It would be entirely understandable if Irish Nationalists, Republicans and the middle ground took little or no interest in the current malaise that is the body politic of Unionism. It’s not like we Unionists are any different, outside the occasional outburst of troubles related moral indignation, few of us take any interest in the SDLP, Sinn Fein or the Alliance; much preferring the carnage that is inter-Unionist politics. I think we should change though; thus whilst the target audience for this essay is a Unionist one, I hope those of different political persuasions take the time to read it. The years ahead will be challenging and we will be best served by understanding one another.
In 2020 one would expect Unionism in Ulster to be in celebratory mood. This year is the centenary of the Government of Ireland Act that created ‘Our wee country’ and 2021 will mark a hundred years since the inauguration of the first Parliament of Northern Ireland. But nobody is celebrating. What with RHI, the Brexit mis-judgement and the ongoing decline in Unionism’s political clout there is no interest. Instead there is an apprehension fuelled, by a slow burn realisation that we have walked ourselves into a political cul de-sac and lack the power to get out; and the price is being paid. We have already seen Nigel Dodds lose his seat, closely followed by Arlene Foster dropping all her objections and hoofing it back to Stormont at the first opportunity and at the time of writing a coq-a-hoop Sinn Fein is celebrating a bit of business south of the border. No doubt there’ll be more.
So how did Unionism in Ulster get to this point and more importantly how might it build a new relevance in the future?
In his 2001 biography of Gusty Spence, Roy Garland described how in 1975 the future Progressive Unionist Party leader David Ervine arrived in Long Kesh prison camp awaiting trial on an explosive charge. Whilst there he had his first encounter with the aforementioned UVF commander and future PUP strategist; Gusty Spence. Whilst accepting that our varied perceptions of individuals and events leads to very different and equally legitimate viewpoints, Spence and Ervine had a profoundly positive effect on my political outlook and I will never be done thanking them for it. During that first encounter Spence asked Ervine ‘Why are you here?’ Considering the question to be ‘stupid’ Ervine replied ‘I’m here because I was fighting for Ulster’. Unimpressed Spence said ‘No, no, no – why are you here?’ He wanted to know what was the history and motivation behind Ervine’s imprisonment. As Ervine grappled with the question he began ‘to understand the human being that’ he ‘was and why generations had been prepared to sacrifice their liberty or lives in defence of republicanism or loyalism’. To all our benefit Ervine’s deliberations led him to adopt a different approach and if it’s to find a way out of its current malaise Unionism needs to follow his example.
It’s time for Unionism to look in the mirror and ask itself ‘Why are you here?’
Most commentators say Unionism is here to maintain Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. Why this is important is a question Unionists never debate but urgently need to start answering. How the Union should be maintained is usually a source of bitter division signposted by calls for ‘Unionist Unity’. And as for a long term strategic vision outlining how a Unionist approach can forge a sense of common purpose across Northern Ireland? Pigs don’t fly.
For what it’s worth here is my view.
Why is Unionism here?
In Ulster, Unionism’s purpose has not been to maintain Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom; that is a positive by-product. Its primary purpose was to ensure that the descendants of the 17th century Plantation in Ulster were never forced to sit as a minority to their Gaelic neighbours. As the kinfolk of the 471414 residents of our island who self-identified as ‘men of Ulster’ and ‘women of Ulster’ when they signed the Ulster Covenant and the Ulster Declaration in September 1912, the planters and their descendants are the result of an act of historic dis-possession that none of us would countenance today. And the sub-conscious fear of revanchism has defined planter politics since.
Not Gaelic by tradition or culture the 17th century settlers did not exist in Irish history before that time; and to complicate matters further for them, the Ulster plantation is the moment of birth, when they became a people with a homeland; a culture; and in time, a history.
The cost to Gaelic Ireland was severe and unsurprisingly its politics has struggled with the legitimacy of the planter identity since. The 17th century Irish poet Lochlann Og O Dalaigh understood the situation well when he asked ‘Where have all the Gaels gone?’ lamenting that ‘In their place we have a proud impure swarm of foreigners.’
Despite the pain of dis-possession for the majority of history Gaelic Ireland rejected revanchism, seeking instead to build a narrative that accommodated the planter population into the ‘struggle’ against ‘British occupation’.
Wolfe Tone and his free thinking compatriots led a brief period of planter conformity in the late 18th century when they sought to challenge Dublin elitism and ‘unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenters’.
But whilst acknowledging the legitimacy of Tone and his compatriots, for this writer, the narrative doesn’t ring true, mainly because it fails to reflect the true extent of Plantation related division; it exists today and thus must have existed at the time. It was not for nought that former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt whilst addressing the recent launch of an Equality Coalition report on Sectarianism: The Key Facts, admitted to being ‘burned’ by Unionist sectarianism when he sought to lead the party out of the 19th and into the 21st century.
Tone and his compatriots did change the course of Irish history. Their words and actions have inspired generations of young activists; just not amongst that ‘proud impure swarm of foreigners’.
Outside of the United Irish period planter politics reflects its true purpose; to ensure that the descendants of the 17th century Plantation in Ulster are never forced to sit as a minority to their Gaelic neighbours.
In the early days everyone was expected to be armed and able; securely and separately housed behind the bawns and walls that could never be surrendered. And then resultant of the 18th and 19th century growth in industry and commerce the separation by religious identity took on a social element as the catholic labouring class increasingly played second fiddle to their protestant neighbours; the sectarian divisions that persist across Belfast bear witness to that truth.
The pattern continued into the 19th and 20th centuries. Home Rule was a UK solution that would have seen Unionist politicians sitting as a minority to their Gaelic neighbours; thus it was opposed. In the wake of World War One all pretence of Irish Unionism was dropped when a border with a guaranteed majority was offered. And lest we forget, it is Unionism that clings to the petition of concern today; its loss would undo four centuries of history by forcing a non-majority Unionist bloc to sit in a parliament with its neighbours; do not underestimate how important that is.
It is little wonder Arlene Foster looks agitated, the numbers no longer add up and short of a sudden upsurge in Unionist procreation probably never will again. Nesbitt nailed it when he compared the situation to ‘a frog sitting in a pot of water unaware of the threat to its life as the temperature gradually rises’
The consequences are unknown and all that can be said is that henceforth Unionism must adapt itself as equal amongst equals and the fear of revanchism needs to be recognised as a fear that will never manifest itself in our contemporary and increasingly diverse society.
It might be easier than we think.
How Unionism can build a new relevance for the future?
This writer is a trained teacher and in that role I found that learning is best when every participant is aware of the expected ‘learning outcomes’. Political activism is much the same only in that instance it is best if everyone is aware of the sought after ‘political outcomes’. Thus I suggest three ‘political outcomes’ for which Unionism might strive:
1.Build mutually beneficial relations with political opponents.
Nesbitt was not alone when he spoke of the scourge of sectarianism. Stormont Junior Minister and Sinn Fein Chair Declan Kearney also addressed the event. He said ‘Sectarianism remains endemic within northern society and in my view it is at the very crux of all our political, social and community divisions’ adding that it ‘isn’t some kind of abstract concept – it is omnipresent. In many ways, it is our elephant in the room’.
He could have seen Nesbit’s admission as an opportunity for a bit of old fashioned ‘whataboutery’ and used the moment to emphasise the admitted Unionist sectarianism but chose to say ‘our’ not ‘your’. And words are important; if I read it right his offer is to tackle the problem as a shared venture with mutually beneficial outcomes the goal; alongside the SDLP, Alliance and every other party Unionists in Ulster should get involved because it can’t be done without us and we might make some nice new friends.
2. Record our history and strive for Unionist diversity.
Unionism in Ulster does not record the entirety of its own history. As a result elements of our past are over-emphasised (Orangeism) and others are under-reported (literature, political diversity, sport, culture and most importantly individualism). The effect is that the younger generations are finding it increasingly difficult to identify with what appears to be a narrow and dated 19th century ideology. We need to start recording that entire experience and we need to find it a place in our Irish history dominated Universities.
Our people have made history and succeeded in many fields (including some like Wolfe Tone and his mates who make us feel uncomfortable) and our greatest contribution to the politics of this island could be as champions of diversity delivered through the lens of the individual rights; in the age of identity politics someone has to do it.
No less a figure than Lord Craigavon himself showed an inclination to such an approach when in April 1934 he claimed that Stormont and Northern Ireland were ‘A Protestant Parliament and a Protestant Government’. Not overly endowed with the language of reconciliation Craigavon might have conveyed the same message in more inclusive language and said ‘We will be an Individualist’s Parliament and a Government based on Individual Rights’. Either way he was on to something because there is no better way to break down collectivist sectarianism than with robust individualism; let’s call it 21st century Unionism in Ulster and it could thrive in any environment.
3. Stand on our own feet.
The DUP’s recent confidence and supply debacle has and will cost Unionism dearly. It devolved all power over our future to the Tories; and for what? It should never happen again and thus I finish with a suggestion for a 21st Century Unionist anthem. It’s two versus of Gloria Gaynors much loved 1983 classic ‘I am what I am’, the Gay community loves it and for this writer the words encapsulate the independent rugged individualism for which we Unionists should strive. I’ll let the words do the talking.
I Am What I Am
I am what I am
I don’t want praise, I don’t want pity
I bang my own drum
Some think it’s noise, I think it’s pretty
And so what if I love each sparkle and each bangle
Why not try to see things from a different angle
Your life is a sham
Till you can shout out
I am what I am
I am what I am
And what I am needs no excuses
I deal my own deck
Sometimes the aces sometimes the deuces
It’s one life and there’s no return and no deposit
One life so it’s time to open up your closet
Life’s not worth a damn till you can shout out
I am what I am