Unionism, which has too often relied upon fear of the future, needs a future positive strategy

Editor’s note: Slugger has had a upturn in readers for coverage that’s more reflective than the ‘look petrol bombs!’ material so popular elsewhere. We try to maintain a long term perspective in preference to thrills that sell copy/views. Here’s good piece from occasional Slugger contributor Trevor Ringland that missed the mainstream cut elsewhere.  

The violent scenes that have played out on our streets over the past days have been affected by a considerable number of issues. There is the protection of criminal empires, anger and distress at the Northern Ireland Protocol and a perception of bias, real or imagined, in the application of the law.

This is all against a backdrop of lockdown, which has required young people to be cooped up for more than a year.

In addition, the difficulties of sharing responsibility for government with a party whose ambition is to make Northern Ireland fail, and that insists that the murder of their neighbours was justified, contributes to a volatile, unconstructive atmosphere.

Then there are the tensions around Brexit and the way that they have been exploited, the culture of violent street protests, the success of using threats of violence to secure political goals and the recent interventions on the likelihood or otherwise of a border poll.

All these, and there are more, pose challenges to everyone comfortable with the constitutional status quo. Whether we consider ourselves unionists, pro-Union or just pro-Northern Ireland for the medium term, we must think how best to frame arguments that bring out the best of the place we care about.

In the past, the political strategy of unionism too often relied upon fear of the future. That was counterproductive, unattractive and insulting to an astute electorate. While we should acknowledge this, it’s only right to recognise that nationalism / republicanism pursued its goals through methods that were often worse.

There were those, of course, who recognised that the only valid way to bring about constitutional change was to make Northern Ireland work. They realised that they had to bring people together, before the two parts of Ireland could come together politically. Unionists should appreciate that position and do more to meet its challenge constructively.

How can we learn from these mistakes and set out a clear path for the future, that protects the constitutional status quo?

Put simply, it has to be a Northern Ireland for all, which includes great relationships across this island, and actively engages in and promotes a United Kingdom for all. It has to help reconfigure our relationship with the rest of Europe (which is something of value), as well as looking outward to the rest of the world.

We are, after all, part of a Commonwealth of 2.4 billion people.

We are in a great position, perhaps unique, to celebrate and capitalise upon this web of links. We are also the Irish part of NATO, through our membership of the UK, with a full-time seat on the Security Council of the United Nations. And through our historical links to the US, whose history our people have shaped, we can be influential there too.

While we can acknowledge the sense of loss that partition must have meant for the nationalist part of our community, there is so much to appreciate about this place. Northern Ireland was a compromise, because of the way the politics of the time developed, leaving us constitutionally in the UK, which we did not want to leave, while physically and in so many other ways we stayed part of the island of Ireland. The reasons for this compromise persist to this day, as do the reasons for cooperation and improved relationships across these islands.

We also talk about partition without recognising the vast number of Bodies and Organisations in sport, culture, religion, economics, health, education and tourism and other areas together with the personal relationships all of which operate throughout the year on an all Island basis. The constitutional status quo allows us to be separate maybe but yet together in so many ways.

Over the coming year those who appreciate Northern Ireland’s place in the world should promote policies and ideas setting out how we should actively and constructively enjoy the benefits of the current constitutional position. They should reflect our diverse and inclusive identity, the opportunities of our economic situation and the variety of our culture, as well as setting out how we can meet the challenges of issues like poverty, educational underachievement, crime and health reform.

We should be saying that, while there is so much that is good, it could also be even better.
Our politicians share responsibility for governing Northern Ireland. Their focus has to be on policies that will make a difference to our lives, or they should be exposed for their failure to deliver.

We should also be promoting the benefits of the wider United Kingdom and actively engaging in it. How can we help shape it and keep in balance the interdependent relationships that give it its character and strength?

Let’s recognise and appreciate what we have achieved as a people, despite all the difficulties that have confronted us. There is no reason why that should not continue to be the case well into the future. The use of violence undermines our constitutional argument and is wrong and unjustified.

Genuine concerns do need to be addressed and challenged, but in a peaceful way. There are plenty of capable people around who can assist in doing just that if given an opportunity to set out their suggestions.

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