Following the Brexit Referendum 2016, Civic nationalism emerged alongside seasoned advocates as, rights, Northern Ireland – a special case, and erratic enthusiasm for a Border Poll framed the parameters of public debate. Uncomfortable conversations on the long-term goal of the political unification of the two states which share geographical Ireland looked to build momentum.
However, overtures towards Unionism have proceeded along the narrow terrain of a simple narrative that whilst much is wrong in Northern Ireland everything is going well in the Republic; that with Irish Unity inevitable, everything will turn out well therefore Unionists need to engage in conversation about the political re-shaping of the island.
So strong is the belief that proponents have not set out a plan of delivery.
Is this because they know that when the evidence which must inform planning is assessed, pro-Union issue-based arguments will prove more convincing; that those who are pro-Union have stronger arguments and indicators as to the public mood?
These are so obvious that their absence from the current debate is distinctly peculiar:
- the generosity of a subvention process, normal globally where some regions due to a number of factors enjoy more favourable wealth opportunities;
- vital access to the British market and promotion of the economy, financial power and global influence through the Commonwealth and historical international linkage;
- the NHS facing pressures but remaining free at the point of entry;
- and Northern Ireland, emerging from the constraints of conflict.
And all of these are underpinned by social attitudes surveys which consistently tell us that twice as many prefer the Union over unity.
Criticism and impatience directed at Unionists point to a failure to engage about the future but pro-union individuals and groups engage all the time through Women’s Centres, restorative justice projects and conversations with Sinn Féin and others.
I have been one of a number of participants in the latter over a period of time. As a result, we can now agree to disagree whilst sharing common interests not least sporting and musical.
It becomes clear, in the light of this engagement and disappointing to some degree, that what these spokespersons are expressing is frustration that those who are pro-Union do not engage on planning a united Ireland. It is an obvious indication that they ignore the survey data and also the contribution pro-Union groups and individuals make to cultural, social and economic life.
Those who strive to build a society that is shared are ignored. Spokespersons choose to voice a demeaning ‘you poor Prods have lost everything’ narrative.
The constant confidence leg kicking of the PUL community presents as strategic narrative and a refusal to accept that the pro-Union community is far from down and out. It does not augur well for the pursuance of an agreed or shared island agenda now also colliding with the legacy of EU negotiating tactics fuelled by resentment and slender understanding of NI’s diversity and the crucial importance of the principle of consent.
Many Unionists, including some shackled by party constraints and career survival, are prepared to engage but not necessarily accommodate a pre-determined outcome. Many visit car showrooms but we do not rush into buying the first vehicle the salesperson ushers us towards. If the salesperson feels he is arranging a party no one wishes to attend, so be it.
There are questions that Unionists ask without prejudice to their constitutional preference. In response, there are few definitive answers and much fuzzy thinking. Sinn Féin and its group-think associates, as the most enthused advocates, are often silent in any response which requires a departure from rehearsed sloganizing or could act as a trojan horse to the citadel of sealed republican thinking.
Simplistic referrals to symbols, flags and anthems fail to address the questionable extent to which there is any deep desire in either jurisdiction for action on Irish Unity at this time, the lack of an equivalent to the NHS, the largest publicly-funded health service in the world or the vulnerability of what some term a ‘flag of convenience ‘Irish economy to EU taxation measures and Brexit uncertainty.
All of this is to ignore the uneasy history of a country which in spite of warnings by ardent nationalist and poet Senator WB Yeats saw Ireland develop as a confessional state where, in the words of Church of Ireland Archbishop Otto Simms, it was best to ‘keep your heads down’.
In more recent times, an underlying failure to deal with issues of collusion and clerical compliance with the violent methods of republican insurgency in Northern Ireland suggests there are issues to resolve before the unity of people to which the late John Hume referred is complete. Unity will never mean uniformity to a narrow nationalist ideology.
This is only a shortlist of issues and honest concerns.
There are meaningful and cogent alternatives but they require over-heated nationalism to de-commission ‘war by another means’ and the rutted notion that there are no benefits to being in the UK.
Away from the white noise of fractious politics, NI is becoming a site of parity of esteem, a world leader in Fintech and Cybercrime development, and has developed a global film industry. Why then is there an entrenched refusal to acknowledge these successes after 40 years of conflict? Why not contribute to a consensual and realistically incremental approach to build better North-South relations through trade, health, and infrastructure and raise the island above the constitutional?
Can this realistic and mutually respectful approach be framed to avoid producing a wasteful, difficult, technical, and probably highly-charged conversation that is not needed at this time as we anticipate post-Brexit and Covid-19 fallout.
In a Framework Document launched as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael strove to form a working coalition in Dublin with a willing partner – and that took 3 months – Ireland as a ‘shared island’ is tabled for discussion and exploration. As yet there is little detail other than a clear desire on the part of the Irish government to create an All-Island economy.
It has been stated publicly that the original name for the initiative was ‘Shared Ireland’ but was altered on the advice of the Green Party in NI; hopefully a wise and sensitive decision where statesmanship took precedence over proving ‘green credentials’ and not a strategy to avoid ‘spooking the horses.’ It is to be welcomed that the First Minister has indicated a willingness to engage without prejudice to pro-Union preferences.
A productive way forward will be to map potential and share expertise on healthcare, investment, climate change, education and social issues like deprivation, the new precariat of youth and graduate unemployment, disability rights and crime. This can allow both the ROI and NI to cast aside the constraints of our intertwined histories and proceed in a spirit of reconciliation and mutual respect where no one is asked or expected to abandon or shelve their identities and preferred constitutional status.
As recognised in New Decade, New Approach (PDF) Unionism is culturally, socially and denominationally diverse, in addition to being a political identity, and needs to be understood as such. When the Republic of Ireland came into existence, Unionists and Protestants were afforded religious rights but not cultural rights. These eventually became an historical forfeit to the development of the new state. A similar outcome would serve only to progress internal colonisation
Is this the divisive and contentious shared island or Ireland anyone wants or needs; the kind of tug-of-war conversations we need to have? Is the better conversation not that of putting everyone on a prioritised trajectory of making Northern Ireland a better place within the 3 strands of the GFA to build reconciliation, equality, and prosperity now
Engagement has to be honest, respectful, and built on a desire to improve relationships within and across the two jurisdictions linked by geography. If there is a feeling of threat, irredentism or land grab it will not work. The new process will be programmed to join a list of missed opportunities to which all have contributed. Instead of addressing common predicaments, we will grow the problems.
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.