More than a wider vision of unionism is needed to take us through Brexit

This article in the Belfast Telegraph by John Wilson Foster is an honourable fret about unionist identity in the light of Brexit.  Foster’s answer to the problems of Brexit appears to lie in the creation of  a wider unionism closer to British norms. So far so good, but only so far.  In his own terms Foster poses the familiar question that has puzzled unionists forever: why is Irish nationalism viewed as   “good” and Ulster “nationalism” bad?

One sentiment is permissible, laudable, even thrilling. The other is naff, infra dig, counter-poetic.

He makes the case for historic unionist paternalism and presents the post-partition unionist government in the best possible light in the form of the “step by step” policy of social reform in Britain. Contrast that with the DUP today.

His explanation is in the loss of wider unionist participation in politics.

 But with everyone who could make a difference away on business, we are left with those minding the Union store who (with notable exceptions) have neither the historical and cultural knowledge, nor eloquence to earn our confidence.

This has allowed the cartoonish reduction of unionist culture to bonfires.

Unionist culture is bigger than bonfires, bigger than Sinn Fein, bigger than Ireland. One of my objections to a united Ireland is that it would return me from the larger to the smaller.

Foster blames this undoubted narrowing of unionism on the departure of the unionist middle classes from active politics.   While partly true, this abstention is part of the much wider  change, of the end of the institutional discrimination that perpetuated unionist patronage  during the 50 years of unionist  government, the development of  human rights law along with power sharing, and social transformation including the expansion of the catholic middle class.  Because of the understandable  preoccupation with working class problems and politics, this transformation is hard to define and is under-examined, perhaps because it lacks a comparable political focus.

How much better for all it would have been, if  more had twigged down  the decades that reform was in unionists’ long term interests and in any case, was irresistible in the end. Unionism’has always conceded reform, it has never initiated it.

The old foot dragging is alas, as alive and kicking as ever.

Foster turns his attention south as he contemplates the shrinking effect of Brexit politics.

I suspect the Dublin intelligentsia feel the same way because they too are integrated into the culture of the archipelago. That is why they are panicked over Brexit: fear of being culturally separated from the UK.

And with all due respect, EU membership is not the answer to our Irish dilemma. (Though we must not have a hard border again.)

The European Union project is to shrink Europe to a stifling unitary bureaucracy.

Anyone who believes Brexit means by definition turning one’s back on European or Irish cultures, is, frankly, a dunce. It’s rather the desire for elbow room and fresh air.

An impelling vision of the Union would reset the relationship between the autonomy of devolved administration and the rights of UK citizenship. The latter should trump the former when it matters.

But this is surely only one aspect of a developing relationship.  The  “Dublin intelligentsia” have long been free  to chose their relationship with British culture and are manifestly not dominated by it. They can turn inwards to the culture of the republic quite distinct from that of the North or outwards to America and beyond without passing through Britain.

For the North, any “impelling vision” will surely have to embrace a modern version of  Irishness that is  richer than any possible political deal over the Irish language.   I have a hunch  that many  Protestants in the middle class at least are getting there, although setbacks are always possible. The challenge is for unionist politics rooted in populism and  historic fear to catch up.

And the Catholic middle class? Since 1998 they have accepted a Union reformed by the end of institutional discrimination and with strong links to the south in the interests of leading a normal life. Many of them have absented from politics too or are part of the shrinking of the SDLP. If  a literal and psychological border is re-created by Brexit they may think again,  emboldened by the increase of  Catholic numbers and by the approach of governments in the Republic which are more sensitive to northern interests generally than  governments in London.

The longer term fate of a Union worth having lies as much with the Catholic middle class as with unionists, whether as a narrow majority or a large minority.  This is the big fact that Unionism will need to address. Brexit makes it massively more complicated but more insistent than it was before June 2016. Foster’s vision of a more recognisably British unionism would be an improvement, but it is not enough.

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  • Oggins

    A very simple view point on history

  • Karl

    OK. I’ll go.
    “The (We) Europeans have a lot to answer for.”

    What exactly are we answering for? The actions of individuals?The actions of government mandated actions? The actions of non mandated but subsequently approved actions? Actions against the laws of the time or todays standards? Who are we answering to? Is there to be a practical outcome after the answers have been given and who pays for this?
    My outlook maybe simple but yours is complicated in the the extreme.

  • sparrow

    In what way?

  • Aodh Morrison

    Really? You don’t say?

    The point I was addressing was the attitude that caricatured unionism* in simple sectarian stereotypes: unionism = bonfires (period). A point of view straight out of the Dev songbook.

    *let’s talk semantics for a moment. ‘Unionism’ is used on occasion as a catch-all term to include lots of different viewpoints with the only (at times tenuous) link being an antipathy or ambivalence towards Irish nationalism.

    It’s mostly used in those circumstances to score a sectarian point – as it was in this thread. Sometimes it’s combined with ‘political’ in an attempt to take the rough sectarian edge off but it’s often so broadbrush that the sectarian intent remains clear.

  • sparrow

    Not ‘all’ that one requires to start a nation, surely. Ask yourself this: are there any circumstances in which NI could make a unilateral declaration of independence from the UK? The answer is obviously no. Economically it couldn’t survive and politically it would implode and descend into chaos and violence within weeks. NI is therefore not a nation capable of self determination. It is a region of either the UK or Ireland, depending on your politics.

  • Karl

    I think Dev was used to a monolithic, confident unionism that ran the state. Im not sure he would recognise the UDA sponsored drink fest as bonfires became the most recent battleground for the loyal sons to fight on.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Now you’ve moved the goalposts.
    Just because NI would make a balls of independence does not mean that my assertion regarding the main ingredients for nation hood is wrong.
    If Munster or Northumbria declared independence would you judge them purely on GDP?
    Are there not many countries around the world that were formed following colonisation that are economic basket cases?
    Is Singapore a successful ‘nation’ in your eyes?

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Wasn’t the point that beyond the political identitarian aspect of Ulster Unionism there’s not much else to it?
    I’m quite happy to scoff along with you at the ‘hijacking’ of diddly aye culture that emerged in the period bridging ceasefire to political settlement. But of course in many ways it is similar to Ulster Unionism’s expressions and assertions of ‘culture’ and others’ responses to it. They’re both cut off from the homelands, they both face opposition, they both face attempts to curb their expression and as a result look fossilised through isolation and entrenchment.
    The cultural war isn’t much more than school playground competition and its only purpose is to instill a sense of confidence and pride in identity internal to each tribe. However, each identity is looking increasingly contrived and manufactured and also shows the characteristics of being under threat and that sense of threat is also contrived and manufactured.
    The problem with culture common to each tribe is that neither comes from a particularly confident or self assured position when it is used for political point scoring. Both are used by their political exponents as acts of aggression towards the other.

  • sparrow

    I’m not disputing that some of the ingredients for nationhood are present. I’m saying that a few crucial ones are missing, most notably the ability to exist independently of a larger state. The same would apply to munster and Northumbria. I don’t know a lot about Singapore, so l’ll pass on that one.

  • sparrow

    What distinguishes it from genuine nationalism is the ability to determine its own future apart from a larger state. Not only is this ability lacking, but so too is any desire for an independent existence. Neither unionists or nationalists would back any plan for an independent NI.

  • Zeno

    Can you post it on this thread as it has been pointed out we are off topic on this one.
    https://sluggerotoole.com/2017/06/29/the-rocky-road-to-dublin-for-northern-nationalists/

  • siouxchief

    No prob, just did this second, same post

  • Zeno

    It hasn’t appeared. Post it at the top.

  • Nevin

    “the approach of governments in the Republic which are more sensitive to northern interests generally than governments in London.”

    That would be northern nationalist interests in respect of Northern Ireland whereas they tear strips out of SF reps in the Dáil.

    I don’t recall any Slugger blogger exploring the role of Irish government officials in the day-to-day governance of Northern Ireland whether they be from the Foreign Affairs or Justice departments. I don’t know when UK officials moved out of the formerly shared space in the BIIC Joint Secretariat but the new accommodation in Linenhall Street only has offices for the Irish ones:

    To ensure the safety of those who work in the office, the accommodation is
    arranged around a ballistic line, comprising of steel reinforced walls and ballistic rated screens, which has been designed to create a secure line between public and staff areas. Access through the secure line and indeed, throughout the office is monitored and controlled via an intricate access control system.
    .. BRITISH-IRISH INTERGOVERNMENTAL SECRETARIAT, DEPARTMENT OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND TRADE, OFFICES FIT OUT WORKS, LINENHALL STREET, BELFAST

  • Ciarán

    Is that the same office that they coordinated the Rathlin Ferry conspiracy from?

  • hollandia

    Either way, ignoring the working class is a recipe for disaster. We’ve seen that repeatedly throughout the troubles. The people who will get mobilized by any threat to their position won’t be the middle class (though they may be doing the rabble rousing).

  • Kevin Breslin

    I suspect the Dublin intelligentsia feel the same way because they too are integrated into the culture of the archipelago. That is why they are panicked over Brexit: fear of being culturally separated from the UK.

    Seriously doubt this narrative, the culture of the archipelago was neither under threat from the EU or Brexit.

    The idea that Irish people would be banned from going to Celtic games, travelling to Glastonbury watching the BBC because it’s tied to an “Anglophobic” continent is outright British nationalist nonsense.

    Right so France and Italy are going to quit the Six Nations, Vettel and Alonso are going to refuse to race in Silverstone, Danes are going to refuse to sell Carlsberg and Lego to the Brits, and Prague and Amsterdam will turn away British tourists. Maybe the 21 NATO allies within the EU should just leave the Alliance because Britain doesn’t want them any more, and they don’t care for Britain.

    There’s an archipelago culture, but then Scandinavia has a peninsular (bipenisular) Nordic culture and having Norway and Iceland outside of the European Union does nothing to change that.

    The two main problems with the British approach to Brexit from Dublins’s point of view are:

    1. An economic/political border that would emerge from the UK wishing for a seperate customs routine, something that is causing Britons to panic too. Not only for NI, but the two marine borders.

    2. Britain’s elbow affecting Irish citizenship, Irish fishing water, Irish livestock and plants crossing an invisible border. This includes discrimination of other EU nationals if they work cross border.

    Both of these issues were mitigated by conformity within the EU, but Brexit really damages the incentive for the Republic of Ireland to conform to Britain, that probably applies to Northern Ireland too.

    There is also the minor problem of this British superiority complex where they assume both the EU and the Irish desire to stifle themselves, while the UK looking for elbow room and fresh air acts like a nation in a straightjacket and sitting in its own excrement itself. Hubris will sort that out.

    Yes there is a shared archipelago, but we share a continent too and there is no point in the British denying it.

    The U.K. can elbow Ireland, but Ireland will elbow back with the weight of the rest of the world behind it.

    As for fresh air, I don’t see how fracking the countryside for post-Brexit feul security is going to achieve that.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Northern Ireland voted Remain, clearly the Southern Irish have been more empathetic to that self determination than the anti-pragmatic Brexiteers.

  • Aodh Morrison

    Your first paragraph, maybe.

    The rest I can agree with wholeheartedly.

    When others talk of culture I reach for a bun, and a cup of coffee.

  • Conchúr

    How will the working class be ignored? There is no point in trying to persuade Loyalists to vote for a UI, their unionism has long since become irrevocably nihilistic. They wouldn’t be treated worse in a UI, would probably be treated better, but they simply don’t care.

  • Nevin

    The Irish government is just a pawn in the EU-27 v UK game.

  • Aodh Morrison

    “Monolithic”?” You simplify unionism. Don’t worry you’re not the first to do it.

    In de Valeria’s time as the UUP ran the Stormont show radical working class unionists, artists and writers were alive and well and painting a very different unionist canvas.

    It’s not my thing but I’m forced to admit that the bonfire culture has its admirers though. As the torched earth, rusting tyre wire and other debris from the loyalist extravaganza is cleared (at public expense) the Lecky Flyover awaits its annual torching as I type.

  • Conchúr

    Sure it is.

  • Karl

    20 years ago, on a 55% turnout by unionist voters, 390,000 votes were garnered for unionists parties.
    20 years on and with their highest turnout in 15 years, unionism produced nearly exactly the same figures in both turnout and votes.
    At the same election 20 years ago, 320,000 votes for nationalist parties was brought about by a 65% nationalist turnout.
    20 years on 345,000 nationalist votes were secured on a 51% turnout.
    You can choose to take what you want from that.

  • Nevin

    “Ireland will elbow back with the weight of the rest of the world behind it.”

    Germany and its French poodle are more likely to be doing the ‘elbowing’ in the ‘ever closer union’ cause; Ireland is merely a useful pawn.

  • Kevin Breslin

    You are basically saying it’s EU-27 vs. UK-4

    A handicap chess game where one side (the EU) has four rows of pieces including its Irish pawn against a UK side with an English Queen, a Scottish Castle, a Welsh bishop and a Northern Ireland pawn. The British King is far more open to checkmate here.

    The EU is five times bigger economy and has seven times the population … there’s no way this is going to be fair on Little Britain and The Wee County of N.I.

  • Nevin

    “You are basically saying it’s EU-27 vs. UK-4”

    Nope.

    “The EU is five times bigger economy and has seven times the population”

    Germany and France are the two big beasts in the EU-27, so they will be determining the mood as well as the direction of travel.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I don’t mind the Germans and French elbowing the Little Englanders of Brexit Britain on the Republic of Ireland’s behalf, and I expect Scotland and the Anglo-Irish will do likewise.

    The United Kingdom’s Brexiteers seem to be as much Hibernophobic as they are Teutophobic and Francophobic.

    “European Unionists” aren’t as Anglophobic as the Brexiteers are Xenophobic.

    La perfide Angleterre, s’appuie sur une Europe fidèle et une Irlande fidèle.
    Das perfidious England, basiert auf einem treuen Europäer und einem treuen Irland.

  • Nevin

    The big beasts won’t be elbowing on Ireland’s behalf; they’ll be doing so in the cause of ‘an ever closer union’; as in the past, Ireland will be kicked or bribed into compliance.

  • Kevin Breslin

    “You are basically saying it’s EU-27 vs. UK-4”

    Nope.

    Face it, even with Ireland’s help, Britain and Ireland is no match for continental Europe. The EU is five times bigger economy and has seven times the population of Britain.

    “Germany and France are the two big beasts in the EU-27, so they will be determining the mood as well as the direction of travel.”

    On what basis do you say England is better than France or Germany for Ireland…?

    I’m sure Leo can make up his own mind over Merkel, Macron and May.

    You could argue the French may be missing their British friends more than the Irish are.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/e60781fbc4760228cc100346c823fc421e1152438a6e5484909923399b2b2df3.png

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/datablog/2015/nov/02/is-uk-winner-or-loser-european-council#img-2

  • Dónall

    Shows how much you know. You will barely find a reference to the Saxons in songs in the sean-nós tradition, indeed many of the songs in English were written by Protestants. Keening was reserved for the dead.

    Fiddle-dee-dee music is an offensive term usually used by the tone deaf to belittle a tradition of European dance music common in Ireland, Scotland and the rural England.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The Irish were kicking themselves after making a ridiculous banking guarantee that tried to turn the place into the banking safe haven of Europe. Morally the fault lies at the feet of a selfish Irish government.

  • Nevin

    “On what basis do you say England is better than France or Germany for Ireland…?”

    I didn’t; I claimed that those two big beasts would determine the EU-27 direction of travel.

  • Dónall

    There are many fine aspects to Scots-Irish, Anglo-Irish and Gaelic culture on this island in the way of music, literature, engineering, agriculture, sport ect. And I love the (small) bonfire traditions minus the flags, emblems and political
    connotations that are burned on halloween and St John’s eve. Some of these aspects of our shared culture have been used by various political groups to further their narrow political agendas.

    I’m not sure what Unionist culture is but I can’t see how this could be bigger than a country that existed as an entity long before the Union even existed.

  • Kevin Breslin

    They don’t, both sides can be overwhelmed by the rest.

  • hollandia

    The entire thrust of the article ignores the working class. I’m making the point that the mistakes of the past should not be repeated.

  • Zeno

    I already have taken it as meaning nothing has happened. The electorate increased by over 76,000 in those years and the National and Unionist vote as a percentage of that electorate both fell, albeit by tiny fractions.
    No growth, no surge, just the usual duping of the voters.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    To make a success of it? Yes, you’re right, but to have a stab at it a sense of identity would be a great start.

  • Nevin

    You must be joking!!!

  • Kevin Breslin

    If Spain, Portugal, Italy, Austria, Sweden, Finland, Poland, Greece, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Denmark, Romania, Hungary, Luxembourg, Estonia, Cyprus, Belguim, Latvia, The Republic of Ireland, Croatia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Malta, Lithuania and Slovenia agree they more than overwealm the Franco-German axis.

    It would be like saying the UK’s international policies can be decided by London and Scotland together alone. Clearly not.

  • Hugh Davison

    so that’s all right then. We just gave them civilisation. Or ….

  • Hugh Davison

    Karl, you cannot deny that Irish people served the British Empire apparatus, as civil servants, policemen and soldiers. It is understandable in economic terms but it was not exploitation or forced labour.

  • Hugh Davison

    Take a trip south,and see for yourself.

  • Hugh Davison

    Not surprising there was a physical threat, given that the natives were tossed off their land to make way for planters. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plantations_of_Ireland

  • Hugh Davison

    Brian. Brexit?

  • Hugh Davison

    Those ‘ radical working class unionists, artists and writers were alive’ didn’t get much support from their hinterland. They were problematic for the Unionist hierarchy of the time.

  • Hugh Davison

    Are you afraid (of the EU)? Why?

  • Karl

    I dont but to what end? What happens in practical terms and is this false equivalence just to say all white people are bad?
    You would lump the Irish sent to the carribean as indentured servants with the english slave owners because they ended up comparatively better off than the black slaves?