Deconstructing “Unionism”

I have long maintained that the terms “unionist” and “Unionism” as currently used in Northern Ireland are an obstacle to discussion and understanding. Because there is much more to unionists than Unionism. Indeed, there is much more to Unionism than Unionism. What have tray bakes and soda farls got to do with the constitutional question? The same words are used for multiple related yet distinct things, and the capital letters that one can use for disambiguation in print(*) are worthless in speech.

This use of insufficiently precise terminology has had two separate, but equally destructive effects.

Firstly, it has served to drive a wedge between the Union and those not from a Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist background, and severed Irish Republicanism from the Dissenter tradition that gave birth to it. Once “Unionist” and “Nationalist” became markers of identity rather than mere political descriptions, the idea of a “Catholic Unionist” or a “Protestant Republican” became almost paradoxical. Those who refuse to order from the political set menu are seen as ridiculous, or even dangerous. And it has become impossible to discuss political ideas on their own terms without the accumulated moss of cultural identity, and vice versa.

Less obviously, but perhaps more importantly, it has also led to many people from all sides believing that without the Union, “unionists” would in some way cease to exist. That without the defining embrace of the UK, the people themselves would wash away. This fantasy has fuelled both Unionist paranoia and Nationalist triumphalism. But if you build a definition upon sand, it is the definition that is unsound, not the objective reality you are trying to describe.

This is why academics and specialists are constantly creating new jargon and terminology. Lack of precision becomes crippling when discussing malleable things, because for every single thing that can be defined at a given instant, there are multiple different ways that it can behave under different circumstances, depending on how the definition was constructed. One can say that A is the same as B, but will that always be the case? What happens when A changes? Will B change also or will it stay the same?

If I say “the Mayor is tall” I am obviously talking about the current holder, who will presumably remain tall as a private citizen; while if I say “the Mayor chairs the meetings”, that applies to past and future individual Mayors, but only during their term of office. I can use disambiguation such as “the current Mayor” or “the then Mayor” or “the office of Mayor”, but it gets complicated very quickly. What if I say “the current Mayor owns a black car”? It depends on whether the car is personal, or a perk of the job. “The office of the Mayor currently owns a black car”? What if the car gets resprayed? “The office of the Mayor currently owns a formerly black car”?

Complex concepts demand simple, but unique names. What do you call a “unionist” who emigrates to England? Or Dublin? What do you call a “unionist” whose family have lived in Donegal for generations? What if there is a future United Ireland? “Unionists” wouldn’t just disappear. They don’t stop being who they are, or forget where they’re from. But the term “unionist” loses its meaning when shorn of its native context. The word no longer corresponds to the concept that it was intended to represent. When you talk about “unionists” in a hypothetical United Ireland, are you talking about those people who are currently “unionists”, or just those who will continue to be “unionists”? Or “Unionists”?

At bare minimum, we need a name for small-u cultural “unionists” that captures the identity of the group but which still retains meaning outside the particular context of 20th century Northern Ireland. “Protestant” isn’t a solution – not all unionists are Protestant, or even Christian, and the vast majority of Protestants in the world have never set foot in Belfast. “PUL” merely smashes three equally inaccurate terms together into a meaningless TLA. “Hun” is pithily accurate but unacceptable in polite society. “Anglo-Irish” means something else entirely, as do “Scots-Irish”, “Ulster-Scots”, “Ulster-Irish” and “British-Irish”. “Northern Irish” is both too broad in one direction and too narrow in another. “Ulster(wo)man” is equally inaccurate, and a gender bear-trap.

“Ulster-British” is probably the best that can be constructed without resorting to pejoratives or acronyms.

And what of big-U “Unionism”? It has become common to see “pro-Union” used to distinguish the narrow issue of the Union itself from the “Unionist” political parties, but this may not be sufficient by itself. Unionist parties are unlikely to rename themselves for the sake of an academic debating point, but the concept of big-U “Unionism” is far from monolithic.

Set aside the economic and social policy differences that are irrelevant to the constitutional issue, and never mind the UUP/DUP split that owes more to the Anglo-Irish/Ulster-Scots cultural division than it does to policy of any kind. The “Unionist” parties are divided within themselves even on constitutional matters – between Ulster Nationalists, British Nationalists, integrationists, federalists, Liberal Unionists and even the occasional Irish Unionist. At one time in the 90s there was a repartitionist faction. The only thing that seems to unite them is a shared antipathy to Irish Nationalism.

For some (such as the integrationists and liberals) it is nationalism of whatever flag that is more offensive, while for others (such as the Ulster Nationalists) it seems to be Irishness, particularly the Gaelic flavour. Anti-Nationalism and Anti-Gaelism are distinct trends even though many individual big-U Unionists subscribe to both. And these trends often pull against each other, leading to an epidemic of doublethink. The logic of Anti-Nationalism is to embrace all those who would be content to live in a multi-national state, regardless of their cultural heritage. The logic of Anti-Gaelism is to resist any such blurring of the communal lines and maintain the cultural distinctiveness of the Planter heritage.

Despite these internal tensions, big-U “Unionism” remains a valid identifier for as long as Unionist organisations remain part of an identifiable movement opposed to Irish Nationalism. If Unionist parties don’t always act as outsiders might think “Unionists” should (on a literal reading of the name), that is not enough to invalidate the word. Names don’t have to be literally descriptive.

But given that big-U “Unionism” remains useful, small-u cannot. Using the same word conflates cultural and political identities that can be subscribed to independently. Small-u is therefore best avoided, particularly when discussing hypothetical futures. It is an oxymoron to talk of a “unionist” identity in a consensual United Ireland, but that doesn’t mean that the Ulster-British culture that we call “unionism” would be meaningless. We should be careful to remember that Unionism and Ulster-Britishness are not the same thing, and using the same word for both only perpetuates the tribal, set-menu vision of Northern Ireland.

(*) Capitals aren’t even that useful in print, given that the first letter of a sentence is always a capital…

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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.

Twitter: @andrewgdotcom