of now is as good as it can get . The current ‘fix’ may not survive an SF FM .

    As for those who are Irish who support the Union – I’m sure there are some .There always have been . But they have never been a majority of the people on this island not since Home Rule Days more than a century ago . I would’nt make the mistake of misjudging tolerance for acceptance of the current Union either . People put up with a lot and there is the natural inertia of the status quo – But tipping points arise and then it’s a new status quo as always .

  • Greenflag 2

    LOL : 10 out 10 😉

  • kensei

    To recap: the original point by Newton Emerson was that Unionism was flying because it had to respond to ridicule and had no sense of humour. I pointed out he’s cherry picking examples on both sides of that argument and two, you don’t really need to get into complex or clever arguments to cover Nationalism being in the doldrums – part cyclical, part demographics, part economics.

    Second, the idea that Unionism is “running rings around nationalism” is vastly overhyped and base don flimsy evidence. The majority of energy from Unionism is being generated internally – FST was won by a Unionist pact, and not by winning over Nationalist voters. This is a relative effect, a colour looking brighter because it is surrounded by a darker colour.

    Arlene has set out some red lines. Wow! It’s irrelevant. Neither the British Government or the paramilitaries will play ball, and she can’t control any of those promises. Most of the populace doesn’t care either way.

    I’m not contesting Nationalism needs a rethink about some things. i’m just contesting that it has much to do with positive Unionism.

    Not sure how much more on the point you need me to be.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I’d agree with you there. The best answer to intellectual snobbery is to compare 5 minutes banter from the average group of blokes having a pint with the level of wit around a table of university lecturers (no insult intended to my wife’s colleagues). They’re not humourless, it’s just that the humour is pretty third rate. You can tell their heart’s not in it.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    1. the option Alliance had was to vote against it, given that abstaining would have had the wrong result too.
    2. Possibly because it’s actually a sensible move – but not I don’t think due to the possibility of legal action, though I could be wrong there. It’s certainly news to me.
    3. But as pointed out, their action meant a change without cross-community consensus. I don’t think that’s the way to do things in future. Better to vote that one down then urge people to take a step back and try and agree a compromise that can carry both communities. It’s not Alliance’s job to choose between communities – we’re supposed to move ahead by consensus of both.
    4. I don’t think there was pretence there. I think they genuinely didn’t like being dictated to over flags. And I must say I didn’t like it either. It’s the dictating that was wrong, rather than the actual arrangements themselves – it was a process issue. What it all shows is that a compromise was indeed out there to be had, if only Alliance had shown more judgment. As it happened, it sent out a message that unionist concerns were not to be listened to. It set a terrible precedent for cross-community decision-making, with predictable results. No point blaming unionists for that, they weren’t the bull in the china shop.

  • Brendan Heading

    1. the option Alliance had was to vote against it, given that abstaining would have had the wrong result too.

    No they couldn’t, because the council had received advice that this could expose the council to legal action.

    But as pointed out, their action meant a change without cross-community consensus.

    Please outline an alternative route by which the flag problem would have been solved by cross-community consensus.

    I don’t think that’s the way to do things in future.

    I really dislike being lectured on how things should be done by a person whose starting position is a completely uncritical analysis of how the unionist politicians approached this matter. The lecture grates in particular given that councils which are under majority unionist control never make decisions by cross community consensus. They only raise consensus when they are in the minority.

    Secondly, cross community consensus did exist on designated days – unionism happily supported it in other councils or at Stormont. I would highlight that this consensus is a position which benefits unionism.

    It is completely disingenuous to withdraw from a policy that you previously supported and then cry “there’s no consensus” after you supported it for years. It simply has no credibility.

    I think they genuinely didn’t like being dictated to over flags.

    Yet they raised no complaint about being dictated to up at Stormont, and they raised no complaints about being dictated to by the law on the councils where they voted for designated days. It’s awful funny how that works.

    s the dictating that was wrong, rather than the actual arrangements themselves – it was a process issue.

    At no point have unionists indicated, since December 2012, that they were happy with designated days and that the problem was caused by the process. I’m happy to stand corrected if you can find evidence to the contrary.

    No point blaming unionists for that, they weren’t the bull in the china shop.

    The two unionist parties circulated 50,000 leaflets in loyalist neighbourhoods containing highly emotive language about a flag being “ripped down” and you reckon they weren’t the bull in the china shop ?

  • mickfealty

    That first sentence is a misread. It’s about one thing and one thing only. Evolution. Everything else is pure symptom. The lack of a sense of humour out of some class of fear engaging in an evolutionary process.

  • Reader

    MainlandUlsterman: You can tell their heart’s not in it.
    Or; it’s difficult to dance when you think you’re walking on eggshells.

  • NotNowJohnny

    You seem intent on giving me history lessons, albeit ones that appear to support whatever point it is you are trying to make. I fully understand why there has been “no pro Union party confident in its Irishness’ in the past, however it is important to note that we now live in the 21st century where we do not need to be bound by the history and politics of the past. The reality is that an overwhelming majority of Irish people voting have supported a UK solution, at least as the best option for foreseeable future, while the Scottish referendum proved that being a unionist does not make anyone any less Scottish. I think we have to recognise that this is no longer 1916 or 1937 or 1974. So why shouldn’t there be a progressive pro Union Irish political party in the future? We could certainly do with a party in the Executive that is more committed to building closer and better relationships with our southern neighbours than any of the current nationalist or unionist parties just as we could do with one that promotes and represents the interests of Irish people at Westminster much more effectively than the current lot. The UK is a Union of Scottish, Welsh, English and Irish people so why shouldn’t this part of Ireland and the Irish people who live here be better represented at Westminster? You’ll be aware that the current crop of local political parties haven’t managed to deliver an Irish language act in either legislature even 18 years after the GFA. You do seem to be struggling a little to explain why a new pro Union pro Irish party is a not a good idea.

  • Reader

    MainlandUlsterman: 4. I don’t think there was pretence there. I think they genuinely didn’t like being dictated to over flags. And I must say I didn’t like it either.
    Designated days is a neat way to handle changing demographics, and a graceful acceptance would have been classy. Really, Unionism needs to recognise that it will lose some more battles while winning the war (note to self – find a different metaphor), and needs to stop squealing about it all.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I agree that designated days is a good way forward. But the process matters – and one side can’t be seen to be dictating to the other as happened with the Belfast City Council mis-step. The rules on the flying of the state flag seems to be an official, state matter and there should be consistent rules to cover all public buildings.

    The lesson from all this may be that it shouldn’t be decided at a local level at all – or there should be a very limited series of options from which councils may choose, perhaps. It’s a recipe for needless fall-outs, disputes and upset if it’s left to partisan ethno-nationalist politicians at a local level to joust over the flying of the state flag on an ongoing basis. It needs to be settled it at the top level and stuck by. There is too much symbolism at play to do anything else. That includes unionists – they shouldn’t be imposing over-enthusiastic flag-flying on others.

    But I do think unionists and Alliance were right to oppose the ridiculous nationalist demands on flags in the Belfast City Council case. Thank god they said no to those proposals. We can be grateful to Alliance at least for heading that off at the pass. Left to their own devices, the nationalist parties would have plunged Belfast into much worse, needless, trouble over flags which no doubt would have had an even worse expression on the streets. Bull in a china shop I’m afraid.

    They’re also kind of deluded about what agreement they actually reached in 1998. It wasn’t joint authority and it wasn’t some kind of stateless zone with no flag pertaining to it. Sovereignty is not for negotiation, it has been negotiated and it is UK sovereignty. Nationalist politicians just need to catch up with the reality of the GFA deal. They should re-read it: it may be not what they like to tell themselves it is.

  • Greenflag 2

    Yes some of us live in the 21st century others hark back to 1690 for several months every summer . As to why Irish people in Northern Ireland would’nt be better represented at Westminster by a new Pro Union pro Irish Party my answer would be they already have a choice of 4 or 5 or more pro union parties and while I commend unionist diversity in breaking from their monolithic one party state history -I’d suggest enough is enough for now .

    I did’nt say it was’nt a good idea . I would’nt deign to exalt the concept to idea status at all at all . More a dream but hey it might do a little better than the Conservatives in NI and may even attract 1 to 2% of the vote .
    At this stage of the great game it’s a dodo .

  • MainlandUlsterman

    you’re getting a bit ad hominem there. Firstly I’m not a supporter of any of the unionist parties, I’m Labour and Alliance is also close to my position. So the ‘uncritical unionist’ stuff won’t wash.

    You may be right on unionist politicians not seeking consensus, or may be wrong, I have no idea – but you’re talking to me, not them, and I didn’t advocate anything of the sort you complain of, quite the opposite.

    I have explained already that I think the flags issue shouldn’t be left to individual councillors to argue over ad infinitum and should be worked through and settled between party leaders at the top level, with mediation if necessary. So there is an alternative to what happened in Belfast.

    I find the arguments you put forward a bit unclear to be honest. You seem to be saying unionists had already agreed to the flag proposal of Alliance at the top level beforehand, because they agreed it for some other buildings elsewhere. So you are arguing for the same as me – an overall position on flags that should apply everywhere, rather than leaving it up to each council to have different approaches. So we’re on the same page there I think. Where we differ is in thinking that was already agreed before the Belfast City Council situation arose – I don’t believe it was. But I would like it to be in future.

    In the absence of that agreement, I think unionists had some justification in feeling they were being inappropriately marginalised on a major cross-community issue.