With increasingly persistent speculation about a new Ireland and insistence, bordering on arrogance, that the result of any tribal headcount referendum for Irish Unity is a foregone conclusion, Irish Nationalism is beginning to wonder aloud how it needs to prepare for an influx of disenchanted Unionists.
Be careful what you wish for comes to mind. Closing down the ‘failed state as a separate jurisdiction ’to absorb the North will mark the beginning of a testing journey through a minefield of unseen proportion.
The intensity if not the density of a mounting challenge for political unionism seems evident. Could it be however, that the greater challenge is internal, within unionism itself?
If this is the case, is unionism in its political form capable of the forensic, principled and ethical reflection required? Can it move from its over-concentration on attracting followers to building pro-Union civic leadership? Can it cast away the remnants of an entitled, judgmental and privileged legacy of stereotyped Protestant and Orange Unionism that eschews and distorts the British identity it purports to value, to embrace and represent the changes that are taking place all around it.
Some older movies which show on television now carry the warning:
“the following ….. may contain outdated depictions that reflect societal attitudes at the time of production.”
The evidence for some of our politics and politicians meriting something similar for what is not the preserve of any one sector, is compelling. Is it the case with political unionism?
The future is not Protestant or Orange. It will not be green for it will be tinged with the same diversity that Unionism is failing. Indeed, in the event of the political merger of the southern and northern jurisdictions, the orange and green of the tricolour would be rendered obsolete.
It would, would it not be a symbol of uniting a binary division which is already outdated against the background of blended political, cultural and social identities and preferences now pertaining and likely to increase. Why would a new country wish to maintain the blooded symbol of a contentious past?
Similarly, many pro-Union individuals have no affinity with or desire to be identified with an ‘Orange tradition’ associated with Drumcree, Twaddell, anti-social behaviour at poorly managed bonfires held in its name, in addition to narrow views on cultural and social issues.
Northern Ireland is now much more diverse on many levels – social values and behaviour, skills and education, ethnicity and identity, beliefs and spirituality, wealth distribution and life chances, standard of living, sexuality, mobility and allegiances.
When the statistical analysis of the 2021 Census emerges, it will evidence much more than religious preferences and designation. Diversity is a fact of life. Inclusion is a choice. For unionism there is no other choice.
The red-faced, hard-nosed, brass-necked and self-indulgent caricature unionism of a Demanding Unionist Party whose representatives, at considerable cost to all British taxpayers, fail to grace the green benches at Westminster, are not the solution.
They choose to orbit a binary world that is disappearing and losing its appeal. They deny and refuse to imagine a better and more pluralist future. Other unionist groupings exhibit the same tendencies.
Students of the granular nature of political unionism will know this to be the case.
Speaking recently on the Claire Byrne show on RTE addressing the possibility and ramifications of Irish re-unification, Gregory Campbell MP, thankfully without repeating the insensitivity of his comments about Gospel Choirs on BBC’s Songs of Praise, referred to Henry Ford and his selling point on the mass-produced Model-T Ford that you could have ‘any colour as long as it is black.’
Eventually it lost its appeal and was replaced by more up-to-date models offering a range of colours more appealing to consumers.
In the same way, mass-produced political unionism is less in demand and problems go well beyond branding. In spite of individuals recognising this, the production line does not facilitate modernisation. Too many want to keep producing the old model and will not facilitate modification. Soon they will have a product without any scrappage value as it drives entrenched thinking on Brexit, the NI Protocol and Language Rights.
Individuals within the DUP and the UUP acknowledge this situation privately and grow frustrated at the incapacity of their parties to embrace, reflect and strategize change.
They are hesitant and risk-averse as a too strong culture of traditional unionism and ‘unity at all costs’ proves resistant to review and renewal.
The tragedy is that the economic and political case for the Union remains strong and retains a majority of support not reflected in voting patterns with unionist parties no longer in the majority. This is creating space for republicanism which exists in the present but lives in the past, to carry on its war by other means and claim territory on social, welfare and democratic issues like diversity and reconciliation with which a pro-Union community is entirely comfortable yet remain an afterthought in unionist politics.
Unionism may have played a major role in de-commissioning republican weaponry but has been just as unsuccessful is de-commissioning its politics as republicanism choreographs anniversary after anniversary to keep the narrative ‘lit; to provoke an obliging political unionism on to the territory where it is easy to target and diminish.
This was the case in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
A strong body of civic unionism supported reform and change. Under the onslaught of violence as a campaign against perceived injustice was set aside in favour of war and proposals for any political settlement insisted on an Irish dimension, for which neither the north or south was ready, Unionism retreated into the ’not an inch’ trenches. It was a repetition of the orthodoxy of the 1920s which emerged in not totally dissimilar circumstances.
Too many remain in those trenches of conflict politics and inhibit the full implementation of the
Good Friday Agreement which led to constitutional change in the Republic of Ireland with regard to claims over territory and secured the principle of consent. It was a pathway to maintaining the Union on the basis of persuasion based on prosperity, parity of esteem, equality, pluralism and power-sharing.
A growing constituency, in many cases led by the younger generation, embrace these yet the journey for unionism has been too slow and it has been diverted too easily. The pro-Union community is more tired of conflict and unbending rhetoric than many of its representatives appear to be.
The need for a voice promoting a different type of pro-Union pluralist, reconciliatory and inclusive politics is becoming an imperative.
NI21 tried and failed for reasons only known to those who led it to its demise. Is there an alternative model? A new party? At a time when pacts to safeguard the union are in the air it will not be welcomed. That may be the rallying cry to proceed.
A coalition of like-minded pro-Union independents may be the way forward.
Issue-centred political principles of equality, reconciliation, inclusion, regional levelling, improved health provision and building on the economic success which is beginning to emerge to create employment and reduce the subvention is surely an agenda around which elected pro-Union individuals could coalesce to find common cause.
We may be disappointed by the answer but it is certainly a question worth asking if we are to make Northern Ireland work before political unionism detaches it from the Union any further.
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.