The meeting took place in Portrush. In addition to local members, it was attended by the recently elected UUP party leader. In the course of a short speech which seemed unrehearsed and lacked emphasis on any key messaging, he said: “Unionism is always at its best when it has something to fight against.” Like ‘United We Stand ‘it maybe works as a rallying cry but, not unusual within unionist groupings, reveals a limiting view of any vision or hope for a preferred future. Stuck between the incompatibility of echoes of a fighting past and ‘Tiocfaidh ár lá’, both chosen to shepherd the community into binary categories, partisan agendas and the pursuit of power, if people in Northern Ireland, robbed of hope amidst the rubble of prejudice and political conflict, want a meaningful future, they will have to become their own leaders and build it themselves.
Many within the pro-union constituency have already chosen to do so; no longer willing to endorse the communal polarisation in which some would seek to tell them they have to live. Intensity and passion being no substitute for problem-solving and political stagnation, their aim is to mould a future for all that is worth having and make change happen better.
Writing in 1998, in an update to his book Rethinking Unionism: An Alternative Vision for Northern Ireland, author Norman Porter articulated the need for ‘unionism to disentangle from sectarianism.’ In referring to cultural, liberal and civic unionism he recognised cultural shifts resulting from globalisation and other influences but notes that ‘it does not fully translate into political openness ‘and rejection of’ absolutist political orthodoxy.’ This is no longer the case. Data confirms a significant shift across all the age percentiles with regard to what people deem important to their lives and health, economy and employment are prioritised above constitutional concerns.
Political unionism is slow to respond and still seeking out sectarian battles to fight; oblivious it seems to the reality that many see unionism as anti-Catholic and uber-Protestant, it continues to use language couched in denominational tones and embrace rituals accordingly. In effect, it is abandoning the more important challenges of, for example, health reform, the regional and low wage failings of the ‘trickle-down economy’, under-developed infrastructure, disability rights and pockets showing high rates of economic inactivity. The prosperity and investment in the Titanic Quarter and elsewhere is a welcome driver for an improving Northern Ireland but levelling up is paramount.
The creativity, energy and desire are there. Individuals who deploy the term civic unionist or pro-Union, particularly, but not only the post- ceasefire and GFA generation, invest their energy and activism into issue-centred politics prioritising social and economic well-being, education, equality, health and reconciliation. At community level, they commit to building leadership, creating jobs, the social economy and challenging racial prejudice. Confident in their unionism, they recognise that the Union is not a given; that it requires respect, pluralism and inclusivity; first and foremost, a home where people are welcomed, where staunch denominational attitudes do not consign individuals to exist in the dark corners. For them Unionism without such humanity and empathy is not unionism.
Asked by a civic nationalist friend: “Where are all these pro-Union and civic-unionists?” I replied: ‘ working to take sectarianism and racism out of sport, campaigning for women’s and LBGT rights, running ‘Marching to get Fit’ walks for bands, taking drama to cross-community venues, participating in Féile, making music with traditional musicians, organising foodbanks, supporting charities, writing books, learning Gaelic, exploring the culture and heritage they were not taught, running innovative Peace IV projects in the midst of the pandemic, engaging with ex-prisoners, renewing friendships that were interrupted by conflict, organising catch-up classes in literacy and mathematics, running businesses and schools, creating jobs and working in the public service, challenging patriarchy and misogyny, making Northern Ireland work by doing all the things that ‘ Unionists are not supposed to do; and not a banner or bonfire in sight! Why won’t civic nationalism engage?”
We are friends but I am growing frustrated with the ‘basket-case’ and ‘it’s all over’ mantra
Unlike civic nationalism, pro-Union advocates wants to act as a catalyst for reconciliation and transformation, to make Northern Ireland work for all, regardless of what the future may bring in terms of constitutional change, or not. This is something, in a post-Brexit world, that will not lie solely in the control of civic nationalists, political nationalists and republican voters in Northern Ireland; groups, the terminology for whom points largely to a distinction without a difference as the manner in which they pursue change renders problematic the vision they claim. For them to succeed, others have to fail.
It is a zero-sum approach. Rather than a dove of peace they act like a bird of prey. Determined in their misplaced confidence and in the interests of their long-term aspirations to present Northern Ireland as ‘a failed statelet or micro-jurisdiction ‘, it cannot be in their interests to make Northern Ireland work so the only equality they can offer is access to the ruins they want to represent. With some content to exist within their essentialism and assert claims as truth, it looks as if the task will fall to those who designate as pro-Union, more enlightened nationalists or those neither unionist nor nationalist.
Incremental change, the building of relationships, promising transition and growth taking place will be developed further. The future will be blended not shared. Sharing is a bridge over a gulf of latent differences; a half-way house accommodating superficial integration. You might as well leave the scorpions to which John Darby referred in his book Scorpions in a Bottle: Conflicting Cultures in Northern Ireland (1997) in the bottle. In so far as the description applies, pro-unionism wants to climb out of the bottle.
When that Unionist leader of the past spoke of unionism needing ‘a fight’ to be ‘at its best’ there may be a modicum of truth in what he said but he was in all probability thinking of old battles; references to meeting challenges would have delivered a more positive message. Much as you might wish too and political unionism tries hard, you cannot build the future by focusing on the past. Pro-union and civic unionist groups are modelling what can be achieved; open-eyed to the difficulties they breathe and provide evidence of how people from all backgrounds make Northern Ireland work in workplaces, through creativity and a desire to sustain progress.
It is not to deny historical problems but it is too easily forgotten and dismissed that prior to the outbreak of violence on the streets in 1968 towns and rural areas were, in the main, sites of community where inhabitants although wearing different labels worked, socialised and lived within and across diverse neighbourhoods. There was a sense of common purpose, humanity and trust.
It cannot be beyond the abilities of civic society to renew trust, confidence and the motivation to make Northern Ireland a home for all. The Good Friday Agreement provided the process. Politicians may be failing it but civic society can make and is making better choices. It is providing answers that politics is yet to discover.
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.