“Unionism quarrels its way to agreements” – By Terence Wright

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The Palace cinema, one of several in Derry at the time,was in Shipquay Street. With its brass-railed kiosk and braided usherettes it has long ceased to function as a cinema.
One of the first of the ‘epics’ was showing. You could not get in without a pre-booking a seat. Colourful posters showing Charlton Heston with tablets of stone, great walls of water enveloping the stricken army of Pharaoh and former slaves dancing around a golden idol raised expectations as you made your way to the auditorium. When the curtains drew back Cecil B De Mille whose name was writ large on the posters made an appearance to introduce the story. His tone was reverential. The response of the audience was suitably respectful.

The familiar narrative unfolded as the exiled Moses, in the face of a host of what now seem somewhat over the top villains portrayed by Edward G Robinson, Vincent Price and a scornful Yul Brynner, returned to lead his enslaved people to freedom. 

The story did not end there. The freed people welcomed their escape but when put to tests they, with little persuasion from those whose power rested firmly in the past, would have returned to bondage in Egypt. They did not but, an admonished people, spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness.
Looking back has the ability to invoke mostly favourable memories. If these contrast negatively to the more immediate current experience, it feeds the mentality of those prone to conservatism and risk-averse choices. It is one of many self-defeating traits within traditional unionism and is all too apparent in the political tug-of-war and likelihood of fresh elections visited upon us by the intransigent unionism of the DUP.
An electorate in need of solutions to pressing social and economic issues needs no reminding that a tug-of-war is rarely comfortable for the rope. Brutal is in all probability an appropriate description.
Unionism, as the political platform most committed to the maintenance of the Union, should be easily identifiable as the option best suited to delivering fairness, equality and respect as well as prosperity and accountability across all areas of government. 
Doing what is right even when if it causes discomfort should be a hallmark. 

Unionism, choosing to do otherwise, is not so much unfinished as abandoned and serves only to deliver poverty of purpose. When this is framed in ‘chosen people syndrome ‘ allied to a deeply ingrained and misplaced sense of covenant, culture and identity, the problems are exacerbated.

All of this has a degenerative effect on what it purports to promote.
Since 1968 unionism, whether under the stewardship of the DUP or the UUP as the leading party, has failed to achieve and sustain the permanent re-alignment and progress in thinking which is necessary. 
With only episodic exceptions, it has shut out complexity by hardening boundaries and has had to endure storms often of its own making. Lacking future vision based on reflection, it has relied on a dream-like imagining of an heroic past celebrated in rituals and politics which blur culture and identity. There is no courageous willingness to disrupt Unionism’s obsessive and damaging assumptions. Anyone viewed as challenging, is demonised.
The by product of this is an over zealous determination to guard what are viewed as foundational pillars of the state and do only enough to not cede of government. 
Doing what is right even when if it causes discomfort should be a hallmark rather than make progress. Hence, the irrational response and confrontational rage of some leading unionist political activists to the Irish language and other expressions of culture, deemed ‘beyond the pale ’ or likely to diminish some perceived cultural supremacy. 

It is too easily forgotten that rage is rarely an isolated event and drains the community of energy.

Sewn into the texture of unionism, not yet culturally or denominationally neutral, this continues to permeate political thinking. The result is a lack of any radically social enlightenment and the maintenance of political suspicion and anxiety, if not paranoia. 
Strategically, politics and narrow culture are used to define territory, the mantra of not an inch pertains and Unionism quarrels its way to agreements. It produces a leadership that is more comfortable at being in charge,as opposed to taking care of those in its charge. 
Hollow electoral pacts, which none of the main unionist parties will dismiss as an option, are another characteristic.
Increasingly, in a changing Northern Ireland, it does not seem to realise that if you seek to create politics for your exclusive use, you risk withdrawing into irrelevance even within your own perceived constituency. It is a throwback to pre-GFA unionism and sustained partly by a current lack of viable alternative, a narrow political sect of the like-minded has come to power.
It is a default position producing what we now witness within Stormont where the many facets, hidden and otherwise, of the RHI debacle are played out against a backdrop of resurrected unionist fears and anxieties. 
Legitimate concerns with truth, transparency and the wasteful squandering of scarce resources shared across the whole community are now presented, misogyny having received short shrift, as an attempt to weaken unionism and remove a strong unionist leader. 

In the mistaken belief that strong will makes for strong leadership, the leader has done a fairly good job of this already but whether cynical or real, that it is raised in either context, is indicative of the prevalent state and systemic failings of political unionism.

Exploiting fear and anxiety of unwelcome political and cultural change remains a card worth playing.
To expect this kind of unionism to work within consensual arrangements is a contradiction in terms. Too many of its advocates prefer the problem to the solution. To make progress, they would have to de-construct their own prejudices and address incompatible truth. The option that is being tabled is to amend the structures.
Review was always an option but if there is no change in the mind-set of unionism as the main political preference of the majority at this time, then politics will continue to meander and wander without direction and common purpose.

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  1. What a profound and honest article. Words of warning to what comes across as a group of petulant children not wanting to share their toys, but enough honesty to hopefully start to melt the intransigence of the biggest party, numerically.

    • Ruaidri Ua Conchobair on

      Whether you like it or not, you already inhabit this NI colony statelet territory with those who strive for the just cause of reunification and self-governance of the Irish nation on the island of Ireland i.e undoing the injustice imposed upon Ireland at gunpoint by the foreign British colonial Westminster parliament in London, England – Unionists expressly acknowledged in the GFA this quest is ‘legitimate’.

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