Colin Reid is an Anniversary Research Fellow at Northumbria University. He is the author of The Lost Ireland of Stephen Gwynn: Irish Constitutional Nationalism and Cultural Politics, 1864-1950 (2011) and a number of scholarly articles on Irish history. He also convenes the Network of Irish Historians in North-East England.
It is all too easy to parody the narrative of Ulster unionism as one of pessimism and decline, utterly devoid of political imagination. John Hewitt’s poetic depiction of the ruling Ulster Unionist Party under the old Stormont regime during the 1960s still rings true today: a complacent political machine staffed by middle-class Philistines, with no ideas other than appealing to loyalist sentiment in the crudest way. Hewitt damned this political culture as toxic, accusing unionism of blindly ‘coasting too long’.
The style and substance of unionist political leadership since partition has perpetuated the idea that support for the Union was exclusively a Protestant trait; and not only that, support for the established parties, first the UUP but latterly the DUP, was the only method to maintain the British link. The logic of twentieth-century unionism was that while Protestants were in the majority in Northern Ireland, Stormont and the Union were safe; all the party had to do was create and maintain unity. This effectively neutered discussion of unionist diversity and banished intellectual prowess, promoting instead base sectarianism and crude electioneering in order to unite the Protestant classes.
The worst enemy within the unionist parties is not republicanism but dissenting Protestant voices: ‘official’ unionism has been castigating independent unionists and Protestant labourites since the end of the nineteenth century. The ‘unite or die’ siege mentality still retains a strong hold over almost every unionist politician within the two main parties. While Mike Nesbitt’s first few months as the leader of the UUP were spent attempting to inject a new energy within unionism, he was also keen to stress his affinity with Peter Robinson and the DUP. The rather meek and belated response of the two unionist parties to the disorder that has destabilised Northern Ireland for over a month is the ‘Unionist Forum’, a ploy that is constructed on a desire to rebuild – or at least give the appearance of – unity within Protestantism.
There is a major irony in contemporary unionism’s obsession with unity. While the utility of employing a sectarian headcount was apparent throughout Northern Ireland’s checkered history, we are in a rather different field of play today. While support for nationalist parties in Northern Ireland remains high among Catholic voters, very few favour seceding from the United Kingdom, a slightly paradoxical situation that Scotland might share in 2014. Ulster unionism made significant constitutional gains through the Good Friday Agreement: the enshrining of the principle of consent and the ‘community’ veto within the Northern Ireland Assembly ensure that the Union is as secure as there is democratic support for it.
In the past, unionism would have looked to Protestantism to buttress the political cause; but we are now dealing with new patterns within Northern Irish life. The collapse of the Celtic Tiger in the Republic of Ireland seemingly closes the door to re-unification for at least a generation. More profoundly, though, for unionism, the recent census shows while the number of Protestants in the six counties is declining, there is an increasing number of Catholics comfortable to adopt British or ‘Northern Irish’ national identities. Partition is thereby safeguarded, not by Protestants but by Catholics. In spite of itself, Ulster unionism has won the day in Northern Ireland.
The decline of the united Ireland ideal will, of course, present Sinn Féin with potential problems further down the line, but these can be largely deflected by retaining its hold of power in the North and making electoral inroads in the South. It presents unionism with a rather different challenge. The Union has won the support, overt and covert, willing and begrudging, of northern Catholics; yet the unionist parties have not.
There have, though, been efforts in recent months: Mike Nesbitt’s first speech to the UUP party conference as leader September was peppered with pluralistic messages, emphasising that unionism should not be the exclusive political domain of Northern Irish Protestants. Likewise, Peter Robinson’s speech to the DUP conference in November reflected on the collapse of the united Ireland project, and the necessity to move unionism to a new mode to reflect this.
Both Nesbitt and Robinson are aware of the changing tides of identity politics in Northern Ireland; but the outbreak of the flag protests has seen the two unionist parties retreat back into themselves, shifting towards more hard-line positions and teetering at times on the edges of condoning anti-democratic values. There is thus a fundamental disconnection between the tone and spirit of the established unionist parties and the mood of the ‘non-traditional’ pro-Union supporter.
While the debate rages as to how unionists should provide leadership within loyalist areas, another one should begin concerning the non-aligned ‘new unionism’. With the Union secure, there is no need for the siege mentality of yore: diversity within unionism, not asphyxiating unity, should be encouraged. Unionism would benefit enormously by recognising the rich diversity within its ranks and channelling the political and cultural energies of ‘British’ Catholics and those who describe themselves as ‘Northern Irish’. This sizable constituency has no political home in Northern Ireland beyond the Alliance Party and the Greens.
Unionism must evolve, just as support for the Union has evolved. What is sorely lacking within the political spectrum is a movement that advocates a civic unionism: a brand of outward looking advocacy of the Union that is in step with wider British (and Irish) culture rather than the beat of Ulster’s tribal drum. The Union infers a partnership, but Ulster unionism has too frequently been insular and disconnected from Britain; in the process, genuine civic identification with British link has been eroded. The comfort blanket of ‘little Ulsterism’ that we’ve seen return within unionist politics in recent weeks is the besetting consequence of this, and one that serves to – ironically – weaken the Union. Unionists need to be more astute in self-perception, more empathic to liberal values and more sensitive to outside opinion. John Hewitt articulated his layers of identity thus:
I’m an Ulsterman, of planter stock. I was born in the island of Ireland, so secondarily I’m an Irishman. I was born in the British archipelago and English is my native tongue, so I am British. The British archipelago consists of offshore islands to the continent of Europe, so I’m European. This is my hierarchy of values and so far as I am concerned, anyone who omits one step in that sequence of values is falsifying the situation.
This ease of identity and pluralism of values, lies at the heart of a confident civic unionism. The war is over, the constitutional question has been settled: unionism now needs to become more of a moral and conciliatory force. Pride needs to be restored in the Union flag within areas of Northern Ireland that are currently horrified by its abuse in the hands of violent protesters. One of David Ford’s arguments as to why Alliance supported the Belfast City Council compromise on flying the flag on designate days was that it would bring Northern Ireland’s flagship council in line with procedure in Great Britain: the ‘unionism’ of this formation was lost on unionists, bar Basil McCrea. The cultural insecurity that destabilises unionism in Northern Ireland from time to time comes from a lack of meaningful civic ties to wider British society. Unionists won the constitutional battle but have failed in normalising their political culture to make it more compatible with mainstream Britishness.
Civic unionism offers a way to connect unionism in Northern Ireland to values of Britishness on the larger island. It represents a confident statement of local identity within the larger pluralistic British whole, has the potential to draw on an intellectually varied pool, thereby enriching political culture in Northern Ireland. The wave of fury directed towards loyalist protesters and dithering unionist politicians by pro-Union supporters over the past month on social media can be syphoned into constructive forms of civic unionism. There are a number of unionist intellectuals who have long sympathised with the idea of injecting a civic strand into Northern Irish politics, from Norman Porter to Paul Bew.
There is a critical mass of liberal-inclined political figures, many of whom have been consigned to the wilderness by the unionist establishment, such as Basil McCrea, Lady Sylvia Hermon, Dawn Purvis, Trevor Ringland, John McCallister, and David McClarty. Many members of the Ulster Unionist Council voted for Nesbitt in the expectation that they were getting something rather different. The intellectual and political manpower is there for a new unionist organisation.
Diversity should be treasured within unionism, not discouraged. Without diverse unionist voices, intellectual debate and political expression become neutered; if this remains the case, unionism will forever lag behind the new pro-Union sentiment in Northern Ireland, an outcome that is unsustainable. If a new unionist organisation were to be founded, one that stressed a positive civic British identity in the place of ethnic fearfulness, the established parties would have to up their game. Complacency, or merely coasting along, simply would not be an option.
There is no magic bullet to address the current flag protests. Loyalist protesters rightly feel that they don’t have a stake in the new Northern Ireland as their unionist leaders became bloated by the wielding of power. Equally though, many supporters of the Union feel that they can’t be unionists until the parties decouple themselves from the ethnic baggage of Protestantism and loyalism. Unionism should be able to accommodate and celebrate all walks of pro-Union sentiment. Recognising diversity might just permit a sense of people’s ownership to assert itself as a guiding principle of unionism in Northern Ireland.Share on Facebook