From time to time something happens in our politics which gives a new sense of hope. Peter Robinson’s ‘Edward Carson’ lecture at Iveagh House is one of those events. By the time I had finished reading the speech I was asking myself why I don’t hear more from this Peter Robinson? I think this kind of reflective, challenging, open and energetic thought would enhance our politics if it were more frequently shared. Of course that might not always be possible but to have personality and dynamism ‘at the top’ certainly appeals to me as an ordinary citizen.
I would have to confess to knowing very little about Edward Carson – I know a broad outline of what he was about and I’ve seen the statue. So it was interesting to learn that he was one of only a few non-monarchs to have a state funeral in the UK. This he shares with Winston Churchill. Horatio Nelson and the Duke of Wellington. I am very aware of how Carson holds both a place of affection and inspiration in the hearts of unionists and am interested to note that Robinson believes the Carson legacy still has something good to offer to a new Northern Ireland. As one of those inspired by Carson Robinson acknowledges,
“… the inheritors of the Carson legacy, have a real opportunity to build the kind of Northern Ireland which Lord Carson envisaged.”
In applying the legacy and travelling in the inspiration Robinson notes both ‘timeless and enduring values’ and the need for and importance of change. Change is something he identifies both in how conflict is resolved and in the tools we employ to negotiate our way through our differences. But he also points to a changed identity in unionism arguing that good politics requires change. Irish Unionism became Ulster Unionism and for some is Northern Irish unionism. This change is something, he argues, that Carson would have approved of, which can be clearly seen in unionist politics and which is essential for the survival of unionism:
“In my forty years in politics it is clear that only those who can adapt to changing circumstances remain standing.”
So Robinson then sets out his hope for the future and appropriately so for in thinking about the past it is never helpful if the past becomes our prison. Those actors of the past would not have wanted to trap the next generation but to inspire and energise it and so when we look to the past it should always be for inspiration and energy, That is the best way to honour our forbears. The new unionism envisaged is one that will be far more inclusive, far more outreaching and far more dynamic than it has been in the past. It is a constructive energy which has the power to attract those who traditionally have not looked to the unionism community for hope. And it is a unionism that addresses the divisions up and down society as well as across it. That in itself is a challenge worth facing up to.
“I want to see a broad and inclusive unionism that can embrace all shades of those who support Northern Ireland’s present constitutional position. Unionism must reach far beyond its traditional base if it is to maximise its potential. That means forming a pro-Union consensus with people from different religious and community backgrounds.”
What I find most encouraging about the variety of events that have taken place over this last few weeks, particularly in London and Dublin, is that there is a determination to move from the past to the future with a view to a different future, one in which relationships continue to be transformed and as I would describe it to a more reconciling dynamic in all our future relationships. This new dynamic is a matter for everyone – North, South, East, West, across classes as well as borders and involving every section of the community, including the churches. This is both evidence of how things have changed and of a new hope for the future. The last word to Robinson:
“It is evidence of our collective determination that this decade of centenaries shall contribute to creating greater understanding rather than promoting division. It is also a sign of real progress that unionists and nationalists can consider the events of a century ago, in a spirit of respect, reconciliation and understanding of our shared history.”
One has to wonder where this leaves what used to be ‘middle’ unionism. Tomorrow night will tell a tale but there is much to be done, much vision to be discovered and shared and certainly a new dynamism to be translated out into the public square. Without that kind of change in the UUP there is little hope for their future I fear.
The full text of Peter Robinson’s speech can be found at