Alex Kane on how Unionism can learn from Sinn Féin

Are we seeing more signposts to the future of unionism today? The Newsletter’s Alex Kane has a piece out on “Unionism can learn from Sinn Féin” while it appears to suggest that, in reality, it is currently trying to learn from Fianna Fáil.

Kane trots out the same line about ‘cultural war’ that was raised at the field on the Twelfth  by the Orange Order. Somewhat diminishing the point, the BBC usefully led this story with Edwin Stevenson’s comments at the Orange demonstration in Derry. This ‘cultural wars’ ploy has also recently been promoted on Slugger by David McCann (of Fianna Fáil, although in FF’s dog without a collar mode on Slugger). Kane largely reduces matters to competing publicity and propaganda, bemoaning how, in his opinion, Sinn Féin are brilliant at this (mimicking another Fianna Fáil meme) and how:

Unionism used to be brilliant at propaganda and organisation. If you don’t believe me then read Alan Parkinson’s ‘Friends in High Places’, a superb account of how we resisted Irish Home Rule. There’ll you’ll see how all the strands of the pro-Union family agreed on a strategy and then promoted that strategy.

He goes to state that:

Symbols, emblems, ceremonies and mantras are important to unionism and, given our history, we are right to remember and celebrate our past. But I sometimes think that we remain too focused on the past and on the victories of long ago. So much so, in fact, that we neglect the ideology, strategy and planning required for the future.

Nowhere is it apparent that Kane comprehends two key points. The first is why some people might take offence at the litany of actual behaviours evidenced around the Twelfth (see the summary Chris put together), such as that finale of the Woodvale parade where Belfast No 2 District and the Pride of Ardoyne band sang the Famine Song to finally demolish the weak pleading offered last year. The closest he gets is in referencing the “Symbols, emblems, ceremonies and mantras” of unionism/Orangeism without specifying what he is referring to.

Secondly, there is a significant difference between the delivery of a message and the substance behind it. Lauding “how we resisted Irish Home Rule” doesn’t stand up to any awkward historical scrutiny if it is taken that that ‘resistance’ was not merely in some form of media competition. Resisting Home Rule included what most contemporaries referred to as a pogrom against Catholics in Belfast from 1920-22 (with a briefer attempt in Derry and occasional violence elsewhere) which the local media did its best to dismiss. It wasn’t that a pogrom didn’t happen, simply that the Newsletter, Belfast Telegraph and Northern Whig did their best to cover it up and explain it away. There is a parallel here to deflecting objections to ‘symbols, emblems, ceremonies and mantras‘ that elsewhere would be deemed to represent hate speech (in that awful Orwellian phrase). Nor is this some recent phenomenon. The first violence on the 12th July in Belfast was in 1813 in North Street and the history of the city is (literally) littered with deaths and destruction associated with what is euphemistically referred to as the Orange demonstrations. So it is not like violence and the Orange Order has only a brief history.

Symbollically, Kane’s use of the phrase unionism/Orangeism underscores his limited vision here (“Unionism/Orangeism needs to become more sophisticated in its thinking and more subtle in its strategies“). Once you remove that slash, it seems to present an existential crisis for Unionism and Orangeism as there seems little point to the existence of one without the other. Given the shared phraseology, the coalescing of unionist/Orange and Fianna Fáil interests in opposing Sinn Féin are becoming as obvious as ever. The disconnect between reality and Fianna Fáil, the Grand Lodge and DUP dreaming of ‘cultural wars’ was being underscored by the likes of the peaceful accommodation of the ‘Orange demonstrations’ in Derry or Sinn Féin minister, Carál Ní Chuilín discussing the possibility of public funding for band uniforms. Nor is Fianna Fáil, with it’s comic ‘the republican party’ sidebar, snuggling up to unionism/Orangeism either particularly new or in any way subtle (e.g. David McCann’s insistence that ‘support for reunification is falling in Northern Ireland‘ when the electoral evidence clearly suggests the reverse).

Helping shuffle each others’ deckchairs around their own private political Titanics may seem mutually advantageous, but the reality for people in Belfast and other areas of the north (and south) are very different. With Fianna Fáil grasping to regain the necessary political control to once again reward its client-base, it’s interventions in the north are clearly dictated solely by electoral desires south of the border. Oddly too, unionism/Orangeism’s worry isn’t really Sinn Féin: it is those in the deprived working class loyalist areas that it relies upon to threaten violence in the name of unionism/Orangeism often to no apparent advantage to those areas. Thus both Fianna Fáil and the leaders of unionism/Orangeism invoke a phoney ‘cultural war’ hoping to evoke a sufficient reaction to protect their own narrow interests. It is not unionism/Orangeism that needs to learn, it is those in the disadvantaged loyalist areas that have no leadership that need to learn and that is what unionism/Orangeism fears the most.

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