Alex Kane’s position as the voice of reasoned unionism is confirmed by the remarkable fact that he’s invited to write for all the main papers which are read in Northern Ireland. He has just delivered the latest version of his message to encourage the creation of Unionist Unity (my caps) to meet the challenges of special status for Northern Ireland with the EU against the background of the coming potential nationalist majority. If that means killing off the last illusions of unionist primacy and the narcissism of small differences, all well and good. But would it promote new thinking and renewed confidence? Since the fall of the old monolith, unionist coalitions were only briefly lashed together to oppose the first power sharing government of 1974 and the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. Not encouraging precedents for today, even though the obstacle of a massive ego like Paisley’s is missing.
Unionism is floundering more than ever I can remember, more in a way than immediately after the shock of the old Stormont’s demise. The loss of power explained the deep resentment that followed, although it does not excuse the tide of communal violence that accompanied it. The resentment has since transferred to the rise of Sinn Fein which unionism finds so difficult to handle. It has blighted the prospects for power sharing, and has so far failed to create much of a sense of shared identity. It was not supposed to be like this. Unlike poles are supposed to attract, not repel. Part of the explanation lies in the profound sense of injustice that the guilty have escaped punishment. Some of them are in the driving seat but most are not. Thousands did not escape punishment and many were loyalists. But somehow the dishonours are not even.
Another explanation, that unionists have not yet caught up with their own society may be true, but why this is so, is puzzling. Whatever lies behind the scenes, Sinn Fein look like members of this society whereas many duppers are closer to Republican Tea Party supporters of Donald Trump. The legacy of Bob Jones lingers. It is hard to imagine a unionist politician who would tweet about recipes or his trampoline like Gerry Adams. But then the old Sinn Fein leader has ample reason to change his spots and create diversions.
Alex is the realist who recognises that the united unionist opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 was the Suez moment for unionism, when the limitations of that power were decisively exposed. Are unionists fated to tread the same path all over again with the same result? Surely not. Never again”Never, never, never” So what is the point of unionist unity tomorrow ? Alex writes:
The DUP – who were scathing about the UUP/Conservative UCUNF project a few years ago – may have believed that Mrs May’s reliance on them for her own survival would have prevented her from “betraying” them. It didn’t. She must have been aware of the inevitable scale, nature and consequences of their anger; yet she went ahead. Her “precious” Union and unionism doesn’t seem to embrace the equally “precious” Union and unionism of the DUP and broader unionism across Northern Ireland.
The egocentrism of this quotation is breathtaking. It implies that the whole Brexit strategy should have been built on DUP sensitivities. Putting “betraying” in quotation marks doesn’t really expunge the impression that the sense of grievance is justified. Westminster thinks very differently. Never before has an actual parliamentary majority which includes Labour been so prepared to defend the Union to the hilt. This indeed was on the wider canvas: if Northern Ireland goes first, Scotland follows, or vice versa. This is a very big deal indeed and you don’t have to be an extreme Brexiteer to believe it. Although famed for their self absorption, it’s amazing that the DUP don’t realise how angry the quieter Conservatives are as Dodds and co taunt them with their transient power.
As unionists were the originators of Northern Ireland exceptionalism a whole century ago, the DUP would have been far better to have thrown in their lot with the wider defence of “the precious Union.” This is a project which is not yet resolved and may not be so for another couple of years. They were ill advised to join English nationalists to exaggerate the breach – avowedly temporary – in some supposed principle of UK uniformity. They should have endorsed May’s efforts to create a backstop substitute and held their fire at least until the meaningful votes on the deal. If she looks like winning they could share the credit. If not, at least they’d lose no votes. Behaving like mini CS Parnells in violation of their interparty agreement will not overturn the government. It will only increase their reputation as backwoods dwellers exploiting the title of Union but denying its values.
What sort of Union are they defending anyway? The penny doesn’t seem to have dropped that the “precious Union” changed radically twenty years ago. Northern Ireland actually became less of an exception when devolution came also to Scotland and Wales. With it came the implied right to secede which the Scots have already tested. It is based on the same principle of self determination that applies slightly differently to Northern Ireland.
As a condition of her support for the government the independent unionist Sylvia Hermon has asked for declaration of support for the Union to be added to the joint political declaration of aims for the long term relationship with the EU. Well and good as a confidence building measure. But neither the EU nor either government can determine the Union’s future, because it depends only on the state of public opinion within NI and (effectively) the Republic. UK support for the Union therefore, can only be incidental to its survival, nor does its future status depend directly on its own political parties.
Scolding them alone is unlikely to convert the DUP to bigger thinking. Endless introspection and obsessing about the past will only deepen neurosis. They have the legitimate concern that the Union may be hollowed out in order to create the climate for a border poll – otherwise known as death by a thousand cuts. There is a real agenda here to tackle. Others share unionist frustration at the British government acting as half blind referees in a Stormont game on endless timeout. A government concerned for the political health of the region would have done a lot more.
Rather than remain ostrich-like, unionists urgently need to develop positions on a rights agenda which will only become more prominent after Brexit, extending well beyond a language policy. How can rights for Irish and EU citizens be recognised when they comprise almost half the adult population? While unionists will instinctively recoil, how can the right be denied to elect the Irish president directly if extended by a referendum to the diaspora? Or the participation of the other Dublin-based parties in elections to the Assembly and even the European Parliament? A future Irish government will have fateful decisions to take which will be difficult to get past unionists. In all of this the “ sovereign government” will have to pronounce. On the most toxic subject of dealing with the legacy. a few unionists are independently contemplating exchanging immunity for disclosure in preference to treating former paramilitaries and security forces equivalently.
Unionists then will need the British government. Have the DUP ever thought why Westminster is now so reluctant to become embroiled in our affairs? Because all they ever face is deadlock, granted that the DUP only share the blame. In a world in which equality is the legally professed aim, unionists will always lose if they treat every nationalist advance as a unionist loss. The alternatives are clear enough; vigorous engagement to ensure the best of both worlds after Brexit and through the institutions of the GFA which should become more important than ever. The change of mindset has barely begun and may be further delayed because of Brexit.
To help it along Alex is right to suggest that Westminster politicians should engage with unionists more in their own terms. This can be done without violating the principle of impartiality for how the province is governed. To counter a wilfully fading British presence it would be useful to deploy the Monty Python argument ,“What have the Romans ever done for us?” and point out that edging closer to Dublin need not involve cutting the British constitutional link.
A little loving would go a long away. But unionists have to be lovable first and just a little grateful. If love can’t be managed, then mutual respect. Remember the GB sacrifices of thirty years of Troubles too and how the Troops Out movement supported by Jeremy Corbyn and friends never caught on?
A key explanation for the present unionist confusion is that the leadership have never claimed ownership of the new facts of political life, unlike Sinn Fein who had to come up fast with some sort of explanation for their volte face from bombing the British out of Ireland to assuming ministerial office in Stormont. Paisley’s dramatic conversion concealed the more general DUP reluctance to follow until it caught up with him with a defenestration which was as sudden and shocking as any of Stalin’s unfortunate henchmen. Evidence of deep unacknowledged trauma lies in the staggering fact of Paisley the nonperson of today compared with yesterday’s giant of militant unionism for a generation. Since then his successors have tacked and trimmed more than led; and the vacuum lies open.
The choice remains between the present cold war and a mixed polity in which sovereignty is but one major element. It is not to be taken for granted which of them both sides will opt for. But if the natural drivers for change are constantly thwarted, the outcome may be a period of turmoil around the ultimate zero sum game which unionists could well lose. The result of that winner- take -all contest could be as unsatisfactory as the earlier – winner -take- all of a century ago. A better way is available.
If an identity slogan is needed, let it be that we are one with the other and Britishness and Irishness are interchangeable. Can you see it happening?
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