It’s salutary to see the scanty outside news coverage in advance of the Ulster Covenant anniversary focusing on a few hundred metres of territory around Carlisle Circus. The heritage of unionism seems reduced to rioting and bigotry. Many will agree, however unfairly. For the most part it’s about just another day of tricky parades management that provokes the uncomprehending, exasperated response from outsiders: “ But we thought that was all over.”
I don’t myself accept all of Robin Wilson’s too- negative reading of the Covenant and its context in events. Resistance to the political intolerable was deep rooted and not only stirred up by a self interested elite.” Home Rule all round” that is, for Scotland and Wales too, was a vague Liberal aspiration not a policy. What Ulster Day 1912 achieved in a phrase, was to assert the principle of self determination. But this was not easily or quickly accepted. Were Ulster Unionists “ a people?” Were they entitled to self determination? Dispute raged for generations. Here is good review of the debate in the south .
In any case the limits of self determination were exposed when it came to mean in practice, self determination by one side in the North, just as “the Glorious Revolution “ of 1688 had been glorious only for a Protestant elite. This was unionism’s tragic and fatal flaw of our time that cannot be cancelled out by any amount of whataboutery. The current sense of Unionist dispossession being anxiously pored over is exaggerated but they might have felt better about themselves much earlier had they conceded a generation before what would have cost them little: equality of rights and opportunity. Instead, they fell in with the beat of the marching bands.
De facto the south went along with accepting the northern State shamefacedly. But even at the first serious attempt to renegotiate the stand-off settlement of partition, at Sunningdale in 1973, the Republic could not quite bring themselves fully to concede northern self determination as one of their main contributions to the package; their statement stood alongside unreconciled with the British 1972 Northern Ireland Act substituting a Northern referendum on union or unity for the consent of the defunct Stomont parliament. The Irish Constitution was their alibi, though they promised to try to change it – and failed. It was only in the Good Friday Agreement a quarter century later that self determination on unity or Union was conceded all round.
The acceptance of self determination does not of course dispose of identity politics or remove the relativist nature of the 1998 agreement – what the Sinn Fein MP Pat Doherty has neatly called “an accommodation, not a settlement.” But it does challenge the two sides to emerge blinking out of the trenches of 1912 -22. “A shared future” right headed though it is, fails to inspire. What can the new Northern Ireland find to counteract the worst of tradition and complement the best of it?
While even its natural opponents might grudgingly concede a touch of admiration for the effectiveness of Ulster Day 1912, there is in truth little for unionists to celebrate in how they governed the place, even if we discount the more extreme MOPE criticisms. That remains a problem for them. Throughout the Troubles unionists moaned they were much misunderstood. Beating critics over the head, literally as they frequently did, failed to persuade. There was a unionist case but it had to be finely judged, and seldom was.
Confusion and incoherence are results of a failure of the majority DUP to explain their shift in St Andrew’s Agreement to full acceptance of power sharing other than by a final acceptance of absolute political weakness and party self interest. They might start by scaling down the rhetoric of unionist nationalism and embracing “British values” that are indistinguishable from those of the modern Republic. Only by reconstructing politically for more warmhearted engagement with their neighbours will they be able to claim the respect for which they crave. There are faint signs but they are far from strong enough.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London