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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  • Greenflag 2

    Indeed – ideological history is littered with inhumane examples of people being forced into political , social and economic behaviours determined by ideological straitjackets which at the end of the day turn out to be just another failed ideology . In today’s world it’s the ideologically minded functionaries of international financial capitalism who do the ‘ dirty ‘ as it were . Just now I read UBS and Deutsche Bank have to pay fines of several billion dollars for the now all too normal ‘misappropriation ‘ of their clients funds and another Libor interest rate fixing conjurer is freed of all charges .

    In your grandfather’s time ‘ideology ‘ of the political variety was gospel i.e the whole truth and nothing but the truth . And mankind’s future was settled as between Stalin’s totalitarianism or Hitler’s racial fantasy world .
    We see today particularly in the USA the same old tired ideologies reawakening although in modern garb . Meanwhile the ‘ideology ‘ of globalised commercialism continues apace turning into mush any opposition that might stand in it’s path .

    Three steps forward two back as usual 😉 Note after today I’m off slugger for at least a week .

  • Greenflag 2

    Revival periods tend to exaggerate whatever is being revived . No less true of politics or cultural movements or religion . The Irish revival period was no different . Eventually it reverts back to a norm . The one track mind is comfortable in its rut until the world turns and then it’s either adapt or dig deeper . Those who dig never get to the bottom for there isn’t any 😉

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I will endeavour to make the most of your final hours Greenflag (for a week….).

  • Tochais Siorai

    Thank you, sir.

  • Roger

    Can’t disagree with that. Fair enough.

    But at the time, you said something different…You said:
    “Be honest -You are not Irish…”
    And that is something I could not agree with. Perhaps you’re retracting that now. I’m not sure.

  • Roger

    I might have been too subtle…I said I don’t know any SOUTHERN Irish people. I’ve never met one in Dublin either.
    I don’t really disagree with what you’ve just mentioned. I share a couple of points (pretty obvious ones I guess):
    – “from 1800-1916”, those Irish you mentioned were living in a jurisdiction called Ireland….today most of the descendants of those people don’t. The name of your jurisdiction is relevant in shaping identity. As I said at the beginning, I don’t know any SOUTHERN Irish people. But lots of people now call themselves Northern Irish etc.
    -“the main unionist parties both the UUP and the anti-Agreement DUP have accepted that birthright is available to all connected to this island”. I don’t really understand what that means. Ireland has citizenship laws. It’s hardly up to UUP or DUP to accept or reject them. I suppose they accept them the same way SF and FF and FG accept UK citizenship laws.

  • Roger

    Thanks, interesting to read.

    Though, as I read it, it rather supported the central contention of the authors of 100 years ago: that the ‘flag’ in question was invented as the badge of the Order of St. Patrick in 1783 and that as it was of convenient form, it was incorporated into the Union flag 18 years later…It was not an authentic emblem of the former Ireland.

  • Roger

    Thanks Brendan…They don’t have it on their website…Is there anywhere online I could take a look at it?

  • Roger

    That’s what I certainly thought. When I was younger, I was definitely of the view that the APNI as their name (is / was) was pro-Union in a mild logical sort of way, rather than in a loud cultural sort of way. I thought that was for decades part of their official position.

  • Brendan Heading

    The constitution is available to all party members. It doesn’t permit republication without permission, but I’m happy to answer any questions you have about it.

    There’s nothing in it that is especially sensitive so I’m not clear why they’ve chosen not to publish it. As I said above, the document contains no policy commitments – it’s all about procedural details of how the party is organised, how officers are appointed and so on.

  • Brendan Heading

    I think the policy in the past (ie before I joined in 1994) might have been something like “it is for the people to decide but we think the union is probably a safe bet for pragmatic reasons”. But that is not the policy now.

    But we could talk all day about the view that parties used to hold. A lot has changed in the past couple of decades.

    In addition, I see a bit of an interesting debate unfolding with the SDLP. Irish reunification is the number one policy position listed on their website, but they seem to be trying to play this down slightly. A good thing in my view.

  • Roger

    Thanks Brendan….I will accept your word on that. As you are a member, I would make a suggestion to you: that you ask the party to put the Constitution on their website. This seems like a very basic transparency move. Also, logically, a person should be afforded ample opportunity to read it before joining so they can reasonably determine if joining is appropriate. While I’m sure a person could get hold of it somehow, this is 2016 and having it on the website is the obvious, transparent way to do this.

  • Brendan Heading

    Believe me on this Roger – nobody cares about party constitutions. They are utterly boring documents and have no relevance whatsoever to anyone’s decision to join a party. No parties in NI have published them on their websites – I just checked.

    People care about stuff like policies, values and so on. They don’t care about how many council members need to be present to satisfy the quorum for a council meeting, or about the qualifications of those entitled to vote in a leadership contest.

  • Roger

    Yes, I think APNI, like every pro-Union party, accepted that it is for the people to decide. While tone may have differed between pro-Union parties, I don’t think any pro-Union party ever said otherwise? I don’t doubt that a lot has changed. But we are interested in history too on this website. No doubt you’ve spotted a lot of talk about history here! Personally, I suspect (but don’t know) that being pro-Union was a formal part of APNI’s policy position (and possibly Constitution) for a long period. I suspect also, from what you are saying, that at some point a decision was made to drop that position. I would be interested to know when it was made, to see the decision, and if the Constitution was amended to reflect the new position or if the Constitution was always a purely procedural document etc.

    To draw an an analogy: We know exactly when SF dropped abstention in Ireland and abstention in Northern Ireland etc. We also know exactly when SF changed its view on ‘Unionist veto/Principle of consent’. It would be nice to have transparency about APNI and when and how it crossed broadly comparable milestones.

  • Roger

    Obviously I don’t believe you. I do care about a party’s constitution and I certainly am not the only one. For example, the SF party split over an amendment to its constitution in the 1980s.

    I’m afraid this response seems very disingenuous, whether intended to be or not.

  • Brendan Heading

    I’ve already explained that the constitution is a procedural and not a policy document. You can take that or leave it.

    I wish you the best of luck in your inquiries to discover Alliance’s history. I’ve no idea what you are going to do with that information when you get it, but I guess everyone needs a hobby.

  • Brendan Heading

    Obviously I don’t believe you.

    Then our conversation is over.

  • Roger

    You purported to tell me that I and nobody else cares about party constitutions. Obviously I do care and know others do. I could not believe such a plainly untrue statement and plainly said as much.

  • Alan N/Ards

    Hi there Seaan
    The word “delighted” was probably the wrong word to use. I should really have said “amused”. Saying that, I didn’t take offence when it was used to greet me by my new Welsh friend.

    My cousin used to get annoyed when he was constantly called Paddy when in the army. He really didn’t like it. Of course, there were many NI soldiers who were called it, while serving. Probably the most famous was Blair Mayne ( a son of Ards). I don’t believe that it was used a derogatory way when he serves in WW11. I watched a Channel Five documentary about him about twelve years ago. The narrator’s description of him was ” to his men he was Colonel Paddy, to the enemy he was certain death”.

    My nephew had an issue a few years ago, on a training course with his work. He met half a dozen guys on the course and went for a drink with them after the training. These guys were nationalist from Co. Down. One of them started using the term “hun” when referring to him. He realised that it was a bit of banter. But the third time he was addressed by the term he simply told the guy that he would “bust his nose” if he called him it again. He didn’t use it again but it kind of spoiled the night for my nephew.

    You could change hun for Paddy and see why people get annoyed.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    And some need an obsession. Sure neutrality’s just sitting on the fence.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Hi Alan, I’ve met instances of what you’re referring to, and certainly heard of the army banter from my relatives who served in both wars, but what I’m referring to, and what my ex-Royal Irish Fusileer uncle was referring to, is the quite coldly agressive anti-Irish stance one can also quite commonly find. But perhaps even more importantly, the general inability of all classes over the water to actually see any serious difference between “British” Irishmen and “Irish” Irishmen!!!

    Yes, it can be good humoured, but it can also affect how the kind of elite people I’ve often met while working over there perceive their role in what Brendan Bradshaw frequently called “Ireland’s British Problem”. It can be quite chilling to find one’s self being cast in the Bosambo role in some ex-Etonian’s mental replay of “Saunders of the River” in a Wee Six context, where the natives require some real adults to guide them even if they have their own devolved assembly, gifted and supported generiously by HMG. Oh dear, what am I saying, if I continue to point to the assembly in my arguement, I’m starting to support their case!

  • Brendan Heading

    Well Roger, all I can say is that you and your friends have an interesting hobby. But it must be a rather futile one, as none of the political parties here publish their constitutions. I’m not sure how it is you cope with this. Or maybe your interest in dry legal procedural documents extends only to Alliance ?

  • Jollyraj

    AI “would also like to see Britain rid of the ongoing embarrassment, cost and potential for more violence.” And, presumably, would like instead for Ireland to be saddled with this. What spite have you against the Irish to wish cost, embarassment and violence upon them?

  • Jollyraj

    “Reasonably grounded in Judism myself”

    You are a disciple of the ramblings of Jude Collins?

  • Jollyraj

    Didn’t the Irish try to invade Canada at some point to further the ’cause’?

  • Jollyraj

    “Big house Unionisms willingness to stand idly by and allow the foot soldiers get on with killing on their behalf”

    In all fairness, if you want to make that claim, then the same would definitely have to be applied to Gerry Adams. Wouldn’t it?

  • Jollyraj

    Our very own version of Katie Hopkins, you say?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Have commmented once on his site, Jollyraj, but thank you for the kind spelling correction! Even on the MacPro my mind occcasionally runs ahead of my fingers, and I fail to notice these things. Shalom, (שָׁלוֹם)

  • Anglo-Irish

    Deary me, three days ago you commented that this was tedious and yet here you are again like the proverbial bad penny.

    How will it be embarrassing for Ireland to become reunited again?

    It is embarrassing for Britain that it is still involved in this last vestige of Empire, and has handled it with such complete incompetence that it has made itself look both ridiculous and barbaric internationally.

    As for violence it isn’t going to happen for years and when it does those who would be prepared to use violence will be in a very small minority and will be dealt with.

    With regard to cost Ireland is a well educated flexible nation that currently has the fastest growing economy in Europe.

    A combination of reduced handouts from Britain, continued rapprochement between the two countries and a better standard of living in the ROI plus the majority in NI considering themselves to be Irish will eventually resolve the problem.

    No hurry, whats a 125 years or so in the history of a nation.

  • Roger

    Yes, APNI’s constitution and history is the most of interest to me just now. It may seem terribly dull to you, but if you trace the twists and turns in a party’s constitution, you’ve a good chance of also identifying where it stands and when it took the turns it took along its road. I doubt very much that the ‘purely procedural’ APNI constitution you describe is the same as the one it had in 1970 etc. How has it changed? When did it change? When did some things that were in it earlier get dropped out etc.? Did it drop out controversial planks of its platform etc? Maybe the APNI has a party historian who could turn his mind to writing up about this. I touched on this in my earlier posts, but hope this helps you understand better. Final thought, echoing an earlier one: Fair enough if other parties in NI don’t publish their constitutions…Shame on them…But why can’t APNI stand out from the crowd! APNI’s supposed to be a bit different after all, isn’t it? If you’re a party member, I would think you ought to agree with me at least on that much.

  • shea_mus

    “Unionism is about inclusion, nationalism is about exclusion.”
    is that a fact?gerrymandering to save your status quo,treating nationalists as 2nd class citizens now buttering up to nationalists to fill the quota of your ever dwindling numbers?
    a stroke of a pen by david lloyd George in the good old days of british imperialism is slowly coming back to haunt the british establishment,look at the numbers in counties derry,tyrone,fermanagh and Armagh,no wonder ye cut it up to save “your wee country”
    try as hard as you will to be british’ in England you are just another paddy,loved by the edl and the huns in Glasgow!
    no orange in the butchers apron,you still think nationalism is about exclusion?

  • T.E.Lawrence

    “No Orange in the Butchers Apron ! ” Ah Yes …. That explains why them nasty and vile Loyalists burn that flag with Orange in it on their 11th Nite Bonfires ! They call this flag “Ireland’s Shame” Who knows they may have a point ?

  • Tochais Siorai

    Invasion might be overegging the pudding somewhat. But there were a series of raids on mostly British targets in Canada (with a degree of covert US support at times) by the Fenians in the 1860s and 1870s (somewhat ironically, these seemed to have played a part in uniting Canadians and furthering a distinct Canadian identity thereby loosening the links with Britain). But as you say the objective was to ‘further the cause’ at home rather than any desire to influence North American affairs.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The Alliance Party have shifted from the point of view that it’s no longer the purpose of parties to dictate the constitutional position, but rather the choice of the people from here.

  • Roger

    Well that’s one way of describing sitting on the fence on one of the biggest political questions….albeit pretty much a theoretical one these days. Naturally, I’m interested in the when and hows of all this but haven’t got anywhere on that. Like when exactly did they drop their pro-Union position etc.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I’m a republican too – just not an Irish republican. That is a tradition whose recent history is a total disgrace. And I’m afraid its extremist form of nationalist ideology was at the heart of what it did. it makes no sense to ditch the UK because of one form of nationalism only to embrace another one with an even more violent tradition and which clings onto justifying its violence even now. Be a proper republican and campaign for a more democratic, pluralist UK. Why limit your ambitions to your home province only?

  • shea_mus

    call it what you will lawrence,spin it whatever way you like,you are just another paddy on “the mainland”stuck in a time gone by polluting your neighbourhoods with medieval bonfires that celebrate what culture exactly?a battle played out in county meath by “nobles”?

    “ireland’s shame” fleg has a message we should all agree with,native and planters living in peace

    tide always turns my friend,you may wish your grandhildren will still live in the union,but look at how much it has changed since lloyd george made that strike of his pen!!

    im a proud irishman that has no interest in religion,i have friends from all corners of the island,we have a lot more in common than some care to admit,but by all means continue to burn the symbol of peace that was the original intention of that flag.