In the 19th century national identity in Europe was more deeply entwined with religion than it is today. Witness the creation of Belgium in 1831 from the remains of the Spanish Netherlands, when formerly Hapsburg areas seceded from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands to form a Catholic-majority, multilingual state with a French-speaking aristocracy. In the 20th century the focus of national identity shifted: the same Belgian state is now hoplessly riven between French- and Dutch-speakers, regardless of religion. The focus of politics changes with the tide, but the driving force is always the same: collective power.
The nature of power is that those without it will always be jealous of those with it, and those with it will always fear having it taken away. Power may be measured by economic might, land, legal privilege or social status. But no matter the measure, there will always be haves and have-nots. And there will be times when the haves consolidate their power, and times when power passes from one group to another.
In a democracy, those who don’t have power are comforted by the belief that their turn may soon come; and those with power are comforted by the belief that even if they lose, their turn will come again. But problems then arise when people start to believe that they will never have power, or that once power is taken from them they will never get it back. If power is apportioned by socio-economic class, one can always dream of climbing the greasy pole to become one of the powerful. If however the basis of power is identity, there is no such dream.
Because class is how society defines you, but identity is how you define yourself. Transgressing the boundaries of class is an act of liberation; transgressing the boundaries of identity is apostasy.
So when identity trumps class, when birth rather than passing circumstance picks the teams, politics becomes a predetermined game. One cannot work or buy one’s way onto the winning side. That has a profound effect upon the perennial losers, but it has an equally profound effect upon the winners. Because if they don’t need to fight to win, they forget how to fight. So when eventually some outside force tips the scales against them, those who were once guaranteed victory can find themselves facing defeat while simultaneously discovering their own impotence.
Unionism is in this pickle right now.
The last six weeks has seen a torrent of discussion on the future of Unionism. Every Unionist paper is running opinion pieces, and every Unionist name is throwing in their two cents. The question “what if?” is being seriously asked, and in some cases seriously answered. The constant theme is that Unionism as a movement is experiencing a dark night of the soul. Because political Unionism has never seriously examined the nature of its own self.
The American politician Tip O’Neill had a famous catchphrase that said “all politics is local”, and it can be applied to Westminster and Leinster House as easily as to Capitol Hill. In Stormont however, all politics is identity politics. Local issues still matter to the average elector, but nobody believes that they significantly affect election results. Elections are explicitly about which identity holds more power. That this power is effectively limited to symbolism and a seat scorecard makes little difference. For They must learn that We are in charge here. It’s all about the psychological victory, about status, and Face.
For as long as Ulster Unionism has existed as a movement, it has been dominated by the fear that They might gain power over Us, and They can’t be trusted to rule in Our best interest. In the 19th century, identity was (like in Belgium) largely a matter of religion, and the sectarian gulf in Ireland was understood as a religious one, backed up by a history of confessional privilege. After Irish Unionism performed its strategic retreat to the defensible north-east, it adopted the clothes of a rival nationalism. “Ulster” was the new identity around which Unionism gathered itself, one which was quite happy to have Home Rule, so long as it was from Belfast rather than Dublin. So long as it was Us in charge and not Them.
But Unionism never escaped from 19th-Century confessional identity. And this fear of Them was Unionism’s original sin. Because instead of bringing Them inside the tent, instead of selling a vision of the future where everyone prospered together, Unionism shut Them out. Perhaps it would have been an impossible task, but there was no urgent need to try; Unionism was electorally safe. But now that its majority has evaporated, Unionism finds itself temperamentally incapable of making even the smallest concession on culture and identity. And when all you ever willingly offer is thin gruel, it’s no wonder They keep asking for more.
Unionism has become an apocalyptic religion, forever warning that the end is nigh. And yet its leaders reassure the faithful that it will not come in our lifetime. This incoherent brew of brimstone and honey is a tactical advantage, but a strategic weakness. When victory is defined merely as staving off the apocalypse for a few more years, there can be no strategy, no vision, no hope.
Because Unionism gave up on evangelising the other side a century ago. To become an expansive, accommodating, all-inclusive political movement would require a fundamental cultural reappraisal. And now that the end of the world is starting to look like a real possibility, Unionism has neither the breathing space nor the self-belief that such a paradigm shift would require.
Nobody can predict when the end will come, but it’s unlikely to be a lifetime away. Attitudes are hardening on both sides, demographic change still moves in the same direction, albeit more slowly, and Unionism still fails to attract support from beyond the trenches. So there are two possibilities.
Firstly, Unionism fights to the bitter end regardless of the long-term consequences to Northern Ireland’s community relations, and succeeds merely in stretching out the life of the Union for a few more years until there is no more road to kick the can down.
Or secondly, Unionism gives way to a broader movement that maintains a belief in strong links with the UK, and stands up for the interests of the Ulster-British-Protestant-whatever community, but which doesn’t hang its entire worldview on the defence of a constitutional status quo that may soon be untenable.
Somebody’s end of the world happens every day, yet the world keeps turning. And ironically, the only way for Unionism to avoid the end of its world is to accept that it might not be so bad.
Andrew is a native Ulsterman and honorary Galwegian now living and working in Dublin. An IT manager by day and dilettante political hack by night, he has also been known to dabble in fundamental physics and musical theatre.