Unionism would have a better future if it rediscovered its heritage in standing up for human rights

Recent developments have seen the emergence of two groups which are gaining traction and receiving a positive response on social media – We Make NI and Uniting UK.

Uniting UK commits to ‘uniting NI in a better union.’ We Make NI, less avowedly pro-Union is described as ‘a platform to celebrate NI and debate our shared future in an inclusive, imaginative and positive way.’ Thus far the platform has featured the diversity of those who live in and  for whom NI is a home, the growth of Belfast as centre for Fintech and other technologies, writer CS Lewis, Belfast born Steve Myersregarded by his peers as the man who made the Large Hadron Collider work, NI scientist Ernest Walton who, with colleagues at Cambridge University split the atom and Frank Pantridge who invented the portabledefibrillator which has helped to save millions of lives.

All of this is positive messaging and a challenge to those who portray Northern Ireland as a ‘failed state’ with a future which is time-bound.

Success in continuously peddling this narrative alongside choreographed instability results in Northern Ireland’s stereotyping as a place with insoluble problems, in need of management by external decisionmakers lazily content to pigeon-hole the population as a non-people ingrained with hard-wired and unchanging attitudes and prejudices.

Representatives, including Unionists, elected by those who vote, too often live down to the image and narrative. The outcome is to produce an electorally damaging and morale-draining disconnect between the electorate, particularly pro-Union non-voters and politics which unionist political parties seem unable to address in spite of the gathering evidence of a need to do so.

The image of unionism as right-wing, fundamentalist, conservative and lacking in inclusivity is not an accurate image of an increasing number of young, but not only, pro-union individuals who identify as British, Northern Irish or none and are culturally hybrid in celebrating and valuing the cultural diversity of Northern Ireland.

Disillusioned by and educated to think critically about the, at times, flawed decision- making of a unionism too closely allied to mainstream Protestantism, symbolism of a partisan nature, demagogues and single identity strategic orthodoxy, electors want a better and different Northern Ireland within the Union.

As Mike Nesbitt MLA speculated when leader of the Ulster Unionist party, unionism is putting itself on the wrong side of history. What was not said is that by doing so it is betraying the too hidden wiring of past liberating advocacy.

Unionism, under the leadership of a shameful ‘save Ulster from Sodomy ‘DUP as the lead party has allowed itself to be portrayed as anti-LBGT yet it was members of a broader and more diverse UUP, which pioneered the cause of legislative change and social justice for a marginalised LBGT community.

Montgomery Hyde, MP, a barrister, academic and veteran of the British Army Intelligence Corps during the Second World War was born in South Belfast in 1907 the son of a linen merchant and Unionist councillor. He was selected in 1950 to represent North Belfast as MP, remaining in the Commons for nine years when to its shame the UUP narrowly de-selected him as the party candidate.

While an MP he served as UK delegate to the Council of Europe Consultative Assembly in Strasbourg, and travelled across the Iron Curtain into East Germany and Czechoslovakia. A trailblazer in the truest sense of the term, Hyde was the most vocal MP of the period on the subject of homosexual law reform.

In a speech during the 1958 debate on the Wolfenden Report, published in 1957 to consider legislation on ‘homosexual offences and prostitution’ he demanded equality for homosexual individuals in England and Wales. More progressive than most of his fellow MPs, from NI, Scotland, England and Wales combined, his efforts were not to be rewarded until ten years later in 1967 when homosexuality was decriminalised.

A prolific writer, Hyde’s example further challenges the crude stereotype of unionists as anti-intellectual, having lectured at both the Universities of Oxford and Lahore, been honoured by Queen’s University of Belfast, and travelled extensively. Hyde wrote the first published history of homosexuality in Great Britain and Ireland, The Other Love’, his “most memorable and long-lasting work”. He further published on the subjects of the Oscar Wilde trials, the trial of Roger Casement, and the life of T.E. Lawrence.

Following in the footsteps of Hyde, Jeffrey “Jeff” Dudgeon an Ulster Unionist Party councillor for the Balmoral area until 2019, brought the case to the European Court of Human Rights in the late Over1970s which successfully challenged Northern Ireland’s laws condemning consensual acts between men in private in 1982.

Working courageously in a period of politically motivated violence, Dudgeon managed to secure the passage of one of Northern Ireland’s most socially significant pieces of legislation, without a single bullet or bomb being fired.

The history of socially liberal unionism does not end there. On issues like marriage equality, cultural diversity and social justice there are members of the two biggest unionist parties who support change but remain inactive within the confines of party strategists who misread the mood for change. Younger pro-Union and older non-voters in particular have no such reluctance in creating the kind of pluralist home they want Northern Ireland to be away from the political scene. Many voters and non-voters who do not designate in terms of religious or political identity share these same values.

Research undertaken by the University of Liverpool in 2019 shows many do not think in binary terms, celebrate and reflect the lack of homogeneity within unionism, do not de-humanize those who may not share their political aspirations and reject racism and gender inequality.  Challenging older generations through their willingness to treat those who share this place as they want to be treated, they are changing the thinking of the community.

In doing so, they are communicating to politicians the need to abandon old quarrels and deal with issues like climate change, economic prosperity, health, inequality, sectarianism and segregation. They would rather build a better future than prop up the past and political unionism is shutting itself out of this narrative. Ironically, it is within Unionism that there is most support within a socially-liberal and inter-community constituency for marrying a person from a different religious denomination and attending a school where there is a religious mix. Sinn Fein which likes to portray itself as a party of parity of esteem and respect attracts a greater percentage of those who prefer to marry within the flock and attend schools with a denominational brand.

Unionist politicians who seek to resist this impetus for change will eventually be put out of power either through non-voting or preferential voting for other parties. Unionism has a significant problem in attracting non-voting pro-Union voters into the Polling Station and will in its present form eventually end up as a museum piece. In so doing it allows its political rivals to use social change as a camouflage.

Political unionism knows this but seems unable to act. There is a democratic deficit and systemic resistance to change within unionism which can only grow without a fresh vision of what Northern Ireland can be. There is a risk of the disconnect becoming permanent.

Speak to members of the two main unionist parties and they refer to change being stalled by traditional unionism. They find they cannot retro-fit what is required. To facilitate this is to be risk-averse, blinkered and misjudge the public mood. It has become a perennial struggle within political unionism, partially explained by a too great willingness to glance at what electoral rivals are doing.

Privilege may come into it. The DUP MLA who voiced a need to be careful in what he says as he has an eye on Chairmanship of a committee may be one of many. An attitude like this limits room for change and leaves unionism stranded.

Is there a solution, a key to recovery?

For the moment, pro-union groups who are displaying a resilience and courage of conviction hitherto displayed by H Montgomery Hyde and others, are left to de-couple pro-union advocacy from party politics.

We Make Northern Ireland and Uniting UK are a positive response and examples of how to channel the positive desire for change into action. Reaction would suggest that they are irrigating the desert that political unionism has become. There is hope that the recent pragmatism of the UUP in its response to the travails of the NI Protocol does not prove to be a mirage.

If this is not the case and  political parties cannot build a better future, change and impetus will have to come from the grassroots.

let freedom ring” by Robert Couse-Baker is licensed under CC BY