My Ireland, the Union, and the Ervine test

William Ennis is a member of the Progressive Unionist Party, he writes for us about nationalism and Irishness. 

“Citizenship within the United Kingdom has nothing to do with national identity, culture or religion.  It is about political Identity and loyalty to the concept of Union.”  (From William Mitchell’s document, The Principles of Loyalism, 1996)

I recently had a robust exchange with a gentleman who had become quite impressed by the Scottish Nationalist Party.  He argued that the onus was on unionism to now tender a counter attack.

I was, I must confess, quite annoyed at this proposed challenge.  My gut instinct was that holding the incumbent position meant that one’s opponent had the work to do.  But soon after this discussion an image entered my head.  It was the image of the late David Ervine the Loyalist paramilitary prisoner and one time leader of the Progressive Unionist Party.  Ervine is stood flanked by fellow unionists at an outdoor press gathering.  It was in the 1990’s as the peace process was first finding its unsteady feet.  Ervine coolly leaned forward toward the microphone and said, “Let the debate begin.  We’re ready.”  It was an inspiring statement despite its simplicity.  It was succinct and strong.  It was a challenge issued by a man who could not possibly have been more confident.  This was a man thoroughly at peace with who he was, and what he wanted to say.

The “what would David do?” test is one I frequently deploy.  As a progressive unionist it remains a vital political compass.

My argument for the union, as silly as this may seem, is neither political nor economic.  Which political powers, parties or individuals hold office in London and Dublin will change periodically, the economies of these isles equally so.  And so due to this periodic chop and change I consider it irrational to use these temporary factors as the foundation for an important argument the result of which could bear such long term consequences.  I may be interested in politics but my love is people, what they value, how they identify, and how they treat others.

Different groups of people, of many nationalities, countless cultures and a multitude of faiths coming together to live in a union which asks no one to abandon or apologise for who they are is for me a wonderful thing.  A union which has as its flag, a standard designed to incorporate the multiple countries of its composition, indeed (in sympathy with our Welsh friends) only a dragon could arguably improve it.

“There is no greater curse to a nation than a nationalist movement, which is only the symptom of a suppressed natural function” (George Bernard Shaw, written in the preface to John Bulls other Island)

I’d dearly love the world to move past the single identity nationalism which remains evident.  The notion that one could draw a line around the group of people to which one belongs believing that group to be better than all others I find ludicrous.  The belief that a human being can be evaluated by which lump of rock they may or may not have been born upon frankly offends me.  My distaste is not for Irish nationalism, but for nationalism wherever practised.  The notion however of multiple peoples coming together to become more than the sum of their parts, this I find heart-warming.

I am against nationalism, not Irishness.

Having grown up in an environment which led me to recoil in discomfort from anything of Irish flavour or association the comfort I now feel with the Irish strand of my identity is something I have gained with age.  It’s clearly not a Sinn Fein kind of Irish, not an ourselves alone kind of ultra nationalist Irish; but it is a welcome splash of colour which I find in no way inconsistent with my Unionism or my Loyalism, for my Irishness is not politically charged.  Why shouldn’t Ireland have its representation, Northern Ireland, in the United Kingdom?  As Ervine once exclaimed, “Why can’t I be an Irish citizen of the UK?”  So why give in to a certain strand of nationalism and surrender the Irish identity to those who oppose Northern Ireland’s membership of the UK?  They don’t own it.   My Irishness is not the same as that of Gerry Adams, but who is to say that his is the true type?  Who is to say there is a true type?  So I prefer W. B. Yeats to Roger Casement, I’m more Tony Novosell than Tim Pat Coogan, more William Mitchell than Bobby Sands, more Siege of Derry than Easter Rising – my Ireland has room for all of the above, and this is true while Northern Ireland remains in union with our brothers and sisters (often literally) in England , Scotland and Wales.

Union n…  Association or confederation of individuals or groups for a common purpose. (The Collins Dictionary, 2004)

With Northern Ireland is a member of the Union my Irishness is something I can enjoy, treasure, talk about, and explore.  It’s a rich and real supplement to the other strands of who I am, an East Belfast man, a Loyalist, an Ulsterman; because in keeping with our Union, one’s identity is one’s own; that’s my favourite part of being British.

I would truly hate to see Northern Ireland leave the UK.

A geologically decided, one government, one identity nationalism sounds to me to be constrictive to the point of discomfort.

I would frequently banter with a republican friend of mine that in the event of a united Ireland I would hide in her garden shed and eat her biscuits.  But it’s just that, banter.  I won’t indulge in scaremongering yarns of ‘what they would do to us if they won’.  Such stories would be inaccurate and unhelpful to the real debate, and besides, when relieved of the mess of conflict and the attitudes of nationalism (and, as I’ve said, it’s not just Irish nationalism that I dislike) all the various people’s here have one thing in common; we’re all really a decent bunch of folks.

The reason the gentleman threw me in reference to building an argument for the Union is that Union is the argument.  For me, being asked to tender an argument in favour of people living in union is akin to being asked to tender an argument in favour of the next sunrise.

Unionism is about inclusion, nationalism is about exclusion.

“As the liberal author, Arthur Aughey, has rightly noted ‘The idea of the Union is the willing community of citizens united not by creed, colour or ethnicity but by a recognition of the authority of the Union’.  The United Kingdom is thus able to facilitate pluralism whereas the Irish Republic, which links citizenship to a single national Identity, is inimical to pluralism.” (From William Mitchell’s document, The Principles of Loyalism, 1996)

I don’t believe you can be a progressive unionist and deny someone else their identity.  For that matter, I don’t believe you can be a unionist of any kind and deny someone their identity.

Whilst sat at a bar on holiday writing this blog an American gentleman with whom I’d become friendly observed my notepad whilst reaching me a glass of beer and quipped, “You writing an Irish masterpiece?”  I couldn’t help but smile.  I’m just hoping it passes the Ervine test.

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