Unionisms Difficulty Reaching Out…

When discussing Unionism, a characteristic often cited is the difficult relationship it has with anyone from outside of its ideology. However, it would be equally true to state that Unionism has a difficult relationship with itself, both its internal and external relationships are a problem. In this article, I wanted to focus on Unionist outreach in terms of those seeking to better understand Unionism and also how Unionism projects itself onto others.

Nobody Understands Us

Unionism is unhelpfully stereotyped by some as a narrow-minded ideology that seeks to discriminate and oppress anyone from outside of its encampment. Needless to say, there is some truth in this statement concerning certain aspects of historic Unionism; however, to align everyone within Unionism in 2020 with this stereotype is not only unfair but inaccurate. Unionism, in reality, is a broad church that includes the fundamental right-wing to extremely left-wing socialists and everyone in-between. Within these various facets, there are complex and at times, deeply toxic relationships. Unionism is not well known for being a united or cohesive movement, and this is due to being such a broad church with all shades of opinions. We hear most from those on the right-wing of the movement, but those around the centre and floating across to the left-wing of Unionism are left without a serious voice or home within political Unionism. It is also true that Unionism has been extremely poor in building relationships with those from outside of its ideology and when it comes to media interaction too often, Unionism comes across as bullish, arrogant, clumsy, and ill-informed. None of this is a true or accurate reflection of the overall Unionist community; however, it leaves outsiders with a bad impression of Unionism and certainly no sympathy. As I type this, I hear the words of Edwin Poots on the latest round of restrictions across Northern Ireland in which he almost attempts to lay claim that the virus has not impacted Unionist communities in the same way it has impacted Nationalist communities. In addition to this, two prominent Unionist commentators have been heavily derided for calling a Sinn Fein Minister an “odious Provo hag” and an Alliance MP a “moron”. This is all in the space of 24 hours, and with this type of public-facing Unionism, it’s little wonder why we have such an image problem.

Republican Outreach

In 2006 Sinn Fein announced that Martina Anderson was to assume the newly formed role of “Unionist Outreach Officer”. This was an audacious and controversial move as Ms Anderson was a convicted IRA bomber and many within Unionism were both alarmed and sceptical with this appointment. A quick look at Sinn Fein’s website on this announcement (which is still available) did not give Unionism much encouragement with the following extract complimenting the 2006 announcement:

Our strategy has always been about engaging all the people of Ireland in building a community for change. And that means: all of the people.

 From 1916 onwards, through the armed campaign and now into the Peace Process, Irish Republicans have been conscious that it is British Imperialism which maintains continued division of our people and our nation.

 At the same time, we never doubted that the Brits maintained their rule through creating and supporting a unionist garrison; which, in return for some crumbs from the Brit table, maintained their power and privilege in their statelet.

The framing of Unionism as the oppressor is extremely illuminating in an extract aimed at reaching out to Unionists. Over the years, via actions and words, Martina Anderson has done everything possible to alienate Unionism. From outspoken support for the IRA, refusal to condemn IRA atrocities, and in recent times the “Outreach Officer” made rather offensive comments about the recipients of a “trouble’s pension”. It is not clear if Sinn Fein ever took this role seriously or if it was a clear and obvious attempt to troll Unionism in a macabre manner knowing Unionism would always have had difficulty with Sinn Fein outreach, and this could be something that Sinn Fein could capitalise on. The irony is that Sinn Fein has managed to unite Unionism (no small feat) in their abhorrence of this role. Sinn Fein has better and more progressive members who would have caused much less trouble within this role; it’s eye-opening that they were never chosen. It has been suggested that Declan Kearney is the current “Outreach Officer”, but the fact that few Unionists are aware of this (and nobody can confirm it) tells its own story. If Sinn Fein reflects on this role and if they are not using it as an attempt to troll Unionism, it might be wise to decommission the position. It’s telling that many Nationalists and Others are sympathetic to Unionism on this subject and as one Republican wryly pointed out to me, “now you know how we feel when your representatives address us”.

All Ireland Forums

It may seem a little unusual that I am bringing Professor Colin Harvey of Queens University (QUB) into this topic, but the Professor almost represents a microcosm of the problems and challenges Unionism faces.  Professor Harvey has been very outspoken on his support for unification. It is due to this outspoken support for unification that some within Unionism have felt his position within QUB as a Professor is untenable. This is not a position I share; Professor Harvey has every right to hold such a position on Irish unity whilst simultaneously being a Professor at QUB. What better advertisement for a functioning Northern Ireland than allowing people of all political opinions and none to be free to exercise them in a perfectly legal manner? There have been many Unionists who have done the same in the past, and I hope this will continue. I am often minded of my English GCSE teacher, an outspoken and knowledgeable Republican. Whilst learning about English and American literature we were simultaneously being exposed to Michael Collins, Republican (and even some Orange) literature, the Easter Rising, and having general discussions on the political topics of the day. This was one of my first encounters with an outspoken and articulate Republican, and I realised then at 15 that Unionism would need to significantly up its game. My old English teachers’ methods may have been unorthodox but looking back, it was a wonderful experience and education. I feel any campaign against Professor Harvey is completely wrong; it is entirely acceptable for Professor Harvey to hold all of the positions that he has and be free to exercise them as he chooses, attempting to censor a University Professor is a retrograde move. It should be the antithesis of what Unionism is about.

Compounding the bafflement of Unionism are the constant streams of soundbites on the “think32” movement which integrates their way into many online debates in a manner that demeans and diminishes their value, something again Professor Harvey has been challenged on. The messages have become repetitive and they appear to be empty soundbites rather than serious attempts to engage in the topic of unity. I remember a Sinn Fein Councillor who had resolved an issue with a malfunctioning traffic light, signed off his social media post with “#think32”. Are we now to believe that traffic lights in a United Ireland will be immune from technical problems and if so will this apply to other devices? Of course, everyone who participates in this activity should be free to do so but they are not selling any new vision of an all-Ireland to Unionism, and in fact like Martina Anderson, they are putting many Unionists off. There is certainly no appetite for Unionism to engage in such forums and this will remain the same if those behind the message continue to demean their project by using the tagline “think32” in every situation as if it has a silver bullet effect.

An “Ireland’s Future” forum recently attempted to address Unionist concerns by insisting that “In a new Ireland there will still be marching bands and people will still fly the union flag from their house. The DUP will be in the Dáil and I hope as many unionists engage in the conversation as possible”. This statement resulted in a backlash from many within Unionism and whilst I genuinely don’t believe any ill was intended, it’s clear that such forums have little to no understanding of Unionism outside of a caricature. This is as much of a problem for Unionism as it is for these forums. But these forums, in general, seem toothless without serious backing from those who can make a change. There is no serious discussion on replacing the current flawed but still valuable NHS, and that makes these forums for Unionists nothing more than an exercise akin to whistling in the wind.

Divided by a Common Language

Within Unionism, we have to accept that many will not use words like “Northern Ireland” and “Londonderry”. As Professor Harvey pointed out, not everyone will consider this place a country. The key is that we need to make Northern Ireland work for everyone so that all of us can consider this a home, regardless of what way the constitution swings, we still have to live with each other so forcing our language on those who don’t appreciate it is a zero-sum game. The reverse is also true of course, is there anything to be gained in a dialogue that refers to Northern Ireland in 2020 as a “sectarian statelet”? Is it problematic that many living in Northern Ireland consider it a country? Apart from legal recognition, it meets almost every other criteria that constitute a country. Outside of politics, many Nationalists are comfortable saying “Northern Ireland”, although I must confess to not having heard any say “Londonderry” and if truth be told many Unionists also say “Derry”. In some ways, our politicians are too far behind the general public. We shouldn’t use our divided language as a way to poke each other in the eye.

Unionist Outreach

It is safe to say that as an ideology, we have failed to reach out to anyone. Unionism has a complex and often difficult relationship with Dublin and London, the Americans are very unlikely to even be aware of Unionisms existence and as for the Israeli flags flown in Loyalist areas, this is not being reciprocated in Israel. The difficult relationships within Northern Ireland are multifaceted, Unionism has problems with Republicans, Nationalists, the Alliance Party, the LGBTQ community, and many others. To compound, those problems, Unionism has a huge issue with anyone from within its own camp with alternative views to the perceived Unionist mainstream. Some of the infighting within parties and between parties such as the UUP v DUP or the DUP v TUV is often much more ferocious than anything that happens between Unionism and Republicanism. This is a key reason why a single Unionist party is a bad idea and an additional reason why Unionist pacts continually fail; Unionists cannot get on with each other.


Unionism needs to reorganise, as an ideology, we are starved of alternative and fresh ideas and with this the fresh faces that such ideas will attract. Unionism needs to reach out and project itself better, however, before it can begin to do this it must learn to respect those within its ranks and start respecting those outside of Unionism because if it can’t the chances of gaining outside support will be negligible. We don’t need a “Unionist Outreach Officer” within Unionism; we need to begin showing a lot more respect.

Photo by zhivko is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

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