Robinson: “Only those who can adapt to changing circumstances remain standing”

The following is the body of a speech given this evening in Dublin by Northern Ireland’s First Minister and leader of the DUP, Peter Robinson… The Edward Carson Lecture, “Reflections on Irish Unionism” in Iveagh House in Dublin…

Though a statue of Lord Carson takes pride of place in front of Parliament Buildings at Stormont, a Northern Ireland Parliament was an institution he had not sought. Though he did so much for unionism and Northern Ireland, he regarded the failure to retain the rest of Ireland in the United Kingdom as a massive loss.

Paradoxically his failure to achieve his preferred fall-back position of retaining the nine counties of Ulster in the Union probably – in the longer term – strengthened unionism.

Equally ironic the attempt by nationalists to confine the boundaries of Northern Ireland to much less than the present six counties, by hacking off large parts of the border counties, would have strengthened the Union even more.

Nor was Carson the inflexible leader that has often been portrayed. Rather, he was a man who was prepared to compromise and alter direction when the situation demanded it. When it became clear that all of Ireland could not be saved for the Union, he sought to maintain the historic, nine county, province of Ulster in the Kingdom.

And when that goal became unattainable he cut a deal that preserved the six counties of what he termed statutory Ulster as part of the Union.

He did not blindly pursue lost causes in the name of what would ultimately be self-defeating principle. His hope and belief had been that success for Ulster would thwart the entire Home Rule project for Ireland.

It is ironic that the one part of Ireland which in 1912 did not want a local Parliament, within the Union, was the only part of Ireland that ultimately got it.

Edward Carson was a giant figure not just in Ulster or Irish politics, but on the national stage. He held several key Cabinet positions. He resisted the urging of colleagues at Westminster to challenge and replace the then Prime Minister.

Remarkably, he is one of a handful of non-monarchs to have received a state funeral in the United Kingdom.

If I tell you the others include Winston Churchill, the Duke of Wellington and Horatio Nelson you will recognise what a testament this was to his place and standing in the life and history of the British nation.

He was a relatively rare, though engaging, conviction-led politician. He was a man who always put the case to which he was devoted above any self-interest. Those close to him accused him of lacking ambition for undoubtedly he would have risen to the top national office if he had sought that office.

But tonight, rather than indulging in too large a slice of history, I want to suggest that, one hundred years on, we – from the unionist tradition – the inheritors of the Carson legacy, have a real opportunity to build the kind of Northern Ireland which Lord Carson envisaged.

Edward Carson would not be what in today’s terms could be considered a stereotypical unionist. Though he became the leader of Ulster Unionism his origins are, of course, in Dublin. He defined himself as a “liberal” unionist. He had a thick Dublin brogue. He had leading nationalists among his close friends. Though leading the cause of Ulster he was proud to call himself Irish.

He wanted to keep Ireland united and within the Union and he repeatedly sought accommodation with his nationalist fellow-countrymen.

As part of the settlement Carson and Craig set structures in place to encourage harmony and co-operation between the two parts of Ireland. He would have regretted that it took almost a century for relations between the two new states to reach the level he had envisaged.

If we are to do the past justice we must see all, and not just some parts of the picture.

George Mitchell once remarked that people in the United States knew too little of their history while people in Northern Ireland knew too much. I suspect the truth is that too many of our people know too much of a partial and selective version of history, but little or nothing of the perspective of others.

You will have heard of Zhou Enlai’s response when Nixon asked the Chinese Premier for his views on the French Revolution which had occurred two centuries earlier. “It is too early to say,” he replied.

Well, in this case perhaps it is still, “too early to say” what the real significance of the events of the 1912 decade have been. But having, in this generation, achieved a well established political settlement and enjoying a new era of peace and community stability, I believe we can, for the first time, look back in a more objective and considered way than has been the case in the past.

There is no doubt the island of Ireland in 2012 is a world away from that of 1912 or for that matter the Ireland of most of the decades in between. For us the past really is a foreign country. Today, relationships between the United Kingdom and Ireland; between Northern Ireland and the Republic; and within Northern Ireland, have been and are being transformed.

It has not happened quickly or without considerable pain. That it has taken 100 years to achieve must be greatly lamented.

Her Majesty the Queen, speaking in Dublin Castle last year, rightly counselled us all to bow to the past but not be bound by it.

So before I turn to the issue of unionism today, let me bow to the past – to the heroes, the defenders, the brave and the wise. Let me briefly offer a few thoughts on the events of one hundred years ago from the perspective of a unionist from this century.

In doing so I acknowledge that even viewing through the prism of hindsight is not perfect in assessing the events of that time. In examining historical proceedings I am not an absolutist. I accept that just as there are many interpretations of modern day events so too will we find a myriad of opinions about this great passage of history.
So, unapologetically I will give you mine.

Looking back now it is easy for us to conclude that in 1912, with the changes to the powers of the House of Lords, it was only a matter of time before Ireland – or at least a large part of it – would achieve Home Rule or independence of some kind.

But more controversially, the benefit of hindsight should also lead us to conclude that the desire of Ulster to remain on the same terms within the Union – and to be prepared to fight for it – was not an unreasonable position to adopt.

The North-East of Ireland was peopled by an identifiably distinct people. Of course Britain could eject them from the Union but having done so Britain had no locus standi or authority to determine that Ulster should be incorporated within a united Ireland.

We should remember that today, the right of self-determination for the people of Northern Ireland is a fundamental cornerstone of the political process. Perhaps if the right to self determination, which is so widely accepted today had been accepted in 1912, the history of the last century might have been very different.

The signing of the Ulster Covenant and the events that were to follow were seen by unionists as a struggle for their very existence. As an endeavour to cleave to all they cherished and held dear.

The introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill represented the start of a most perilous period for unionism. For unionists, what was at stake was economic prosperity and religious freedom. At this point Ulster was the economic powerhouse on the island and there was a real fear that Home Rule would threaten the prosperity of the people of the north east of the island. Indeed, Carson believed that Ireland without Ulster would not have been economically viable.

Those who see the response of Carson and his fellow unionists as an over-reaction to Home Rule fail to recognise that the inevitable outcome of Home Rule was complete independence. Unionists in 1912 saw their very way of life as being under threat and, consistent with the modus operandi of the age, were prepared to go to whatever lengths necessary to defend their position.

The Ulster Covenant, the formation of the Ulster Volunteers and the importation of guns demonstrated that unionists were prepared to resist to the last in order to defend their constitutional position. The logic was clear. Carson and the volunteers in defying the government were compelling them to back down or do the unthinkable – send troops to force subjects, who were loyal to the King, out of the nation they loved into an arrangement they feared.

In taking these steps Ulster unionists were not on their own but had powerful and influential supporters in Britain.

However, the intervention of the First World War meant that any conflict between Ulster and the forces of the Crown was avoided and instead the men and weaponry which were in place to defend Ulster were used to defend the Empire. While events in Dublin in 1916 made independence more likely, events at the Somme were to make any betrayal of Ulster unachievable.

The Curragh mutiny demonstrated that the British Army was not willing to advance on Loyal Ulster. The game was up and a deal was eventually agreed. Ulster’s stiff resolve and its stoic unionist leaders had endured. Ulster had survived.

Of course, it was not only the unionists of Carson’s era who have had their backs against the wall. And it was not only the unionists of Carson’s era who formed resistance to British government policy. In more recent years – albeit that time and circumstances had changed the means of resistance – unionists under attack and pressed to accept that which would have been destructive of their citizenship determined that it was right to say “No”.

But that’s another story …

I want, this evening, to reflect on what unionism today can learn from Edward Carson and how we can ensure the inheritance that we have been granted can be secured for the next century.

One thing that we can be sure of is that nothing stays the same. In my forty years in politics it is clear that only those who can adapt to changing circumstances remain standing.

Carson recognised that, and the same is true of any identity or political philosophy. The key to continued success is to retain what is at the core of a philosophy, but not to become obsessed with what is peripheral or transient.

It would be foolish to imagine that unionism has not changed over the last century – or that it will not change further over the next. That is how it has survived and that is how it will continue to prosper. What is important is that it has retained that which is fundamental.

Partition vitally changed unionism. What was once Irish unionism – albeit with a separate identity for the north east of the island evolved to become Ulster or Northern Ireland unionism.

Edward Carson was unquestionably an Irish unionist, and while the legacy of Edward Carson lives on, it may be regretted that the idea of ‘Irish unionism’ in any meaningful sense, as historically defined, does not.

I consider myself an Ulster or Northern Ireland unionist not an Irish Unionist. The same would be true of the vast majority of unionists in Northern Ireland. That is a significant change not just from one hundred years ago but even from fifty years ago.

The change in identity did not come about overnight with the formation of the Northern Ireland state in 1921. Even as recently as the 1950s unionist Prime Ministers were comfortable describing themselves as Irish.

That identity continues to evolve in complex and fascinating ways. It is probably the case that most unionists will identify their homeland as ‘Northern Ireland’ rather than using any other term.

For many centuries, Ulster was a place apart in Ireland, but until more recent decades there was still a real sense of being Irish. I accept that there are some unionists in Northern Ireland who are still relaxed identifying themselves as ‘Irish’ though they are a minority.

Whereas Carson would have regarded himself as Irish and British I believe that most unionists today regard their identity as being from Northern Ireland and British. At the same time it is interesting to note that St Patrick’s Day is more widely celebrated across the community than has been the case for a long time.

The identity of what was Irish unionism has morphed into Ulster unionism, Northern Ireland unionism and even for some northern Irish unionism, but no matter how people define themselves the core of unionism remains the same.

As with any identity or ideology over time the true meaning or purpose can be obscured or even lost. We should remember that the unionism of Edward Carson was never exclusive or inward looking, though too often that is how the media has portrayed unionism over recent decades.

There are many reasons why relations between Northern Ireland and, what was to become, the Republic of Ireland deteriorated in the early decades after partition and there’s probably plenty of blame to go around. As a general rule people who see themselves under threat tend to be defensive.

That is a natural response and there is no doubt that events following the formation of the state, the increasingly belligerent approach of the then Irish Government and the threat of internal insurrection made it inevitable that the unionist leaders of the day would turn inward rather than reaching out.

Unionism in its simplest form is a desire to remain as part of the United Kingdom family. The precise reasons for that will differ. For me, it is a sense of history, culture and identity. It is support for the institutions of the state, the monarchy, parliament, liberal democracy and religious freedom. It is a way of life.

For others, who do not share that emotional attachment, it may simply be a belief that it is in their best social or economic interests to remain as part of the UK.

Yet again, there are some people, who, while supporting the present constitutional arrangements, may not even choose to identify themselves as unionists, because of many of the historical connotations that come with the term.

I believe that unionism will be strongest if all are accepted as part of a patchwork quilt of identity. Unionism is not a single homogeneous entity. It must be about opening up to new communities and building a broad and solid coalition.

In saying unionism must now reach out to others I am not, in any way, being critical of those who have led unionism before me. I believe what has changed is not so much the aspirations of unionist leaders but the existence today of a much more benign environment.

We now live in an era of peacetime unionism. The success of the peace process in the last five years has created new opportunities. The removal of the territorial claim, the IRA ceasefire, the acceptance of Northern Ireland’s right to self-determination, the establishment of stable political structures and the arrival of a sense of hope and anticipation have collectively created an environment within which we can all present our political philosophy – by advocating the positive virtues of our vision in a climate which allows people to weigh the strength of the proposition in the absence of the threat of violence.

I embrace that freedom. I have confidence in the attraction of my unionist vision of the future. I am convinced that it more than matches any alternative that exists.

Ultimately the majority must be able to determine the constitutional status of Northern Ireland but if we have learned anything in recent years it is that the minority must also feel secure within the arrangements, whilst maintaining their own right to seek democratic change.

I said earlier that identity continues to evolve in complex and fascinating ways. What is most interesting is not how people from the Protestant community, but how those from a Catholic background are responding to the new dispensation.
Separation over many generations has changed things for nationalists as well as unionists.

Living in a separate political jurisdiction with different cultural and everyday experiences is bound to make a difference over time. More importantly, I believe the fact that all sections of the population now play a full and active part in government has made a significant difference to perceptions of the State.

Whereas once Stormont was seen as the preserve of only one section of our community, today it is shared space. And for all the difficulties that we experience on a day to day basis while seeking to govern with a coalition of five parties, the importance of widespread buy-in to the political institutions cannot be overstated.

Make no mistake, I want to see our structures at Stormont reformed and normalised – and I want to see it done as quickly as possible – but it must be on a basis which can command cross-community endorsement. In doing so we must not undermine the widespread support for the institutions that presently exists.

The Stormont Assembly and Executive, for all of its imperfection is accountable to the people of Northern Ireland, and in many ways, has delivered better – in spite of the recession – than any of its predecessors.

For countless years there was a real fear on the part of unionists that nationalists would use their place in government to act as fifth columnists to bring the State down. And some nationalists still fear that given half a chance unionists would seek to set up an Executive and Assembly that would exclude and act prejudicially to them.

That unionist fear in the last century prevented modest reform in the early decades after partition just as it is probably true today that nationalist fears are inhibiting significant reforms at Stormont. If people want change then we must work to address those concerns.

Now that a settlement has been reached and the threat has gone we have entered a new political era.

Numerous recent surveys have indicated growing support for Northern Ireland’s present constitutional status and diminishing support for a United Ireland among Catholics. Any individual survey could be dismissed as an aberration but the wider trend is unmistakeable.

The 2010 ‘Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey’ is just one example of this growing trend. When asked, “do you think that the long-term policy for Northern Ireland should be for it to reunify with the rest of Ireland”, only 16% of the population and only 33% of Catholics favoured this option – and we should remember that the question referred to the long-term, and not merely the immediate future.

I believe that number is driven by the new political climate and our new relationship with the Republic.

I have said on many occasions that from a party point of view I want to see more Catholics supporting the DUP. I have no doubt that there are many Catholics in Northern Ireland who have much more in common with the social and economic policies of the DUP than they do with either Sinn Fein or the SDLP and I welcome some early signs of modest progress.

However, I suspect that the survey results do not point to an imminent avalanche of Catholics voting DUP but rather, outside party politics, to a wider acceptance of the present constitutional position of Northern Ireland and as importantly – their place in it.

That is not to say that they will feel comfortable calling themselves British or even defining themselves as unionists, but they see their best future as part of Northern Ireland, within its present constitutional context as part of the United Kingdom.

They might be classed as “no change” advocates. But is it possible that we are seeing the birth of a new brand of Irish unionism. A brand which is culturally Irish but unionist to the extent that they support the status quo of remaining within the United Kingdom. They may not yet, or indeed ever, identify themselves as such but if not Irish unionists in name – they are Irish unionists in practice.

For unionism to prosper in the decades to come it must be inclusive and not exclusive. I want to see a broad and inclusive unionism that can embrace all shades of those who support Northern Ireland’s present constitutional position. Unionism must reach far beyond its traditional base if it is to maximise its potential. That means forming a pro-Union consensus with people from different religious and community backgrounds.

When one reflects on the record of the last one hundred years it is remarkable the extent to which, for the most part, neither side sought to persuade or accommodate the other in a way which would have been in their own best long-term interests. Perhaps in the past circumstances contrived not to allow that, but today I want to see it change.

John Hume often said that the strength of unionists lay in our numbers and our geography. That is of course right but just think how our position would be strengthened if we were to reach out and draw into the ranks of the pro-Union community those who for whatever reason may have felt excluded or unwanted in the past.

This vision is entirely in tune with Edward Carson’s vision as he set it out on 4th February 1921 at the Ulster Unionist Council.

On that day he said:

“You will be a Parliament for the whole community. We used to say that we could not trust an Irish Parliament in Dublin to do justice to the Protestant minority. Let us take care that that reproach can no longer be made against your Parliament, and from the outset let them see that the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from a Protestant majority …

Let us take care that we win all that is best amongst those who have been opposed to us in this community … And so I say: from the start be tolerant to all religions, and, while maintaining to the last your own traditions and your own citizenship, take care that similar rights are preserved for those who differ from us.”

Whatever the factors were that combined to miss that opportunity in the past let modern day unionists put it into practice now.

For almost all of our existence unionists have been under threat of one form or another, but now in this generation we have an opportunity, free from threats, internal or external – perhaps not the first chance, but undoubtedly the best chance – to put into practice what Edward Carson visualized.

As a unionist my raison d’etre is the Union and I want to see as many people from all backgrounds supporting it too. But, we must ensure that all who live in Northern Ireland have equality of opportunity, whether they support the Union or favour a united Ireland.

I value the relationship I have with the present Irish Government – and though we will not always agree – I know we can work together to the benefit of our people. If I have learned anything over the last forty years it is that we will not have peace, progress and prosperity unless we can all benefit from it.

As First Minister I have sought to reach out to those outside my own tradition, not because it is expedient, but because it is the right thing to do. We have come through a period of conflict and upheaval and the pieces in the kaleidoscope are happily moving into place.

We have a golden opportunity to mould a new society before the new arrangements are firmly shaped and settled for future generations. That is the vista we now have. There is much that can be done and much that can be improved. I want to take advantage of this formative moment in a way that our forefathers could not and did not.

What I advocate is not some new variety of unionism but the unionism of Edward Carson – a unionism that can reach out and include those from every background. Maintaining Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom simply due to demographics should not be the height of our ambition.

I want us to create a wide consensus for our present constitutional arrangements. In this new Northern Ireland I want to see pro-Union support grow but in parallel I want to ensure that no one, whatever their political and constitutional aspiration, is left behind.

Edward Carson may now be consigned to the pages of history, but he still speaks to us today. If this generation of unionists is listening then let us work to broaden support for his vision for Northern Ireland’s future.

That vision of unionism, threatening to no one, open to all, living peacefully and in co-operation with our neighbours, will truly honour the bravery, the ideals, the sacrifice, the memory and the legacy of those who were counted when the challenge came all those years ago.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty