Two coffees and a Highland wedding

To my nationalist and republican friends… I think you should reconsider your opposition to the Union, and here’s why…

A friend of mine recently threw out a question which stopped me in my tracks.

“Do you think there will ever be a united Ireland?” She asked.

She knew I was a member of a unionist party and most who do see no point in asking me such a question, but ask she did. Her voice suggested she was asking the question on our collective behalf rather than hers, as if it were something she desired not just for her, but for me, her friend – too. As she broke eye contact to add milk to our coffees I still hadn’t answered.

There are several things I won’t do during this discussion. I won’t belittle or mock our debate opponents (those who aspire to a 32 county Irish republic), such negativity is not only fruitless in terms of projecting one’s argument, but harmful. Slinging insults or name-calling is surely the sign of a weak argument from the off. I won’t simply lay out a list of everything I dislike about the goal of Irish Nationalism, my belief in the union is such that it can and shall be my sole focus. I won’t cite our country’s violent past as an argument either way. As awful as it was, it need not impede the future, there is nothing negative about what our union can be. I won’t refer to our debate opponents as enemy’s or any other negative term, if a unionist claims to want Northern Ireland to move post-conflict, as this one does, then the language of our argument(s) must reflect that. My unionism is based not on what the Union has or has not been, but what it can be. I am left feeling unsatisfied by victories brought about by circle the wagons politics. I want to champion the union, not merely defend it.

My background… I’m not a unionist convert, I have always been one. I grew up in East Belfast finding it bizarre that when on holiday in Blackpool the land-ladies of guest houses referred to us as the nice Irish family. London was my capital; the Union Jack was my flag. It was the one on the little plastic stick I was bought on the 1st of July as the bands came down the Newtownards Road. I would watch them, perched on my dad’s shoulders. I get that the Loyalist culture – which I love – is not everyone’s cup of tea. I also get that there are often sharp & real reasons for that. But I appeal at this stage to Irish nationalist readers to please park any negativity that this may evoke, at least until the end of this blog. I thank you in advance for this courtesy.

The Union Kingdom is an umbrella for many peoples of different cultures, ethnicities, religious faiths, political viewpoints, and national identities. It obliges no-one to abandon their culture, or that of their parents. It conscripts no-one into any political direction or narrow category. If you are an Irish person from Belfast, Camden, Edinburgh, or Cardiff then that is what you are. The British Identity is there for you to embrace as much or as little as you please.

As mentioned above, I enjoy the Loyalist culture, but the Union does not oblige you to. It doesn’t even oblige you to like it. Tolerance is only democratic & proper of course but one can be a unionist without becoming involved in any culture you find unappealing. The multiple peoples of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have between them so many cultures, and sub-cultures and so much of that fascinating life-story is shared that it would be ludicrous to suggest that anyone might be obliged into any assimilation as a consequence of their support for a broad sovereign partnership. The union belongs to us all, it can be what it must be to each of us. It can play as large, or as small a role in our cultural psyche as we each choose. The clue is in the title. United Kingdom. We can’t be United if we are all the same.

Later this year, I shall attend my sister’s wedding in the Highlands of Scotland. Having moved to Inverness to study nursing with our National Health Service she’s now quite the wee Scots lassie – morphing accent included. The wedding will be attended by my cousins from Birmingham, her husband’s family too shall be a summoned from across the UK. Isn’t it not only natural, but warm that such a family of ancient nations should have a constitutional acknowledgement of this union? I’m quite unaware of any family in our street who does not share the hugs and laughter of meeting up with their kin from across the water, often at Christmas. Why pretend this is anything other than what it is. Our union. Everyone’s.

The problems the United Kingdom will face, be they economic, criminal, or environmental cannot be realistically challenged as individual states, but as a union. I was a remain voter in the recent EU referendum. As a Unionist, many people would ask me why – assuming remain to be a position more in line with non-unionist opinion. My answer remains quite blunt. I wanted the UK to remain in the EU for all the same reasons I want Northern Ireland to remain in the UK. When different peoples work together they can become more than the sum of their parts. Countries in union will be sat down at tables together more frequently, discussing how to make peace rather than with whom to make war. To level the playing field of opportunity. To forge mutual respect between peoples even where history places obstacles. To guarantee the chosen passage of life for people such as my sister. I accept the EU referendum result because I’m a democrat. But I do hope a good relationship can be salvaged between the EU and the UK.

What a remarkable relationship the UK and Ireland can have, and what an undeniably grand role we in Northern Ireland can play in that potentially greatest of European partnerships. As Ireland’s representative in the UK. As Great Britain’s union-partner on the Emerald Isle. Couldn’t there be a role for the Republic of Ireland in the United Kingdom put on offer? A post Brexit UK-Ireland friendship pact would be a natural answer to many a problem, perhaps a conversation for another day. There is no bad news here. There is no reason for the drawing of swords. There is no reason for the branding of communities as them or us. The future can work if we really want it too. The UK will become what future generations wish it to be. The UK’s friendship with Ireland can be whatever future generations want it to be. No matter what happens, we’re all a decent bunch. It’ll be okay.

My chum’s question blind-sided me not because it was unexpected- although it was. It was because it was delivered with such de-politicised sincerity that whilst it didn’t make me a republican, it helped me understand why others are. The positivity which charged her sentiment however, can be summoned in droves for the exciting concept of union. In Inverness, no person – blood relation or otherwise – will feel foreign to me. My unionism is such that no person ever will. In Dublin, where my wife and I recently visited friends there was no feeling that constitutional politics infringed upon our friendship, there was no feeling of enforced dis-unity of any kind. The United Kingdom is something I want to work for everyone. I know it can, and I believe it will.

My argument may not have the hard, economic punches delivered by that of some unionists, or the deafening historic grandeur of others. But it’s my unionism. It’s how I feel. I’d love you to give it a try.

William Ennis

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.