John MacManus is a History Teacher in Northern Ireland
“So, the continuing ‘rise and rise’ of Sinn Fein is not unstoppable. Irish unity is not inevitable. That won’t, of course, stop Sinn Fein’s relentless propaganda and repositioning. And nor should it stop unionism from relentless deconstruction of Sinn Fein’s arguments; or of kick-starting their own major, thought-through, broad-based, pro-Union campaign. Put bluntly, stop whingeing about Sinn Fein and, instead, counter their various strategies, policies and narratives.”
So concludes Alex Kane in his latest article for the News Letter. I agree that nothing in political life is inevitable but Irish unity is on the political agenda in a way that we haven’t seen since the revolutionary period. I agree also that Unionists should stop whingeing about Sinn Fein and counter their strategies and narratives but I would love to hear someone from a Unionist background articulate how this will happen. The Micawberish nature of Unionism is one of their most self-destructive traits; alongside their own failure to recognise it.
I have always been puzzled by the inability of Political Unionism to recognise the existential need to create and share a vision for the North that could be embraced by the Catholic/Nationalist community here. I use the term existential deliberately because Unionism appears blind to its current predicament. When I wrote for Slugger in January about the dangers for Unionism, a number of Unionists I spoke to afterwards said they didn’t see anything too concerning about the current state of affairs. Really?? I was and remain mystified by this Panglossian complacency. Since then, a number of Unionist figures have commented on the potential imminence of a border poll (in itself a significant departure) but are quick to point out their absolute certainty of victory in this.
What is the basis of this confidence? In all likelihood it lies in the seemingly congenital inability to understand their neighbouring community, because all shades of Unionist spokespersons appear convinced that many Catholics/Nationalists will vote to remain in the UK.
Alex illuminates the naivety of this position in the opening paragraph of his article where he makes the following comment about a DUP voting friend of his: “He couldn’t understand how a party that had “justified and celebrated IRA terrorism was a whisker away from being the largest party in the Assembly”. Unionists have had decades to work this out, so it would be a surprise if inspiration were to strike soon, and Alex is right to highlight that it is in any case irrelevant.
The future of Unionism lies (possibly lay) in its ability to construct a shared vision for this place – something they have rather bizarrely made no attempt to do. Instead most have engaged in a culture war that is ultimately self-destructive. The GFA installed, for the first time, two competing elites in the Northern state. The advantage lay with Unionists because the issue of unity was not on the agenda and there was no real economic imperative forcing it. Strategically, the clever move would have been to cultivate a ‘Northern Irish’ identity; not an impossible task in the atmosphere of that time or even more recently than that. To build bridges, to celebrate the separateness of Ulster, to exploit the partitionist mind-set that exists North and South, highlight the positive aspects of British culture that Nationalists willingly celebrate and embrace, and to make a virtue of the differences that exist here whilst highlighting what’s common and shared in our past, present and future.
It would be easy to engage in political point scoring and say that this would have required a generosity of spirit and strategic thinking absent in the leadership of Political Unionism. But it also seems to have eluded Civic Unionism. I remember attending a think tank shortly after the GFA was signed and being asked to prioritise a range of objectives moving forward if NI as a devolved state was to succeed. While many focused on the economic targets on offer, I suggested that the need to build bridges and establish a sense of a shared future took precedence. My own surprise at my hitherto unseen Alliance mind-set was trumped by the shock that my business minded co-panellists seemed to have overlooked the crucial fact that NI is a contested state with two antagonistic cultural and political identities. It seems they believed that tax cuts and the prioritisation of entrepreneurial spirit would sort it all out.
Economic and social progress was always likely to be jeopardised without the development of a shared vision. The onus on the development of that lay with Unionists, whether they like to hear it or not. Why? Because, in the first instance, the demographic trend is not in their favour, but also because Sinn Fein’s objective is Unity not a successful Northern state.
It could be argued that the worst possible scenario for Sinn Fein would have been a generous Unionism focused on building a shared society. Luckily for Sinn Fein they were confronted by a myopic Unionism focused on the small stuff of flags, identity politics, tactical manoeuvring and being seen to apparently run rings round Sinn Fein in Stormont. I have lost count of the number of Unionist leaders who trumpet that Sinn Fein are fighting a culture war. If that is true then congratulations, well spotted; now stop fighting it. It has allowed Sinn Fein to appear generous, focused on rights, social inclusion and ultimately to successfully sell a grander vision beyond an apparently dysfunctional Northern state. To this point it has been victory by default because the Unionist leadership post GFA hasn’t taken the field. Robinson dabbled at it a bit but ultimately decided that ‘flegs’ were more likely to unseat Naomi Long from East Belfast.
Indeed, the real question now is; are they capable of taking the field and if so is it too late in any case? It is hard to see how politicians like Wilson, Campbell et al can emerge blinking into the sunlight and play the kind of game required at this stage, because in many ways the game has moved on.
Brexit has changed the paradigm in which Irish Unity has been seen since partition and increasingly there is an economic imperative behind unity, or should I now say, a ‘new Ireland’. Political Unionism should have seen this. Indeed had they any real strategic nous, they would have. Unionist confidence regarding Catholic/Nationalist voting patterns in a border poll presumably lay in an assumption regarding economic self-interest. That plank is being pulled away and increasingly there may be scope for Nationalists to have similar feelings regarding Unionist/Protestant voting patterns in a border poll. I was at a commemorative event for the GFA anniversary in St. Mary’s teacher training college recently, where, in a discussion focused on the economic downsides of Brexit, Glenn Bradley suggested that as a Unionist he would be prepared to engage in debate about what a ‘new Ireland’ (note the semantics and the way in which the debate will be framed) might look like. Gerry Carlile made some persuasive points about the business case which no other panellist appeared to dispute. And so the momentum builds.
Identity matters. On the anniversary of Marx’s birth, it is easy to make simplistic statements regarding the dominance of economics in driving history. But as Gramsci highlighted there is always interplay between the economic and the social, cultural and political. Unionist identity is a more complex beast than many here are often prepared to accept. And the little publicised Protestant outlook – which is a tolerant, cosmopolitan mix of regional, British, Irish and European identities – may well be less at home in a reactionary Brexit Britain that is increasingly the product of a narrow English nationalism that cares little for this part of the world. There are those who will argue that you can’t lead where none will follow, and that the problem lies less with the leaders of Unionism and more with elements of a backward looking grassroots trapped in a colonial delusion. That’s a little too bleak for me and ultimately unprovable in the absence of a concerted attempt to sell an alternative vision by the DUP.
So, can Civic Unionism take the field to create an alternative vision, articulate it and force Political Unionism to adjust? In a week in which we were treated to the stark contrast between the IFA deciding that playing God Save the Queen at the Irish Cup Final was apt and the images of Dublin GAA laying a wreath at Thiepval tower; the chances look slim.
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.