A more confident unionism could embrace Ireland and the World

Brian Walker has written an impassioned plea for a fresh start under a new Labour government in London and changed leadership in Dublin. While better British Irish relations will be helpful, we also have to look at what has to change within Northern Ireland itself.

In the comments he stated that while he was pro-union, he was reluctant to call himself a unionist, because there was too much baggage associated with the term. He also implied you had to be a nationalist to support a united Ireland. Given that tomorrow is the Twelfth, and that the parades and bonfires are often cited as needed to defend unionist culture and identity, I thought it might be useful to highlight a comment I made in response, and I quote:

“Brian, as you know we have crossed swords in the past, mainly when you have taken, in my view, a gratuitous sideswipe against an EU which has done so much for peace in Europe and progressive development in Ireland.

But you should never be shy about calling yourself a unionist if you support the Union, and particularly if that is your number one political priority in Ireland. Parity of esteem is guaranteed for that belief and identity in the GFA and that will remain the case even in a United Ireland unless the GFA is amended by the sovereign powers which signed it.

But strangely, you can believe that a UI will lead to better governance in Ireland without being a nationalist.

As a pro-EU European I believe that nationalisms as political ideologies have been the bane of our histories and the cause of many wars. I have no difficulty with people being proud of their identity – local, regional, national, or supranational – except when these become weaponised as a means of attacking those of a different identity.

Your hopes of better governance in NI are entirely compatible with my European ideals. We differ only in my belief that that can be better accomplished by Dublin rather than London rule, and in the absence of a border on this island which is still very real in terms of governance, public policy, fiscal realities, economic development, and public services.

My problem with unionism is not that it expresses a different identity on this island but that it lacks the self-confidence to believe it can thrive on this island whatever the constitutional future may be. An identity which requires a state superstructure to sustain it is not a very strong one, particularly when that superstructure was weaponised to suppress other identities

A more confident unionism could, in my view, take a leadership role in all of Ireland regardless of constitutional structures. You have only to look at the vibrant contribution of the small protestant minority (of which I am one) in the south to the social, economic, cultural, and political development of the south.

So, your call for the enthusiastic embrace of all strands of the GFA by unionism is very welcome because for once it would mean that unionism has the confidence to believe it has a positive contribution to make to the governance and welfare of all the people on this island, and perhaps even to the UK and the British/Irish archipelago as a whole.

It is the perception of unionists as primarily takers rather than contributors that we have to change – takers from the British exchequer and goodwill, and takers from the potential peace and prosperity of the island of Ireland as a whole.

If we could change the defensive mindset of unionism as exemplified by the parades and bonfire season to the proud unionism that contributed to the industrial revolution and the defeat of Nazism, we could recapture the spirit of unionism as a positive force in history.

So, wear your unionist identity loud and proud. Just don’t define it in contradistinction to Irishness, or weaponize it in support of one constitutional settlement rather than another. Be confident that those of a unionist or British identity in Ireland can thrive regardless of future constitutional arrangements.

You don’t need a state to protect your identity, and particularly don’t need a state designed to suppress the identity of others. We live in a world where most advanced states contain a diversity of identities without having to become an instrument for the promotion of one identity against others.

Ulster people of all backgrounds have made huge positive contributions to the social, economic, cultural, and political lives of states around the world. It’s time they had the self-confidence to do so in Ireland as well. Ask not what Britain or Ireland can do for you, but what you can do for both.”

Writing in response, one contributor, commented:

“Nationalities often wither outside the nation state superstructure.

It’s why nation states came into existence. If we dispense with that then nations are no longer nations but just mere land labels on a map.

Noone rebukes China for being Chinese or Japan for being Japanese so why are European nations rebuked for wanting their own national characters to be maintained?

The only way I see in the world for minorities to maintain their culture when outside their national superstructure is to turn in on themselves and become reclusive and hermetic.

Hardly the stuff of unity and kumbaya is it?”

Which I think reflects the lack of confidence of which I speak. I wrote in response:

“Are the French any less French for being in the EU? Or the Spanish, Germans, Poles, or Italians, for that matter? They have the self-confidence to maintain their identity regardless of where they live in Europe. The same goes for the British and Irish abroad.

Many nation states are artificial constructs created by the outcome of wars. The construction of national identities came afterwards as a means of achieving stability. There was no Italian identity before Italy except in the minds of some dreamers.

But sometimes that national identity construction process can also be harmful, as when it is used to suppress the identity of minorities. Unstable states often start wars to create a hostile outsider which can be weaponised to enhance stability at home through fear of the other if nothing else. It is a mark of a mature polity that it no longer needs to do this. Brexiteers take note.

China, in particular, has several harshly suppressed minorities. Ask the Tibetans or Uighurs about how they feel about being regarded as inferior Chinese in need of re-education. Why did Putin invade Ukraine if not as a (failing) Russian attempt to shore up internal Russian stability?

Becoming reclusive and hermetic is a sign of weakness, not of strength. Hence my critique of the parades and bonfire culture of unionism.”

I don’t want this discussion to become derailed into a discussion of the history, sociology and politics of nation building generally, beyond noting that nationalism is largely an 19th. century invention. And I don’t deny it remains a force in the 21st. century, particularly when a dominant identity feels under pressure. We have only to look at the rise of Le Pen and the fear of excessive immigration.

But the mark of an advanced nation and mature polity now is its ability to accommodate a diversity of ethnicities, religions, regional identities, and nationalities, and for many younger Europeans today, these are becoming increasingly  irrelevant. There will never be a perfect correlation between state structures and regional or national identities, and virtually every European state has significant minorities.

So instead of obsessing about the need for the Northern Ireland state to maintain its “British” identity in what is increasingly a minority pursuit, why not discuss what governance structures work best for the vast majority, while remaining cognisant of the distinct needs of significant minorities that will exist whatever constitutional arrangements apply?

In that context, it is perfectly rational to argue that the vast majority in Northern Ireland are better off under British sovereignty, and for much of Northern Ireland’s history, that might well have been the case. Equally, there is no denying that Northern Ireland has fallen significantly behind Ireland and southern England in terms of economic development and public services in more recent times, and we need to consider how best that can be addressed.

Perhaps the answer is better governance from London under a Keir Starmer led government. Perhaps the Sinn Féin led Executive can make a major contribution. But it is equally rational to consider whether Northern Ireland would do better under similar policies and governance that pertain in the rest of Ireland. What are the reasons for the stark divergence in economic performance North and South, over the past 25 years?

Unionism has a chequered history. But the north used to be the economic powerhouse of Ireland and for much of the British Empire. Is there any reason why it cannot become a major centre for enterprise and culture in the decades ahead, or must it resign itself to becoming a regional backwater?

As they march in their  bands and warm their hands at the bonfires, perhaps unionists could ask themselves why they must be perpetually defensive and seeking to protect their culture by looking backwards to 1690. What’s stopping them taking on Ireland and the rest of the world and becoming a leading centre of enterprise, culture, and political enlightenment in the years ahead? What’s stopping them leading a new Ireland rather than being a backward region of the United Kingdom or being passively or truculently incorporated as an appendage to a booming Ireland.

Why can unionists not take a lead the process of renewal in Ireland, Britain and Europe? Is it a lack of faith in themselves?


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