What Unionism ought to do to check Sinn Féin and Dublin by – Dr Steve Aiken

 

Less than two years ago, in the early spring of 2016, any unity discussions existed only in the fringes of republicanism and nationalism and the prognosis for the next half a century was that Northern Ireland would firmly remain part of a confident, prosperous country as part of the United Kingdom.

Furthermore, it was expected that the integration and interconnectivity of the all Islands’ markets would grow steadily as the economic models of both countries, despite the disparity between the Eurozone and sterling blocks, converged. It was a win, win for all.

Then came BREXIT. The Union is indeed secure but there are those within the obvious political parties and unfortunately the Irish Government who seem intent on exploiting people`s fears around Brexit to advance the cause of the ‘unity project’.

I voted for and campaigned to remain. It was a democratic vote across the United Kingdom and the people voted to leave the EU. I am a democrat and totally respect the outcome of the referendum. That`s democracy. Now we have to get the best deal possible for all the people as the United Kingdom leaves the EU.

At the time, the reason I voted to remain and campaigned for remain was to me, clear.

A vote to leave may offer, as an unintended consequence, an opportunity to opponents of the United Kingdom to ‘sectarianize’ the BREXIT process and reopen nationalist debate across the United Kingdom and beyond. I feared that some would seek to exploit uncertainty and that is exactly what nationalist parties and the Irish Government have sought to do.

This linkage of BREXIT to a United Ireland is the thesis of Kevin Meagher and likeminded Labour supporters and has also attracted support from Alliance supporters, through the SDLP, Sinn Fein, and increasingly from some of the Republic’s intelligentsia who, probably for a combination of sentimental and ideological reasons, have seized upon BREXIT as a misplaced belief that it offers an opportunity as the only realistic chance of achieving the ‘national project’ this century.

So where does Unionism sit in respect of this pan united-Ireland ‘momentum’?

Kevin Meagher, in his book, “A United Ireland, Why Unification is inevitable and how it will come about’’ – I think on page 203 – points to Unionists having to actually persuade nationalists about the merits of the status quo; something that I fully admit we have been woeful at doing and in which we need to seriously engage now.

As Unionists we need to clearly define the benefits of being part of the 6th largest economy in the world, we need to make clear that being part of a nation that will have well over 70 million of the world’s most globalized citizens by mid-century, one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the Centre of global Research and Development, the nation of the global city – but more importantly a 21st Century United Kingdom – and we must, in my opinion,  also look to embrace 21st century British values – we need to catch up with the rest of the UK.

Unionism cannot sell 1950’s Britain as the argument for remaining part of the UK for two key reasons – firstly it appeals to a very small and narrow base, secondly our United Kingdom, my United Kingdom, the United Kingdom in which well over 600,000 Irish citizens are determined to stay, is, or hopefully will be 10 years after BREXIT, the dynamic, innovative and globally focused nation that provides the best opportunity for us all. The country that is reckoned to have the 2nd greatest ‘soft power’attractiveness, a nation of the BBC, the creative industries, globally leading in bio-tech, automotive engineering, aerospace, et al, coupled with a vibrant,  democratic and legal system.

I don’t believe in wrapping myself in the Flag, indeed my patriotism is understated, which as a proud British citizen I believe it should be – but the United Kingdom has much of which to be proud.

I also accept, as a self-critical Unionist, that in nearly 1000 years of history, many of the things that were done, in the name of Empire, economic progress and security deserve/need to be considered through the lens of how others see us. I fully agree with what Her Majesty the Queen said when she visited Dublin in 2011: “With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all.”

We should recognise that in order to influence and bring our fellow citizens of Northern Ireland along the journey of remaining within the UK we need to explain, contextualize, and if necessary walk in the shoes of others.

Equally, and republicanism and nationalism have developed a collective myopia on this issue, there should be a recognition from the Irish State that the ‘physical force’ tradition of Irish nationalism is wrong and was wrong. Its destructive legacy has made it, for many in my community, impossible to see any meeting of minds while armed rebellion is seen as a ‘legitimate’ form of political action.

I also worry, as a close friend of Republic of Ireland, who wishes the Republic every economic success, how President Macron’s brave new Europe will look. I cannot foresee Leo Varadkar and those that come after him being able to resist the loss of neutrality within a European Defence structure, the harmonization of tax laws and business rules and regulation, the rising tensions between the EU and the US, and as the Republic of Ireland moves into its second century its further integration within the EU Eurozone ‘fast track’ federalist state.

This, I regretfully believe, will be inevitable.

The counter arguments to our continued ‘United Kingdom’ are based around two scenarios; scenario 1 is the Sinn Fein Matt Carthy and Michelle O’Neill argument that there will be soon be more of ‘usuns’ that ‘yousons’ so you’d better do a deal (that we’ll dictate) with us now (or else) – this being coupled with Declan Kearney’s outreach’ to all of us misguided Unionists and won’t life be great in 2022 with Gerry’s valedictory referendum delivering 50% + 1.

For Unionism, and indeed for every reasonable and intelligent voter across Ireland, the proposition of Gerry’s 32 county socialist utopia will receive the short shrift it deserves.

Scenario 2 is where the real danger lies – it is this  – if we allow the current political uncertainty surrounding BREXIT to undermine the friendly and pragmatic relationships built across these islands’ over the last 40 odd years. It doesn`t have to be that way. Speaking as someone who, through the British Irish Chamber of Commerce fought hard to put the economy at the centre of the UK/Irish relationship, I have seen the importance of the €65 Billion economy; the integration, interconnectivity and interdependence across our nations – this figure represents hundreds of thousands of jobs, firm relationships and understanding, recognition of what really matters and what was a strong and enduring friendship.

We have already seen the new Taoiseach and Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs using BREXIT as a bargaining chip, as has the rest of the EU, regardless of the real issue between the UK and the EU which is, and has always been, the money. The rhetoric around Northern Ireland and whether there will be a hard, soft or wet border is being used in the ‘ grand strategy’ (if such a thing can be said to exist) between the UK & EU – the legacy of such bargaining undermines politics within Northern Ireland and between Dublin and London and further adds to the instability we have to deal with.

So how does Unionism deal with scenario 2? The first very obvious point is ‘not as it’s being done now’.  As an academic (as well as a politician) I can see the future strands of history and political science being written now; indeed the question which will launch a hundred PhDs is how, with all the advantages that Arlene Foster and the DUP had in the early spring of 2016, how did they manage in a few short months to take a position of stability and acceptance of the Union and turn it into an existential crisis? It is very clear that the DUP do not have the answers.

Secondly we need to debate and take our arguments about both the ‘long term’ benefits of closer relationships on these islands between the UK and the Republic and the dangers to the Republic of Ireland of closer EU integration to as wide an audience as possible. It’s not a straightforward binary position and the sooner we get traction on this case the  better. We need to explain why a United Ireland is unfeasible. We have to raise our case from not just this Island but in a much wider and broader international context – we need to no longer shy away from the United States, RTE prime time or the think thanks  of Brussels and beyond.

Thirdly we need to base our arguments around a 21st century view of the United Kingdom and we need to sell that message to everyone in Northern Ireland, the Republic and beyond.

Any debate would need to based around facts including by the United Kingdom being the 6th largest economy in the world, the advantages of the National Health Service, taxation, public sector jobs, infrastructure, our education system and above all, for me, how do we avoid, as anyone who has read ‘Buried Lives, The protestants of Southern Ireland’  by Robin Bury, the systematic ethnic cleansing of the Unionist identity on this Island.

Finally, I believe that Unionism’s main problem is its lack of confidence; we need to break away from ‘project fear’ espoused by some unionist politicians which has come to define our psyche and at times has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The DUP’s election strategy, while tactically successful, has been a strategic disaster, not just for unionism but for all of the people. The failure to articulate a vision that incorporates everyone, to talk about how Northern Ireland will be a success, how our 2 million citizens (within the wider context of the UK being Europe’s most populous country by 2050) will prosper, and how we will have strong and respectful relationships with our friends across the border are critical failures.

As Unionists we need to focus on the long term goals, not short term expediency, and until Political Unionism can develop and articulate the vision for our future, very real challenges remain before us. Unfortunately, I cannot see Arlene Foster, or indeed any of her current potential replacements within the DUP, having the leadership, magnanimity or foresight to provide that vision.

It is time for a New Unionism.

9 thoughts on “What Unionism ought to do to check Sinn Féin and Dublin by – Dr Steve Aiken

  1. All this ‘bigging-up’ of the UK ignores the fact that with the combination of Brexit and a completely incompetent Westminster Government, the UK is going down the tubes in a very big way. The consequences for NI are that 1) there will be much less money being pumped into NI, (which at present is not self-sustaining), 2) the tory government, if it can free itself of the DUP albatross, and much more so, any subsequent Labour government, will secretly or otherwise see NI as a hindrance to the Brexit deal that they urgently need for future prosperity. So – sacrifice of NI to the greater good.

    Additionally, there is no reason given in the above account for the continued existence of NI – it’s just ‘there-because-it’s-there’ and ever more shall be so. Not exactly something to rally round for. Demographics will do for it, and not before time, or vey far in the future either.

  2. At the moment the UK may be the 6th largest economy in the world but Brexit is sure to change that. The country gives every appearance of being on the slide, economically, politically, socially, and dare I say it, spiritually. It is a country which has lost its bearings.

    The NHS is cited by Dr Aiken as one of the advantages of being in the UK. The notion that the people of the UK enjoy a ‘free’ health service is one of the greatest deceits perpetrated by politicians of all hues. That it can provide for all our health needs from cradle to grave is a further deceit, now cruelly exposed through long waiting lists, delays in accessing investigations, delays in the reporting of investigations, delays in implementing treatments, and non-existent or poor reviews of individual cases. None of this would be tolerated in France, Germany, Netherlands, or Denmark where most care for most people is free at the point of delivery. Our politicians keep very quiet about this, as does the press. It is worth reflecting on some sad facts: the UK has amongst the worst cancer survival rates in western Europe, and has amongst the worst infant mortality rates. Mental health care is barely fit for purpose. And what is bad in England is worse in NI, and it’s getting worse. What is Unionism planning to do about it, now, and post-Brexit?

    Yes, Unionism has to change. It must get over the Empire for a start. It has gone. Some Unionists haven’t noticed. It must disentangle itself from the Orange Order and seek to attract Catholic voters like me. It must advance the cause of some form of customs union with the EU, or EFTA, or the EEA, so that a soft border can be preserved between NI and the Irish Republic.

  3. One option often, if not always, overlooked, but which will guard against the Republic of Ireland being subsumed within an EU Superstate and the subsequent loss of Irish national identity (which one can only assume would be anathema to the Irish Republicans of 1916); which will provide a United Ireland; a ‘soft’ if not entirely non-existent border; preserve an Irish national identity; preserve and protect Unionist identity in Ireland; provide local accountable government; grant greater autonomy to each of the UK nations; retain the Common Travel Area; retain the Irish Parliament (with greater levels of independence than it would have in a Federal Europe); allow for duel Irish/British, Scottish/British, Welsh/British and English/British passports; promote the ancient Celtic traditions of each of the ‘Home Nations’; and strengthen the local economies, is to consider a New United Ireland in a New United Kingdom, with devolved Assemblies in each nation and a collective Parliament to deal with issues of common concern.

    Just a thought.

  4. The empire is gone Dr Aiken. Your assessment of the current and future prospects and status of Little Britain bears little resemblance to reality. Unionist short termism means they will continue to return to negotiating their place on the Island of Ireland with ever diminishing returns. As for little Britain’s place at the top table well as Uncle Sam has made clear that the price for that is paying for the privilege of hosting America’s Trident programme under American control.

  5. A border poll is coming in the next decade. The Brexit vote proved how little those in England care about people in Northern Ireland. It didn’t even register to the English voters the trouble it could cause because it isn’t their country and they really don’t care if it doesn’t impinge on them.

    People who reside on the island of Ireland have to look out for our own common interests as one 32 county EU state. The divisions of the past must be consigned to the history books.

    • “People who reside on the island of Ireland have to look out for our own common interests as one 32 county EU state.”

      As an EU state? Not an Irish State?

  6. Dr Aitken, thought provoking piece much in line with the output of this site over the years.

    May I go over a few of your points raised:

    ‘A vote to leave may offer, as an unintended consequence, an opportunity to opponents of the United Kingdom to ‘sectarianize’ the BREXIT process and reopen nationalist debate across the United Kingdom and beyond. I feared that some would seek to exploit uncertainty and that is exactly what nationalist parties and the Irish Government have sought to do.’

    To accuse nationalists of sectarianism in pursuing their legitimate desires is foolhardy, after all, the GFA enshrines their political wish and sees it as legitimate, are you now questioning this?

    ‘This linkage of BREXIT to a United Ireland is the thesis of Kevin Meagher and likeminded Labour supporters and has also attracted support from Alliance supporters, through the SDLP, Sinn Fein, and increasingly from some of the Republic’s intelligentsia who, probably for a combination of sentimental and ideological reasons, have seized upon BREXIT as a misplaced belief that it offers an opportunity as the only realistic chance of achieving the ‘national project’ this century.’

    Fairly patronising stuff at times. Many of us do see it as our only realistic chance of creating a UI, but one of them as Brexit is going incredibly bad at the moment.

    ‘As Unionists we need to clearly define the benefits of being part of the 6th largest economy in the world, we need to make clear that being part of a nation that will have well over 70 million of the world’s most globalized citizens by mid-century, one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the Centre of global Research and Development, the nation of the global city – but more importantly a 21st Century United Kingdom – and we must, in my opinion, also look to embrace 21st century British values – we need to catch up with the rest of the UK.’

    You seem to have overlooked the huge outworkings of the Brexit vote, the rise in hate crimes in the UK for instance, the increased xenophobia and the slowing down of the economy. The UK has even had its credit rating dropped a few notches. Leaving all of that aside, all of these things you point to above are nice, but how does that make the lives of people in the North better? You are part of a large economy, yes, but you are one of the poorest regions in all of Europe. You even have the rather sadistic experimental reminder that to your southern border there is a place that used to be a part of the Union and is now doing far better than the North every single day.

    ‘We should recognise that in order to influence and bring our fellow citizens of Northern Ireland along the journey of remaining within the UK we need to explain, contextualize, and if necessary walk in the shoes of others.’

    OK, sounds great; what have you got in mind? Can this include the fact that many of us really do not want to be a part of the UK, especially in light of the fact that the majority of the North does not want Brexit thrust upon it?

    ‘Equally, republicanism and nationalism have developed a collective myopia on this issue, there should be a recognition from the Irish State that the ‘physical force’ tradition of Irish nationalism is wrong and was wrong. Its destructive legacy has made it, for many in my community, impossible to see any meeting of minds while armed rebellion is seen as a ‘legitimate’ form of political action.’

    Let’s be clear, you want the Irish state to essentially say that the manner it was created owing to the volunteers fighting the War of Independence was wrong? I wouldn’t hold your breath, nor do many nats or republicans believe that all of the physical force tradition was indeed wrong. I note that the Larne gun running and formation of the UVF predates any meaningful creation of physical force republicanism on the island. Basically, unionism introduced the overthrow of constitutional norms by violence. should I expect unionist parties and supporters such as yourself to renounce the creation of NI via these means? I am being serious btw, I look forward to you starting us off by condemning this reversion to the use of violence for constitutional ends.

    ‘The counter arguments to our continued ‘United Kingdom’ are based around two scenarios; scenario 1 is the Sinn Fein Matt Carthy and Michelle O’Neill argument that there will be soon be more of ‘usuns’ that ‘yousons’ so you’d better do a deal (that we’ll dictate) with us now (or else) – this being coupled with Declan Kearney’s outreach’ to all of us misguided Unionists and won’t life be great in 2022 with Gerry’s valedictory referendum delivering 50% + 1.’

    Nice and sarcastic, but unfortunately, you should actually pay heed to demographics. That was, after all, how the North was created. It is akin to setting the rules to a game and then decrying them when they start to play against you. Perhaps it would be better if you actually ‘walk in the shoes of others’ rather than infantilise the serious points raised?

    ‘We have already seen the new Taoiseach and Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs using BREXIT as a bargaining chip, as has the rest of the EU, regardless of the real issue between the UK and the EU which is, and has always been, the money. The rhetoric around Northern Ireland and whether there will be a hard, soft or wet border is being used in the ‘ grand strategy’ (if such a thing can be said to exist) between the UK & EU – the legacy of such bargaining undermines politics within Northern Ireland and between Dublin and London and further adds to the instability we have to deal with.’

    I feel that as some sort of business man, you really do not get what is happening here. Brexit will be one of the largest changes to occur on this island and it is occurring against the expressed will of the people of this island. To think that both the Taoiseach and Foreign Minister, together with the body politic of the Republic, would not push hard against the imposition of a hard border, and that the EU would not wish to have a soft border where a former member could send goods through not in line with EU standards is deluded. The real issue is not the money, that is the easy part, the real issue is the integrity of the Common Market, If it were the money then the argument of Brexiters/fantasists insisting that the German car makers would ride to their rescue would be true, that or else you have not been paying attention to Michel Barnier when he noted THREE indivisible and important matters before we all move on to stage 2 discussions.

    ‘Secondly we need to debate and take our arguments about both the ‘long term’ benefits of closer relationships on these islands between the UK and the Republic and the dangers to the Republic of Ireland of closer EU integration to as wide an audience as possible. It’s not a straightforward binary position and the sooner we get traction on this case the better. We need to explain why a United Ireland is unfeasible. We have to raise our case from not just this Island but in a much wider and broader international context – we need to no longer shy away from the United States, RTE prime time or the think thanks of Brussels and beyond.’

    Look, you are a patriot, and that is fine, but what are the advantages of trading with a country that is increasingly xenophobic and inward looking and that is collectively pursuing a strategy of economic suicide? And also, do you think that people in the south aren’t already aware of all of the points regarding further EU integration? When it comes to matters of Europe, northerners and the UK in general appear to be light years behind, as the whole fiasco around the border and its treatment shows.

    ‘Any debate would need to based around facts including by the United Kingdom being the 6th largest economy in the world, the advantages of the National Health Service, taxation, public sector jobs, infrastructure, our education system and above all, for me, how do we avoid, as anyone who has read ‘Buried Lives, The protestants of Southern Ireland’ by Robin Bury, the systematic ethnic cleansing of the Unionist identity on this Island.’

    Hmmm, the much maligned and criticised Robin Bury’s selective book. From the Irish Times:

    ‘This study would have benefited from reference to Tim Wilson’s comparative work on the German minority in Poland and southern Irish Protestants in 1918-23. Wilson’s view is that southern Protestants were, in the end, successfully assimilated. German communities in Poland were ultimately totally destroyed. Southern Irish Protestantism, considering its “dominant minority” status and political proclivities, got off lightly. One reason is that the state was acutely conscious of the economic and reputational damage that mass departure would cause. Consequently, it wrapped its Protestant citizens in cotton wool. ‘

    But hey, we all see what we want to?…

    ‘Unfortunately, I cannot see Arlene Foster, or indeed any of her current potential replacements within the DUP, having the leadership, magnanimity or foresight to provide that vision.’

    Agreed. I might add that this article helped convince me that it will not be coming from others who perhaps think of themselves as, more enlightened? especially with references to ‘ethnic cleansing’ (you lost me there, I have to admit).

    I wish you the best of luck in your endeavours, even if they are contrary to my own.

    Kevin

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