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.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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