When danger’s past, look to the future…

Alex Kane argues that the LoveUlster is looking in the wrong direction. He doesn’t doubt it’s well intentioned. But he argues that rather than rehearsing old fears, it should have set out to extoll the virtues and examine the positive challenges of maintaining Northern Ireland’s link with Britain.By Alex Kane

Are you convinced that there is a conspiracy to bring about a United Ireland? Do you believe that Ulster is at crisis point? Are you prepared to pledge yourself to “…resist by any lawful means possible, any further erosion of my Ulster Heritage and Culture”? If you can answer yes to those questions, then you will undoubtedly be signing up to the newly launched Love Ulster Campaign; complete with its heavy-handed blend of Protestant revivalism, naked sectarianism and good old fashioned Unionist paranoia.

There is clearly evidence to support the view that the British and Irish governments have pursued a very one-side political agenda since the late 1960s, preferring to appease republicanism rather than promote unionism. But the plain fact of the matter is that Northern Ireland remains within the United Kingdom. After three decades of appalling and often entirely gratuitous violence, the pro-Union majority remains as solid as ever. Oh yes, we indulge in pointless and tiresome bickering with each other (and am I the only one who is sick to death of the never-ending point-scoring spat between the DUP and UUP?), but we retain an absolute and unambiguous commitment to our membership of the United Kingdom.

That commitment hasn’t been shaken by bombing, intimidation, ethnic cleansing, government spinelessness and republican propaganda. The IRA has achieved nothing. Sinn Fein has accepted partition and recognised Northern Ireland as a legitimate political entity. The Irish Government, on the referendum instructions of the Irish electorate, has abandoned Articles 2 and 3 and the pretence of territorial interest. The only way it is possible to create a United Ireland is through a majority vote in Northern Ireland, and that majority will not exist for decades, if at all.

All that said, it remains the case that the British Government in particular regards it as essential to persuade Sinn Fein/IRA that it has something to show for thirty years of terrorism. And if that involves rubbing unionist noses in the dirt then so be it. If it means disbanding the RIR then so be it. If it means bringing home the Colombia Three, then so be it. If it means almost instant demilitarisation, then so be it. In other words, it often looks as if there are no limits to which the government will not go in order to appease the IRA.

But that is something over which unionists have no control. We can complain about the blatant injustice of it all—and this column has done so, on many occasions—yet we are not in a position to stop it. And that being the case, we must not allow ourselves to be manipulated into a position in which our outrage is misunderstood and exploited by others. Gesture politics, be it the handing back of medals or the resurrection of the Ulster Covenant, has no effect upon government thinking. Indeed, the reverse is the case; gesture politics makes it easier for Gerry Adams to convince his grassroots that unionism is thoroughly demoralised.

No British Government can unilaterally end the Union or expel Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom. Edges may be blurred and Anglo-Irish links set in legalistic cement, but the Union itself remains. We need to remember that fact. We need to remind republicans of that reality. What we must not do is box ourselves into some sort of self-fulfilling doomsday cul-de-sac. This is not 1914 and we don’t have a national party willing to go down to the wire for us. We have a case to make and a pro-Union cause to promote to our own people and to our fellow citizens across the UK.

My problem with the Shankill Mirror and the Love Ulster Campaign is the entirely negative approach it has adopted. Its starting point is conspiracy and its conclusion is a rallying call which dates back to the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320. For good measure it includes the view that “…the Troubles started in 1969 when the Catholic community, aided, abetted and fuelled by the IRA, attacked Protestant areas…and even today, as I write this piece, Protestant homes are being attacked all over Northern Ireland on a nightly basis. The media and the PSNI hide these incidents from the general public.”

As I have argued before in this column, there is a need for new thinking and unity of purpose within unionism; but the Shankill Mirror’s wallow in self-pity, milking of grief, and free-rein hysteria, is not the way forward. Resorting to the mantras of a bygone and supposedly golden era, to the exclusion of a realistic programme or a clearly defined strategy, does a disservice to unionism and to the victims of republican terrorism.

Unionism stands as firm today as it did when the Ulster Unionist Council was formed in 1905. Unionists haven’t gone away and we aren’t going to go away. I remember, with both pride and affection, those members of my family and my own friends who have been victims and casualties of terror. The Shankill Mirror would have performed a more useful service had it blown the trumpet for the Union rather than sounded what appeared to be a last post.

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 3rd September 2005