“I don’t care what religion you are. I don’t care what gender you are. I don’t care what your ethnic background is. You can be Unionist and will be welcome in a Union of people?”
– Doug Beattie, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, 2021
Is this as inclusive, diverse and progressive as political Unionism gets? Is there deeper meaning in saying to those of diverse ethnicity, gender and religion that as a Unionist…….. I do care?
Individuals in Northern Ireland who experience or have experienced discrimination and injustice because of their faith, sexuality, race or ethnicity are surely more interested in hearing that the issues which diminish their quality of life are resolved.
This is more important than a close to gratuitous welcome into a Unionism largely defined by a binary identity rather than solutions to social and economic problems. It is these which impact on everyone to a greater or lesser extent, regardless of obsessive labelling which de-humanises and is past its sell-by date.
Political Unionism should reflect further; to cast off for good the constraints of old symbols and thinking, too much influenced by partition and the politics of insecurity it spawned. The embeddedness of Unionist pageantry and untarnished governance narrative could benefit from the positive turbulence of creative and radical political action and decision-making; beyond the ideological fixation of besieged constitutional terrain, communal and lazy categorization.
The pro-Union electorate and those who find association with political Unionism an increasingly uneasy fit, aspire to this but grow frustrated at a ponderously slow and too cautious pace of development underpinned by limited vision.
Unionism ceased to govern Northern Ireland in 1972. Its influence in the period since has ebbed and flowed. Prior to this, as the Centenary reminds us, Unionism governed from 1921 onwards.
There is an industry of polemic, some quite recently available, to catalogue the failings of a Unionist dominated failed statelet of Northern Ireland from 1921 to 1972. The ideologues of a fourth green field, indulging in the odd assertion of having lived in conditions similar to Black Americans in states like Georgia are unlikely to be persuaded otherwise.
Historian Patrick Buckland in his history of Northern Ireland may have felt justified in entitling his publication The Factory of Grievances but that people ever had to sit in a particular seat in a bus or restaurant or use a particular water font because of their religious or political background could surely not have been in his thinking.
However, this does not justify the general response of Unionism which is to erect barricades of in the face of difficult history. In 1920 – 25, the threat of nationalism may have been real but as suggested by J Ruane and J Todd, ‘the means taken to combat it were counter-productive.’
Too little effort was directed at making Northern Ireland work for all.
Many in political unionism have failed to learn the folly of repeating past mistakes. The argument, that the consent principle enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement will be gained, not by tribal demographics but delivery of meaningful politics, is silenced not least by the irrational culture of provocative parades, bonfires and flag-waving and opposition to values present elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
The answer to the zeal of the Ireland’s Future dream factory and similar lobby groups is not found in repeating the past. The same applies to getting sucked into the perversion of mutual respect that prefers to keep a City Hall in darkness rather than illuminated to mark an important historical commemoration. Such people would draw the energy from any light so best to avoid their darkness.
In late Summer, the findings of a survey conducted in Great Britain was published. Its findings should be read by anyone aspiring to sustain and strengthen a connected United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. The insights endorse what pro-Union groups and individuals have been saying for some time. In highlighting points of consensus, they relate to what people, free of fear and negativity, want to hear and see, in and for the years ahead.
The language is clear in emphasising public priorities around a key issue-centred lexicon:
- Healthy: – a healthy NHS, a healthy economy and healthy families. A healthier nation for everyone, everywhere;
- Responsible: – responsible business; responsible government, responsibility to each other;
- A Plan: – not an agenda, not a manifesto, not a promise but detailed planning to make life better;
- Honesty: – from leaders; say what you mean and mean what you say;
- Accountability: – take ownership of your mistakes and fix them, immediately
- Equality: – where everyone is treated the same regardless of what they do; where they come from; and
- 4 Rs: – responsible, realistic, respectful and results.
Identity politics does not come anywhere on the list.
If political unionism is to succeed, it needs a major overhaul in its thinking. Important as it may seem, there is too much reliance, on strap-lines and soundbites, evasion on answers to honest questions; too great a dependency on tactics which misread the sophistication of the electorate and too great a reluctance to break away from the carnage of constitutional stand-offs with parties which are only happy when they are at war.
False piety, too little humility and a lack of self-criticism have equally limited appeal.
To summarise: political unionism must drain the swamp of its own past errors: not least the recurring and unchecked politics that harden into lesser forms of civility. There is much to be gained from a generative review of missed opportunities and of what has been holding it back in order to learn how to avoid defeat before moving forward again.
Be passionate about the ends but deliberate about the way in which you act in order to achieve the single long term goal of making Northern Ireland work.
Telling people that you do not care about their background or status if they wish to join with you may be well-meant but it is much different to saying that you actually do care about their lives; to make them better by removing constraints, past or present, on your capacity to deliver.
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.