Since the spiralling civil conflict of the Troubles in the early 1970s, unionism in Northern Ireland has always been more preoccupied with asserting its opposition to Irish unification, as opposed to articulating a vision of what it is and aspires to be, and how it fits into an increasingly multicultural United Kingdom.
People in Northern Ireland stoically resisted a campaign of republican violence throughout the 30 years of the Troubles. But the reasons for this understandable hunkering down are long gone. The battlefield is now cultural and unionism is losing.
Declaring for the Union
I was born 65 years ago in the predominantly Protestant environs of south Belfast; for me, Northern Ireland represents the corner of the Union that is both Irish and British. My cultural identity is bound up in this place and its symbolically endowed landscape that incorporates both these dimensions alongside a strong cultural and historical Scottish link.
This space of the imagination and real cultural interaction remains potentially fluid. While unionism in the past has been associated with narrow triumphalism and religious dogma, such influences are on the wane even if the pace appears frustratingly slow. To be out of step with wider liberalising currents in the UK is to invite embarrassment – that peculiar relative in the attic of the Union. But any attempt to distil the essence of unionism in more neutral, dry, constitutional relationships, obligations or even economic interests does not address the more fundamental cultural factors that define each group.
My unionist culture is part of a broader British culture which I unapologetically embrace. It has no truck with discriminatory sectarian practices, which some have uncharitably labelled the very lifeblood of unionism. But the idea that unionist culture is shallow, based on economic supremacy and a hangover from a colonial presence still prevails.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended the Troubles recognises the importance of culture in acknowledging differences between the two major traditions in Northern Ireland. But after 20 years, the hoped-for generation of an emergent civic culture bridging the ethnic divide has failed to appear.
While unionism pragmatically saw the deal on the whole as the best available, republicanism sees the agreement as a transitional step towards full Irish political unification. The result has been difficulty in moving beyond a war of cultural attrition; the potential fluidity of identities has been frozen.
What is needed is a notion of two identities embedded within a culture of openness and dialogue that is not closed to the potentially new, novel and unexpected. In reimagining itself, unionism must think beyond a Sinn Féin projection of cultural superiority and its cool reception to the idea of British-Irish identity. To engage effectively in cultural debate, unionism needs to have a more considered and long-term strategy.
Last chance saloon
Sinn Féin’s call to join in building a “new Ireland” (as opposed to a “united Ireland”) with a rainbow of identities, is a soft approach which gives unionism cause to be sceptical. And the way republicans have denigrated unionist tradition, portraying it as a stereotypical sectarian monolith, is frequently criticised by seasoned political commentators and academics. But this is not to deny that certain unionist voices can also be insulting towards nationalist culture.
Unionists need to set out their own stall. First they must assert their own brand of Irishness which is infused with Britishness as well. This involves more than recognising that the Irishness of Catholics requires legitimate expression in Northern Ireland – it must include the belated appropriation of Irishness as a constituent part of the Protestant unionist identity too. Engaging with current debates about identity and belonging in Brexit Britain is a substantial but vital challenge for unionism, whose past record has been poor.
Northern Ireland is often dismissed as “a place apart”, ignoring the historical bonds and close cultural relationship with Britain. But identities can become static if they’re not open to change as circumstances alter. Here unionism has not adapted well; it has to engage in the debate over what defines Britishness in an increasingly diverse society. A positive and less defensive case must be made for the Union.
Difference can be celebrated and respected, but it must be accompanied by shared values. The argument that British and Irish are not mutually exclusive categories needs strong voices as the Republic of Ireland calls on unionism in uncertain Brexit times to throw in its lot with an evolving nation on a different European trajectory. Any response must go beyond saving the Union for unionists and make a case to the middle ground of Northern Irish Catholic opinion, which lack of vision has almost squandered.
Selling the Union
The prospect of a prosperous, secular, multicultural and eurocentric Republic of Ireland is a strong one. The watchwords of any counter offer must be courtesy, due recognition of cultural difference, reasonableness and compromise. And not sweating the small stuff. For unionism, circling the wagons is not an option. It will more likely survive through kind words than belligerence.
Returning recently to Ireland from a foreign trip I presented my British passport to a border official at Dublin Airport. Glancing at it, he said, “Welcome home sir”. Those three kind words did more to waken my Irish roots than three decades of armed IRA struggle.
Disputes over flags, marching and place names are of course emotive, but the high ground does not promote parades that are not welcomed by locals. It does not seek to insult. It contemplates compromise on Gaelic language rights and sees advantages in the rich and varied cultures of the UK.
As Brexit sees the middle ground of those open to such ideas recede further, the leader of political unionism, Arlene Foster, has begun to change tack with outreaching gestures that reclaim the civic dimension of unionism with a more inclusive citizenship and rights agenda. But whether such belated and slow-moving attempts will be enough to lead on to a necessary reframing of unionism has yet to play out.
A unionist response has been too long in the making. Moderate unionism must reassert itself, because adhering staunchly to an identity bound up in the past has outlived its sell-by date.
William Neill does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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