It may be that a combination of a Brexit that Republicans opposed and the failure of Unionists themselves to grasp the opportunity presented to them by the GFA that does most damage to the Union

John MacManus is a History Teacher in Northern Ireland

Reading Andrew Gallagher’s ‘Making friends with the cat next door’ afforded me a free (albeit brief) through the looking glass experience. For reasons of space I’m going to largely ignore the ill- suited and inappropriate metaphor and focus on the significantly more problematic content.

The article states;

“Irish Nationalism is strategically very weak. Unionism has what they want- a blocking majority- but Nationalism has nothing that Unionism wants in return.”

In the first instance there is an underlying assumption that both Unionism and Nationalism are monolithic blocs. In both cases this is patently absurd but is particularly problematic when an assertion is made that Unionism has what it wants. I’d like to think that Unionism wanted more than a blocking majority but what does it want? Integration with the rest of the UK? Well, the North has never been as British as Finchley and has never been governed as such. Majoritarian devolution? That herrenvolk ship has sailed, having been pushed out to sea with the help of Unionist misgovernance from 1921-72. Power sharing devolution? This is undoubtedly the safest option for Unionism (I’ll return to this) but one they’ve been at best lukewarm about and which is currently facing its own existential crisis.

The reality is that Unionism has always been fragmented with regard to what it wants; the historic blizzard of prefacing adjectives (Southern, Ulster, six county, liberal, urban, rural, Independent, Official, Democratic, Traditional etc etc) is itself evidence of this. The glue, in times of crisis, has been an existential threat to the Union itself but beyond that there is no meaningful consensus as to the shape of that Union. Given that many Unionists themselves believe that almost every political development in the North since the emergence of NICRA has presented an existential threat and that many political analysts see Brexit as possibly the greatest yet, it’s hard to see how Andrew can reach the conclusion that Unionists have what they want. A United Ireland is back on the political agenda in a manner that it hasn’t been since Partition and the context should be concerning to even the least paranoid Unionist. A temporary blocking majority does not look like a sturdy bulwark in the face of electoral threat, changing demographics and a Brexit whirlwind that has refocused minds not only on issues of national identity but also (and perhaps more potently) on economic well being. A cursory glance at the mainstream media shows recognition that the issue of Unification is being discussed and (even according to Alex Kane) needs to be discussed.

I strongly suspect that the haughty cat of Andrew’s metaphor  is the very antithesis of how Unionists need to behave; indeed, alongside the absence of an agreed vision of what they want, such behaviour has been the cause of much of Unionism’s current weakness. Genuine, devolved power-sharing, however clumsy the architecture, is the only sustainable way of maintaining the Union. Making a success of this requires not just generosity of spirit from Unionism but a level of evangelism that has been singularly lacking since 1998. Unionist leaders from Trimble on wards have presented (or at least appeared to) the GFA as a reluctant compromise rather than the potentially historic opportunity to seize on an ideological volte face by Republicans and copper fasten the Union. To be fair to Robinson and Nesbitt they seemed to recognise the need and potential to build a Northern Irish identity that Catholics/Nationalists could buy into but they couldn’t deliver on it. Whether the reasons for that were genuine Unionist intolerance and fear of equality or tactical stupidity in falling into what they themselves consider a ‘culture war’ trap, neither reflects well on political Unionism.

The speed with which Brexit has transformed the political agenda means that it seems a lifetime ago that there was serious discussion about the possibility of a shared Northern Irish identity. Unionists need to return to that agenda because it is there that security for the Union lies. Regardless of whether they believe in it or not, it is the smart tactical move. Nationalists (of different ilks) have always been prepared to play, and been adept at playing, the long game and a haughty, passive cat is just the opponent that suits that strategy best.

Andrew’s reiteration of Mick’s view (which I disagree with) regarding Nationalism’s strategic weakness merits a more rigorous analysis but regardless of that, it may be that a combination of a Brexit that Republicans opposed and the failure of Unionists themselves to grasp the opportunity presented to them by the GFA that does most damage to the Union. Now wouldn’t that be ironic?

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