Unionism Playing Senior Hurling?

For many in the Nationalist community, the ‘United Ireland’ debate broadcast on RTE and hosted by Claire Byrne was highly significant as it represented the first such debate on mainstream Irish media. Following the debate, I was sent a short message from a Nationalist friend that went, “Unionism is now playing senior hurling and you’ve lost the first match”.

My last article for Slugger outlining why I felt it was an apt time for Unionism to be confident and call a border poll was met with a particularly negative response amongst fellow Unionists. One of the key rebukes was the point that the main political parties in the Republic outside of Sinn Fein were not interested in discussing Unity, therefore Unionism getting involved in said debates and referendums was absurd. However, just a few weeks later a key initial discussion has taken place followed by multiple smaller discussions and suddenly Unionism has been left flatfooted and not for the first time. It should have been relatively obvious that the main parties in the Republic would eventually support reunification and a border poll, the antics by the parties in the Republic up until now has been that of a phony war.

Unionism’s stance on dialogue about unification was to avoid it, however, at the first opportunity, Unionism blinked, abandoned its position of nonengagement, and joined in the Unity debate, even if just to say no. This was entirely predictable and illustrates the disorganised, incoherent state of Unionism and how it now operates more from emotion than strategy and substance. Gregory Campbell and Jamie Bryson were the most high-profile representatives of Unionism participating in the RTE debate. Initially, most Unionists were unaware that the debate had even happened, upon reflection, there were three schools of thought:

  1. Continue nonengagement – The main kickback within Unionism is that Gregory Campbell and Jamie Bryson’s attendance gave legitimacy to the debate and by their attendance, they have given the green light for future debates. Had both individuals not attended, the debate would likely have been dismissed by Unionists as “preaching to the choir” from Nationalists. There is a certain irony in Messrs Bryson and Campbell due to their attendance being labelled “Lundies” by some within Unionism, a term each man has used liberally in the past, however, it’s not a word I find particularly helpful.
  2. The second and more prudent observation was that their attendance at the debate didn’t advance the Unionist cause. Gregory Campbell bemoaned the fact that he didn’t receive enough time to sell the Union on the programme, however, Gregory Campbell has made little attempt to sell the Union during his time in politics, although this is something, we are all guilty of within Unionism. Joe Brolly who was disconnected during the debate has since gone on to write a column on his views for Unity, Gregory has failed to take a similar path and this is in addition to not having been disconnected during the discussion. Gregory Campbell’s ostrich approach to Unity is also disconcerting, telling people it will never happen without backing this up with credible reasoning does those of us within Unionism few favours. This is mirrored by Sinn Fein’s approach by claiming that a United Ireland is inevitable and we are now in the “Endgame” phase, again taking voters for granted rather than engaging with them and persuading them is prone to backfire. I noticed that to a wider audience some felt that Gregory Campbell’s tone was out of sync with the general debate, laughing at political opponents didn’t translate well and will certainly not endear Unionism to many.
  3. The final grouping was more supportive of the contributions made by the Unionists. Some Unionists feel it’s necessary to inform a wider audience of the strength of feeling within Unionism against Unity. This particular feeling was evoked during the programme when Jamie Bryson was quoted as saying the following:

I’d rather choke on my own blood in NI than live on streets paved with gold in a United Ireland.


Whilst Jamie Bryson didn’t use this quote during the debate and some supporters have argued that it was merely a “throwaway comment on Twitter for likes” rather than a serious position, it does highlight how we in Unionism need to be much better at communicating our message and reflect on how this might be construed by a wider audience. The point of the quote was to highlight that for many Unionists, the Union is more than just economics but the point could have been better made, this didn’t chime well when Jamie Bryson went on to say that Unionists were “not difficult to get on with”.

Unionism and Unity Discussions Going Forward

One of the main issues for Unionism is how it engages with ‘Unity’ discussion on a more long-term basis There have been several low-level debates on local radio with Unionism frequently using emotion rather than persuasion, this was underlined at the weekend when Arlene Foster repeated her desire to leave Ireland in the event of Unity. I warned before that on a national, international and indeed global scene, Unionism could expect few friends.

This was evident when Unionists appeared on a larger platform with their input scrutinised more intensely than normal. This is what my friend alluded to about “playing senior hurling”, Unionism has to rise to the occasion and not revert to the failed tropes and tactics of the past. Comments about a preference to choke on one’s blood rather than countenancing a United Ireland are not the best way to counter the United Ireland argument. I do agree that on a wider point it is important that people living on the island of Ireland know just how strongly Unionism opposes Irish Unity, however, this must be done more professionally and it must be balanced with clear and concise arguments in favour of the Union. If we are to use chess as an analogy of how Unionism approaches the debates, rather than taking our usual approach of sacrificing the queen to kill a pawn at the start of a game, it would be more prudent to move our pieces out slowly, purposefully and focused on the long-game rather than an initial short-term victory.

Unionism won’t engage in setting a timeline for a referendum, although I don’t believe there is anything to lose from this. Those outside of the Unionist camp shouldn’t be surprised that Unionists won’t engage in discussions around the components of a ‘New Ireland’ as it undermines the Unionist position. There is also a suggestion that engaging with ‘Civic Unionists’ during Unity planning will bridge the gap left from the absence of political Unionism. However, this too presents a raft of issues, there are so many different strands of Unionism that each Civic Unionist will likely have a different view on what should be in a ‘United Ireland’, however, the main issue again is that by engaging, their Unionist credentials are undermined. For example, how could a Unionist participate in these discussions, make recommendations that appear on a Unity blueprint and then argue against Unity and any proposed blueprint during a referendum? At present it would be better for Unionism to wait and allow those seeking constitutional change time to devise their vision, there is nothing to counter at present as nothing has been presented. It is clear that some (but certainly not all) seeking constructional change are aloof to what this means, a simple annexing of Northern Ireland by the Republic is a fallacy and in reality, what would be created is a new country, a new flag, and a new constitution, etc.

This is before we even discuss the key points on the health service, policing and employment, etc. It’s difficult to know from a Unionist perspective what is up for discussion on a ‘New Ireland’? For example, is membership of the Commonwealth a nonstarter, Also, taking into account that most Unionists are uncomfortable with the overarching influence of the EU, would those seeking constitutional change be willing to accept a lesser role for the EU in a United Ireland? Interestingly, this might be more appealing to Sinn Fein than others within the Unity camp. Whilst a ‘Unity’ debate brings many uncomfortable questions to Unionism’s door, those seeking unification have difficult questions of their own to answer, and there seems to be a wide swathe of opinions there including from people unfamiliar with Northern Ireland. Ultimately the underlying question is what is up for discussion?

Unionism’s Current Priorities

The Protocol

As I have outlined many times before, Unionism is in a mess at the moment, the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) certainly hasn’t helped the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the UK, however, Unionism’s inability to address this in any meaningful way is hugely problematic. Arlene Foster initially wanted to make the NIP work, a surge in support for the TUV quickly ended this aspiration, however, at the moment this is still the only option available. The best way to test the legitimacy of the NIP is through the courts which is being done at the moment, however, if this fails what next? Unionism needs a pragmatic and coordinated strategy, one that is realistic and beneficial to Northern Ireland. This will require Unionism to do something outside of its comfort zone and that is to engage with the EU, Westminster, the Republic of Ireland, and key parties here in Northern Ireland and attempt to find a better solution, this is a huge task.

Shared Island Discussions

Presently, Unionism is not involved with the ‘Shared Island’ discussions, this is a mistake. Engaging in these discussions is the best way to enable Northern Ireland to work with its nearest neighbour and remain a part of the United Kingdom. Some Unionists fear a ‘Shared Ireland’ is a ‘United Ireland’ in disguise, but this need not be so. Outlining clear objectives as to what Unionism would like from these discussions and also pointing out that their involvement is not to enable constitutional change should be how Unionism approaches these discussions. I feel there is much to gain from this type of participation and it can help to illustrate that Unionism can be confident and indeed inclusive.

Uniting UK Discussions

Unionism in Northern Ireland should be more proactive in engaging with similar groups in Great Britain with the clear objective of better uniting the UK. Such an initiative has already been outlined by the Conservatives, however, taking ownership of this now, rather than waiting until the Tories find it politically expedient would be much more productive. Northern Ireland Unionism has few friends outside of Northern Ireland and a strained relationship with Great Britain, an initiative like this can help address this underlying problem and if successful it is something Unionism can build upon.

Bread and Butter Issues

Focusing more on bread-and-butter issues, rather than getting side-tracked on issues that were lost many years ago is extremely essential. Does anyone seriously think the flag protocol being outlined by the Tories will be implemented here? However, the time being devoted to this sideshow is incredible whilst serious issues such as businesses going under, infrastructure, health, and employment are continually afterthoughts. Flags won’t save the Union with GB, however, a prosperous Northern Ireland will.

Better Engage with Unionists

It’s difficult not to feel that some in political Unionism have cut ordinary Unionists adrift, this has left many Unionists and indeed Loyalists unrepresented. Politics has to work in Northern Ireland and now more than ever there is a huge onus on political Unionism to ensure that the Unionists across Northern Ireland are engaged and properly represented. There has been little attempt to reengage with the Unionist demographic and it only seems to happen at election time, this is something that will have to change.

Develop Media Friendly Speakers

Unionism is generally poor at communicating its message, we can come across as brash, ill-informed, or stale. Doug Beattie and Robbie Butler are good examples who buck this trend, however, too often particularly during debates Unionism feels a little outgunned. There are good speakers within Unionism, whilst there are others who perhaps just need a little more nurturing. One great Unionist speaker is a fellow Fermanagh native Professor Ian Acheson who is a former counter-terrorism officer. I’ve watched him on several debates and he is not only a clear and concise speaker but also very much across his brief, Professor Acheson currently sits within ‘Civic Unionism’, and I would be very keen to hear more from him and other such voices within Unionism particularly during debates. Interesting, informative and articulate voices are present within Unionism, we just don’t get to hear from them enough.

Final Thoughts

The focus will be very much on Unionism if debates on unification grow, as, for Unionist input on what a ‘United Ireland’ will look like, it’s difficult to fathom how Unionists can engage in such discussions until or unless a border poll has been lost by Unionism. If such an occasion arises it would be foolish to then advise Unionism that its opportunity for input has passed as this would only lead to more problems that could have been averted. For now, debates on Unity will likely continue, therefore it’s important that if Unionists are going to participate in these debates that more varied candidates are put forward to argue the case for the Union. Strong, articulate candidates who can promote Unionism and give outsiders a better and more positive understanding of Unionism will aid the cause greatly. We can’t continue to put people forward to represent Unionism who are damaging the cause, if we are to play senior hurling, we’ll need to be good at it.


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

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