Where is Unionism going with ‘no bell on its bike?’ – By Terry Wright

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With media focus shifting to the ongoing party leadership tussle at Westminster, the results of recent local government and European elections continue to reverberate, as commentators and pro-union activists with a presence on social media and print, debate the potential of an emerging ‘liberal unionism’, and possible creation of a liberal unionist political party.

Views vary as to the merits, practicalities and pitfalls which might attach to any actions or project which could develop. The legitimate question of what it might look like has been tabled and this, with others, adds energy and focus to the discourse.

A starting point for discussion must surely be to walk back through the recent performance and record of various branches of political unionism and address what has brought them to the place where they sit today. In doing so, it is important to acknowledge that a large number of voters continue to place their preference for unionist parties, however, the recent results, as evidenced by the level of turnout and increase in the pro-union vote for the Alliance party, point to significant decline in this constituency.

Unionism is beginning to struggle in a world no longer designed to accommodate it. The UUP seems intent on continuing its lapse into a past world of traditional unionism and pretend holding together. The political bravado of TUV style unionism which uses bluster as its business model, sitting alongside the politics of a DUP espousing a superficial and highly selective moral relationship between politics, culture and lifestyle has rendered semi-stranger status to unionism within the wider United Kingdom.

No dismissive rubbishing of inconvenient evidence can detract from this and the response that is emerging. A growing constituency which is pro-union and wants to see a return to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement sees political unionism as toxic and rejects orthodox unionist terminology with its binary identities.

It does not see in current Unionist leaders the capacity to move beyond platitudinal aspirations, to take strategic actions that will deliver a pluralist community in which we can achieve important outcomes for all sections of society.

The result is a tug from below setting an agenda of uncomfortable questions for unionist leaders to face up to. Answers, couched in defensive rhetoric which appropriates democracy as opposed to creating it, will not suffice. Any unionist inclined to see impetus for change as a trojan horse would do well to consider that the existence of too many strongholds maintained to resist the onset of a pluralist and inclusive community is the real problem.

Unionism of this nature, in refusing to soften ideological rigidity and shepherd change, plays a leading role in its own demise. There is no escaping that when you have left yourself with no worthwhile banner, you start to march behind worthless ones. Eroding notions of public and shared hope asset strips the future that people desire and so they react accordingly.

The proposal for a Gaelic Language Act is a case in point. Some unionists may not like it, an issue in itself they may need to address, but it does not mean that genuine language enthusiasts do not have a right to it. Freedom and rights for a chosen few is no rights at all. Where is the justification for a political ideology wanting to extend its domination into the realms of culture and ideas? As the wider community is displaying, connections to and engagement with Gaelic culture and language is not incompatible with a strong commitment to the Union and can be a positive reflection of modern British cultural diversity, bringing Northern Ireland into line with Scotland and Wales.

Unionism should be promoting a creative and principled solution and not allow itself to be defined by those who want to claim that the Gaelic Language is a weapon of so-called de-colonisation. This stance represents a retreat into the fantasy of predatory republicanism and H Block sight and sound. As with the GFA process, it is an attempt to take forceful ownership of culture and lock it into a particular agenda. It should not be allowed to detract from the educational, social and cultural enrichment of preserving and promoting minority languages in an increasingly shared and diverse community of multi-layered identities. This can sit comfortably within a wider debate as to why we deny children in primary schools the opportunity to access the many educational, economic and cognitive benefits of speaking multiple languages, as is the norm in most other countries in Europe.

The union should be seen as a continual and accommodating productive process of dynamism and renewal, but leaders have opted to continue the spirit of donning red berets and leading followers along village streets or marching them into politically rutted trenches. Many of the Union’s dividends are being risked and the refusal to alter course opens a dangerous gap between the expectations of voters and what unionism is actually delivering in terms of cultural diversity and respect for individual life choices and dignity.

In the antithesis of what British unionism should be, and to the frustration of an increasingly vocal proportion of pro-Union voters, Britishness in Northern Ireland is in some instances being distorted so as to become a handicap when compared to the rest of the United Kingdom. Unionists, especially young people who live and work in other regions of the United Kingdom, speak of the resulting social disconnect.

Within Northern Ireland, the real benefits of being linked to the Commonwealth and one of the biggest economies in the world are lessened by the denial of cultural expression and civil rights, which force its citizens to travel elsewhere to get married and receive adequate healthcare. This carries too much resonance of past failings and political supremacy. There is more than one legacy issue which unionism has to address.

Liberal or otherwise, unionism needs an infusion of fresh ideological tools and touchstones

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  1. Gerry Mander on

    The author of this article – and most of the intelligentsia – evidently haven’t figured out the inherent concept both of devolution and of so-called ‘parity of esteem’… even when the latter is within their own community.

    Choosing to resist an ILA (that language has been weaponized as cultural warfare dating back back to Dev in the 1930’s up to the current day by SF), defending the traditional definition of marriage, or standing up for the untold millions of innocent, defenseless unborn children from state-sanctioned infanticide is not somehow weakening the Union, nor is it “ideological rigidity”… it’s standing up for deeply-held principles that are for the good and positive benefit of a healthy society rather than just accommodating extremist wish-lists for the sake of merely getting along; that way lies folly as Neville Chamberlain so ably proved in 1938.

    Again, the author of this article clearly has failed to grasp the central concept behind devolution, it would seem.

    And show me a liberal unionist party that has succeeded… NI21? UCUNF? PUP? Unionists are a majority conservative constituency and likely will be for a long time to come, something that self-loathing so-called ‘unionists’ like the above article’s author clearly detests, but then so-called ‘liberals’ have always been intolerant fascists at heart, ’twas ever thus.

    If the strength of the union is merely based on alignment of social/moral and myopic cultural issues, then it’s a union not worth keeping in the first place… which is what I’ve been saying for year anyways; NI is like a battered spouse in it’s relationship with GB and has been since 1972, it’s time to rethink THAT relationship more than any other, no?

      • Gerry Mander on

        I’ve been saying for years – and written at more length about it on this site a wee while back – that the only way for NI to move on to relative normality is to deal conclusively with the constitutional issue, to remove the orange and green once and for all as best as can be achieved.

        To that effect, I would suggest NI being under British-Irish jurisdiction; no NI MP’s at Westminster and no calls for a border poll every five minutes; a new state with national status and new flag/emblem; a NI passport; a written Constitution; a bicameral Parliament with new parties/blocs, etc.

        It’s pie-in-the-sky dreaming I know and it won’t ever happen, but frankly, it would be a damn sight better than continuing the union with perfidious Albion… total and utter distrust/disdain of whom is one trait nationalists and I would absolutely share.

        • Have long thought this too. It really is the only way to normalise and detoxify the situation and give no one side an ‘upper hand’ but just allow it to be a place that is protected by both islands and allow a natural and truthful healing process to take place over time.

          I think the very thought of such a solution is progress. Thanks..

    • James McCreadie on

      Your central point that unionism needs to rethink its path going forward on its long term goal is v obvious & clear. Unionists no this but there message is falling on deaf ears. UUP in recent years have tried & failed. But Why? Is the unionists voters not being slowly dripped fed a new unionist Liberal way?
      It’s nothing new as GB parties are well settled in many of NI major issues. GB voters would settle for nothing less. So why not here.. Sadly the unionist voters seem to think there rights are being eroded in fav of SF, irrespective of ones religion ect all our rights in NI are seriously behind most EU countries not just GB. Could be a very interesting ten years ahead. I think we will gain the same rights as everyone else but what’s in store for our political parties…?

  2. Seán Ó Murchadha on

    Gerry Mander, the Irish Language “has been weaponized as cultural warfare dating back back to Dev in the1930s”???! So the British state’s attempts to marginalise and vilify the Irish Language over centuries is something to forget about & weaponization only relates to when those marginalised attempt to rectify what happened before? Hmmm

    • Gerry Mander on

      Considering the Irish language now has official recognition, medium education, and overly-generous (read: politically expedient) funding in NI, I have no idea why you’re crying about an ILA… unless there’s another more altogether insidious reason for one.

      And we both know there is… whether you choose to admit it or not.

      Ireland (stupidly) chose to leave the Union, don’t forget about that, and you can go live there anytime you wish… a place where even less people proportionally speak Irish on a regular basis than in NI, despite all contrived attempts by the government to make it somehow equivalent to English.

      Want some curry with that yoghurt, by the way…?

      • As a protestant, your conservatism about moral issues is to be respected and devolution as you point out gives you the right to sustain that and I for one, support your principles on this. Your community’s views on ILA are not clever because this union can only flourish from reforming the mentality towards Irish symbols and language. And you can’t deny that this is the hardest one for you.

  3. Seán Ó Murchadha on

    Irish doesn’t have official recognition, hence the campaign for the implementation of an ILA.

    Instead of addressing how you ignored hundreds of years of ‘weaponisation’ of the Irish Language by the British state, you resort to insult. That just shows how weak your argument is. Sorry to see the level of debate on this fine site being reduced to such a low.

    • Gerry Mander on

      Irish medium education paid for by taxpayers, funding by the state for so-called Irish language ‘community’ groups, bilingual street signs for communities who want it, some local councils and Stormont departments (nationalist-controlled ones, naturally!) using bilingual signage and documentation.

      Sounds like pretty substantial official recognition to me.

      Is someone forcing you to not be able to speak, practice, or express your Irish cultural identity?

      No, didn’t think so.

      You’re clearly an agenda-driven activist and not in any way objective.

      Gabh Transna Ort Fhéin.

      • Seán Ó Murchadha on

        Gerry Mander, Irish Medium education is what it is-education. Education is paid for out of our taxes, whatever language it is in.
        Some councils refuse to allow bilingual signage despite demand.
        Stormont departments removing Irish signage when the govt minister changes party is not a sign of a right but a priviledge from whatever minister is in place.
        You asked was anyone forcing me not to speak Irish, and you decided to answer it yourself. Sorry but it is the wrong answer. Because of the lack of legislative protection, My language is marginalised when dealing with the state on a day to day basis.
        Despite you being wrong on those issues, at least you engaged in some way with the issues, rather than focus on insult, which is to welcomed.

  4. The state of this guff from Gerry Mander, whose very name articulates historic injustice. The lack of self-awareness and the historical ignorance are breath-taking. The unionist scorpion just cannot do anything but sting reflexively, because it’s it’s nature. The Irish will simply NOT be granted parity of esteem for their language because to do so is… “To feed the crocodile”. They should accept what they are given.

    Well, try not feeding the crocodile and see how it goes for the union when the frogs outvote the scorpions.

  5. Gerry Mander on

    How is your language marginalized in ANY substantial way? It isn’t a right to be able to use Irish in an English-speaking court, or an English-speaking governmental system, or English-speaking public facilities.

    Is Irish your first language; the language you use all day, every day in private and public?

    I don’t think so… so therefore it’s not YOUR language, as such. Your language is English… as it is the Irish Republic.

    Shall we have a Polish Language Act? A Cantonese Language Act? Both of those are spoken more widely as first languages in NI than Irish.

    You language isn’t marginalized in any way, and woe to Irish speakers for having to suffer the indignity of verbal jabs from Gregory Campbell or Sammy Wilson, how awful for you… poor little princess… oh, the horror of life.

    *eye roll*

    Enough said.

  6. Gerry Mander on

    One last point on this matter, just to be clear and one that I feel needs pointing out;

    I have no problem with Irish language/culture in any way, I consider myself Irish to the core (albeit Scots-Irish, but I digress)… what I do have a problem with, as many here do, is the language and culture being systematically weaponized and shoved down our throats via an ILA for political and cultural warfare purposes, you can’t deny that is the intent from SF (“break the bastards”), and that puts more people off Irish than anything and provokes a very strong and understandably adversarial reaction, as did English heavy-handedness in Irish affairs down through the centuries.

    Were was the ‘parity of esteem’ from SF when they deliberately brought NI to the brink over Orange Order parades, were was/is the reciprocal respect for Protestant culture then and now?

    An ILA is not needed, and some Irish speakers and otherwise liberal academics have agreed, SF didn’t even push for one for literally years until their grassroots started recently howling at the moon over it… so it clearly wasn’t a priority until of late for even them, despite the rhetoric.

    We live in an English-speaking country, Irish language is catered for under the GFA, get over it.

    Here endeth the lesson.

  7. Conservative and Unionist project of 2008-11 was a worthy attempt to break out of the cul de sac of a narrow closed unionism. It was an attempt to engage in national politics and garnered over 120K votes similar to Alliance recent vote in EU election.

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