Unionism behind closed doors

Brian O’Neill’s post on Sunday, suggesting that elder statespeople from our two political communities should be approached to lead a commission on reunification proposals, was a very interesting and challenging one.

While it can be strongly argued that Brian’s proposal is at least premature, it can equally be argued that his logic was sound in light of the ambiguities exploited by leave campaigners in 2016.

Clearly in the period leading up to a future border poll there would need to be extensive discussions on exactly what in theory would be voting on. We’re just not at that point.

However Brian’s post was the latest in a number of similar suggestions of late, and they all need due consideration of their merits. Most of them, in contrast to the more radical approach proposed by Brian, centred on how Unionists need to sell the union to save it.

The ball was set rolling by an article by Peter Robinson in the News Letter. Its good that Robinson has re emerged as a columnist. He was always a pragmatic, intelligent politician who alongside Martin McGuinness created circumstances whereby for the first time Northern Ireland had the semblance of a stable government based in genuine power sharing and with the objective of improving everyday life here.

So when he speaks his words should be accorded at least the respect of a fair, uninterrupted hearing and examination.

Robinson’s article initially dealt with the NI Protocol of which he wrote:

“On balance the protocol does not endanger the Union directly or immediately, but it is easy to see that handling a key matter for Northern Ireland in a manner distinct from Great Britain and in line with Republic of Ireland adds to an ongoing constitutional metamorphosis, but the long-term effect of this latest element is still hard to accurately determine”.

His conclusion is that:

“The most valuable use of our time is to make the best of the hand we have been dealt rather than carping over the result after the whistle has been blown. Don’t waste time trying to change the past; work diligently to change the future. We must make Northern Ireland function as best we can while winning support for the means to strengthen and maintain the Union”.

This was followed by the announcement of the formation of We Make NI, “a new civic society group that aims to celebrate Northern Ireland and counter the campaign for Irish unity”. According to the launch story in the Irish News, the group is made up of so-called ‘small u’ unionists, most of whom have no party-political affiliations, although the two main unionist parties welcomed the initiative. Alan Meban said of We Make NI:

“The challenge for any civic group is to inject new ideas and allow fresh voices to be heard without making the work of political parties they broadly support more difficult, or seeming to be in bed with those parties……….but with organisations like Ireland’s Future gathering momentum, there is a need for civic unionism to be present in those debates as well as creating their own narratives about aspirations for an improved union at a time when the ‘U’ in UK looks increasingly distressed.”

Then came the announcement of Uniting UK, the spokesman for which, former UUP MLA Philip Smith, said:

“Our focus is on people who feel left behind by traditional unionism such as young people, liberals and minorities …… the Union is a two-way street, and we need to promote Northern Ireland’s contribution to the Union in Great Britain. The UK’s future direction may well be decided in Scotland or England as much as on the island of Ireland ….  ‘NI IN’ is our key message and our purpose is to educate, communicate, research and campaign to grow the Union and prepare for any future referendum.”

This message is closer to Brian’s post and to the view controversially espoused by Robinson not long after leaving office.

It’s not untypical of unionism to have two very similar initiatives on the go at the same time. That’s been a major issue since at least 1968. But at least there’s acknowledgement of the need for internal debate and self-appraisal. Something to build from.

But while acknowledging the merit in these initiatives, some words from the Robinson article resonate and should be fully considered when embarking on this process:

“Isn’t it remarkable how those who demand respect, tolerance and acceptance of their identity and culture unashamedly withhold those same values from others?”

Robinson is correct when referring to much of the current political discourse around the union and around unionists themselves. There is a sense of an increasing trend within a growing section of nationalism that demographics will take care of the border and that the views and concerns of unionism need not be considered.

This is the absolute doppelganger of the attitude that nationalists (often correctly) ascribe to political unionism for most of the past century.  It is an attitude that would be likely to hinder and disrupt any intra unionist debate held in public.

Also there is a very real sense that many young, socially adaptable people who are still fundamentally pro union are not prepared to raise their heads above the parapet for fear of being demonised. Same with the business leaders who are pro-union.

Same with unionists in the public and voluntary sectors. Same with unionists within the LGBT community, the feminist movement and the trade unions. The result is the very narrow and generally unrepresentative range of pro-union voices available to the media.

Those voices in turn serve to misrepresent the community they feign to speak for and play into the hands of those whose goal is to stigmatise unionist voices and have them ignored, shouted down or mocked.

These are the people whose voices need to be heard with clarity and confidence. Until we hear them, we won’t know where a vast swathe of our society stands and how it feels. But they are clearly not ready to speak in public.

So while the debate needs to be held, it first needs to take place in an arena amenable to open debate and free of the fear of ridicule. It also needs to be held away from the gaze of the media or of unionism’s opponents. It needs to avoid being led or influenced by practised public speakers and debaters from the parties or the loyal orders.

Or the usual over exposed and detached voices from academia talking at or about pro union people rather than talking to them. It also needs to hear the voices of those genuinely wavering on the union or uncertain of its benefits as if unionist society doesn’t listen to the waverers and take their concerns seriously it can’t answer or overcome those concerns.

In short, unionism and  non-aligned pro union people need the time, space and privacy to sit down over an extended period and completely reassess itself and what it has to offer. Once it completes that process THEN it can start genuinely, openly and confidently talking to nationalism and the republic about how the future might unfold.

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