“Unionism Decayed 1997-2007” by David Vance: book review

I initially wrote this when the book was first published three years ago; whilst certain elements of it now sound dated, its basic premise that the period of 1997-2007 was a period of irreversible decay for Northern Irish Unionism can still be argued as a valid opinion.  My own feeling is that it did indeed herald the end of the traditional monolithic form of Unionism but not necessarily even the beginning of the end of N.Ireland’s place within the Union.

Anyway, the review, updated where required.



Unionism Decayed 1997-2007″ is a book described by its author, David Vance, as “lifting the lid on the catastrophic failure of political Unionism over the past decade”. Vance is, of course, the man behind the Tangled Web blog, which I guess most people reading will have paid a visit to at one time or other- suffice to say for several reasons, it’s not really my cup of tea.

This book, however, reveals a controlled depth of thinking which is not always apparent from his posts on his blog and is a compelling look at what he would probably term as a “traditional” (small “T”) Unionist opinion of the “Peace Process” and the political situation Northern Irish Unionism found itself in at the end of the tumultuous decade since the signing of the Belfast Agreement.

No player really escapes from the Vance onslaught: the UUP, the DUP, Vichy(!) Unionism generally, the protestant church leaders, the loyalist paramilitaries and the British government have all contributed, in his opinion, to the weakening of the Unionist “Community’s” links with the rest of the United Kingdom. His personality and personal history intertwines with much of that narrative and contributes to the overall understanding of his argument- for example in the chapter about the Orange Order, we learn that his family was one of those protestant ones “encouraged” by republicans to leave the Ballyoran Estate in Portadown in 1974. Ballyoran, of course, is now 100% “nationalist” and lies parallel to the “nationalist” Garvaghy Road. His opinion of the various Unionist dignitaries he has personally met over time is also occasionally enlightening and humorous- who would have guessed, for example, that debating with the erstwhile Upper Bann MLA, George Savage, was apparently akin to “pummeling a blancmange”?!

As someone who considers himself a “non-traditional” Unionist, I thought it would be a relatively easy task to pick holes in the Vance analysis but in most of the cases he dealt with, I found myself nodding in agreement.

Yes, the UUP were guilty of “sclerotic incompetence” as the “Peace Process” developed; yes, the DUP put and continues to put the “survival of the DUP” as opposed to that of the Union at the top of its priorities; yes, N.Ireland’s church leaders are, to a large extent, self-publicising “useful fools” rather than providers of  strong, moral guidance to their flocks and yes, loyalist terrorists were and remain a “toxic presence” who should not be “tolerated and in time, embraced” by anyone with a shred of conscience or decency. With regards the “bigger” players, that is to say the various governments, then Lord Palmerston’s quote should be borne in mind by all those who consider themselves pro-Union:

We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies.

Our interests are eternal and perpetual  and those interests it is our duty to follow.

The writing itself is of a high standard (certainly of a much higher standard than many of those self-anointed experts who write on Northern Irish political issues)- it is also one of those few polemical books that I couldn’t put down once I had started reading it. However, it did have a main style weakness in that I felt each chapter (devoted to one of the major players listed above), although they worked well in isolation, did not link together adequately enough to build the bigger inter-connected picture. It sometimes seemed that I was reading a set of extended blog posts (albeit well-written and constructed ones) rather than a cohesive analysis of the “decay” of Northern Irish Unionism.

More abstractly, having finished the book there was present a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction- yes, he is largely right in many of his assertions, or at least makes strong, logical arguments for them. Nevertheless, no solutions are forthcoming on how Unionism as a political philosophy (as distinct from “Community”) could now be pushed forward and very little recognition (apart from a few paragraphs in what appears to be a rushed final chapter) is made of the current dangers posed to our nation by the three simmering forms of nationalisms present in England, Scotland and Wales.

Two relevant quotes come to mind here, the first from Alexsander Kwasniewski, President of Poland 1995-2005:

…irresponsible criticism – the eagerness to expose and publicise a problem, unmatched by the willingness to propose feasible solutions – is perhaps the most common form of dishonesty in politics.

Granted most of Mr Vance’s opinions in this book can’t be classed as “irresponsible criticism” (they are closer to objective fact) but it would have been much more intellectually honest of him to also state whether there are feasible solutions for the problems and weaknesses he has outlined. Also as Unionists we, and particularly those like Vance who do possess the intellectual ability to push our argument forward to the undecideds and neutrals, should always bear in mind the words spoken originally by the murdered Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ylva Anna Maria Lindh:

Resignation is our greatest enemy

Unionism has enough enemies, in the wider UK as well as N.Irish context, without adding apathetic defeatism to the list and whilst it has made many mistakes since the creation of N.Ireland and more recently in the UK as a whole, the Union still remains, albeit in a much different form to that which existed in 1800, 1922 and 1997.

If we follow the Vance line from this book, however, we are now moving into a period of “carefully managed decline” and that would be biggest criticism of “Unionism Decayed”: the white flag is being hoisted up the mast whilst there is still a very good chance of winning both the present short-term battles and the overall war.

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