Concerned about the Unionism

I’m concerned about Unionism. I am concerned for a number of reasons but not least because I understand the Belfast Good Friday Agreement to be an acceptance of a diversity of political opinions on this part of the Island and a commitment to living together in a new, shared and more dynamic future which has yet to have flesh properly put on its bones. But the parades disputes of the latter end of 2012 and the flags protests that have spilled over into New Year tell us that all is not well. The new and more dynamic shared future is slipping through our fingers and Unionism flounders in response. Disparate factions across the broad unionist family are making themselves known and no one seems to be able to speak to what is going on in a way which will stem the violence. Watching police officers take the sharp end of it all and listening to the Republican use of the situation to bond its own community against the so-called ‘sectarianism’ of the other side most certainly does not lift my spirits. In fact, it appalls me. But how might Unionism respond to this? I have to confess that I am also very tired of hearing Unionism talked down, spoken of as if it had nothing at all to offer and deemed unfit for the new Northern Ireland we seem to be still waiting for. So I have been wondering to myself what positive things could be aimed for at this point in time for what we in the street vernacular call ‘political unionism’. I am sure that not everyone will agree with me but this is genuine attempt to be positive, or at least to seek a positive direction. Probably there are few who would argue with the view that political unionism needs to work on relationships with its grassroots. Feelings on the ground are strong and at present are making themselves known in protests and violence but for a long time there has been talk about education and employment and vision and confidence. For a long time there have been feelings about not being represented or heard. This grassroots feeling may or may not be believed to be genuine but it is real. If people don’t feel represented for long enough they will find ways to make their feelings known. A response will take careful and long-term strategy and I have no doubt that political representatives believe themselves to be in touch with what is going on on the ground. But something is wrong. There is some disconnect which needs to be addressed and it can be done. Language will have to be watched so that it doesn’t suggest a ‘we’re better than you are’ view of the world and trust can be built when there is both commitment and plan. When Republicans talk about ‘big house’ unionism they have a particular meaning attached to it. For grassroots unionists it might have another meaning which has everything to do with social and economic division. The voice is sought and a positive response can be made. I am suggesting a new vision for connectedness. Connectedness with one’s own across social and economic divides requires work not only with the grassroots, with the communities where is no work – where there are health and educational issues to be addressed and where confidence in anyone listening or speaking for them is at an all time low. But it will also need work to be done among those on the other side of the social and economic divide, among those who don’t identify with the disenfranchised pockets and communities. An inclusivity of thinking and speaking is essential if connectedness is to be achieved. The new vision for connectedness has many fronts to it. If it is to really open a space for a kind of Unionism which has life and vigour for the new politics then it has to also stand at the interface with those who are politically different and to stand there with a view to wondering out loud what connectedness will look like. In order to do this Unionism is going to need some space from the other side. It needs a break from the hammering, from the accusations, from the denigration. It is no secret that I have an interest in how we deal with our past in a way which opens up a reconciling future and defines us in Northern Ireland more by how we are being reconciled than by how we are divided. So I believe it is time to stop hammering the institutions which unionism traditionally identified with and which are all in process of reform. By that I mean the police, the army, the British government, the prison service. Each is in its own process of change and at different stages along the way but again and again there are suggestions of investigations and inquiries which may end up with representatives of, or ordinary servants of, these institutions ending up in court. That in itself isn’t something to be concerned about – truth matters. But it is of concern when only one side is being actively pursued to look backwards and hold their hands up. Through the various judicial processes a history is being written of what happened here and it is far from a full history. Some within the unionist family express a desire for this to end – stop putting some people in the dock while others go free and while still others openly deny their involvement in the things of the past. So give Unionism a break and allow it to be part of a more shared future. Equally Unionism has a serious piece of work to do and it is time to step up to the mark. That piece of work has to do with properly working through and publicly talking through what it means and what the implications are of ‘stopping putting some people in the dock’. It’s easy to say but what does it mean? What does it mean legally? What does it mean from the international perspective and the standards which we are obliged to meet? What does it mean for victims? What does it mean for the future and what does it mean for what we do with the past? Only when that piece of work is done in a detailed way and openly discussed is there are real chance to end the hammering and get on with the work. It is persistently said and implied that Unionists are people with little confidence. The danger of that kind of talk is that it suits talk about the death of unionism. To create confidence it is, in my view, important to stop drawing more on the past and to draw more on the context in which we find ourselves. Building confidence goes back to my initial argument about contact with the grass roots and connectedness. Confidence, self belief, a viable political project, these things are needed and wanted not only for unionism but for the diversity of culture and life that is our only hope of a future. All of this will take courage to imagine a new Northern Ireland and enough dedication and creativity to communicate it. And why does any of this matter to me as a Christian? That’s another blog post but suffice to say as a human being it matters to me that each is treated well, justly and with the kind of care that opens up new possibilities. As a Christian I believe that the past can be redeemed and that reconciled futures are possible. As a member of the church I believe we in the churches have contributed to the mess and we need to make efforts to assist positive change for better futures for everyone.