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.


5 thoughts on “Concerned about the Unionism

  1. Thanks Lesley for an interesting view, but I have a serious problem with the term “Unionism”. What is it? Is it just a self-identification with Britishness and an acceptance that Northern Ireland should be part of the UK? Well, the first is guaranteed by the Good Friday Agreement and personal conscience, and the second is also guaranteed by the GFA and by the will of the people (which could change, but hey, that’s the way democracy works). So what do we need “political unionism” (or for that matter “nationalism”) for now anyway?

    I don’t see a need for it, and I certainly don’t see a need to recognise a “divide” between me and my friends from “the other side” (because I don’t see these sides as being real or ontologically fundamental). There are not “two communities” in Northern Ireland, but one community with many ideological, political, social, religious, wealth etc axes, and although I was born into a “Protestant” environment, I completely reject this “PUL Community” mantra currently being spouted by the voices of rioting Loyalism. I have far more in common with my Catholic friends than I do with the louts who are targeting police officers, or even with the peaceful protesters – I recognise a commitment to democracy and human rights that is symbolised by the Union Flag far more than I recognise the flag itself.

    It’s not that the “grassroots Unionists” are an unrepresented constituency (though they are – Billy Hutchinson and his ilk are an embarrassment) – it is that using “unionism” as a primary defining factor is a disastrous ideological cul de sac, and it’s no wonder that we’ve ended up with an entire sector of the community running around like headless chickens. Rather than attempt to salvage RMS Unionism, we should evacuate and rescue the passengers, and let the sad old unfit-for-purpose rustbucket sink to a watery grave.

  2. A very heartfelt plea, Lesley. I think there is a ‘cultural’ problem for PUL communities. While our historical background in Scotland valued education, and this was also true of 18/19th century protestantism, the maintenance of the Union was not maintained by the force of argument but by the argument of force. Working-class and middle class Catholics saw education as the way out of their predicament, and middle class protestants also valued education. Working class protestants on the other hand were increasingly wary of education, and those they chose to be leaders were suspicious and strident in their criticism of those in their own community who valued learning and understanding. The fact that Repubican prisoners used their time in jail to pursue qualifications while loyalists concentrated on body-building was symbolic of the differing values/culture of the groups. The culture of the shipyard and heavy industry fitted well with this attitude. The disastrous result is that we have a loyalist culture which no longer fits its young people for employment, and which in political terms is unable to make the argument for a society based on complexity and sharing. It is not just a matter of putting more resources into education in loyalist areas whose educational attainment levels are appalling. A whole change in approach is needed. Unionist leaders have never encouraged this, preferring rto keep the working (and unemployed) class unquestioning and loyal – hence the deep ambivalence in that relationship. However there are many recently retired protestant men in the churches who could help change this culture by mentoring protestant young men. Is there the appetite for the protestant churches to return to an educational role that they abandoned to the state in 1922?

    • Val says:

      Another great response. My husband and I were discussing this topic just a few days ago. How do you educate the young “die hard Unionists”, who seem to be on the front line of the protests, to broaden their outlook in terms of their heritage, democracy, responsibilities as citizens, and opportunities to further their own futures? Perhaps when apprehended they should be held until they’ve had some form of mentoring as you suggest?

  3. Martin Mullan says:

    My issue with Unionism per se is that it plays the victim card the way Sinn Fein played the victim card during the early days of the troubles. There is a woe is me air about Unionists and this holier than thou attitude which suggests that the blame for the troubles lies fair and squarely 100% at the feet of Nationalism in general and Republicanism in particular. No recognition of gerrymandering and discrimination and that this was a great wee country if the RA would have left it alone. Our Wee Country was great if you weren’t a ‘Taig’. What seems to irk me is the PUP with no electoral mandate jumping on the bandwagon of a group of clowns Messrs Frazer, Bryson etc and exploiting the situation. The PUP/UVF have this sanctimonious odour about them notwithstanding they were responsible for a substantial number of murders of which they offered ‘abject remorse’ from the mouth of Gusty Spence. That was until they got their lads out of Long Kesh. Now they’re back to what they’ve always been good at. Hating ‘Taigs’ and beating Peelers. I speak as a person who would call himself a Protestant theologically and neither Nationalist or Unionist Politically. What I do know is how to smell hypocrisy when I see it. How long is the question will the PUP tail exploit this opportunity to wag the Unionist Dog and leave the whole country barking mad?

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