What do you have to believe in to be regarded as a true-blue unionist?
I remember writing a piece for the News Letter around 20 years ago when I mentioned that I was an atheist. About a week afterwards I was in Ulster Unionist headquarters and bumped into one of the party’s then MPs. “Hmm,” he said, “I’m surprised to see you here, Alex.” When I asked him why, he replied, “One of the bedrocks of unionist belief can be summed up in the phrase, ‘For God and Ulster,’ and yet you write that you don’t believe in God.” I actually thought he was ribbing me: he wasn’t.
I was on the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme last week talking about Karen Bradley. A couple of hours later I noticed a tweet on my timeline: I was described as a ‘so-called unionist ... he has the same opinion as nationalists on the show so no surprise that’s why the BBC use him’. Someone had replied: ‘It’s the Gordon Wilson syndrome; parrot some idiotic nonsense that no other unionist actually agrees with, but which conforms to the media’s pro-nationalist prejudices and biases and miraculously they become the token acceptable voices of unionism. Utterly mindless.’
Putting those criticisms in a nutshell (and as is often the case the critics choose anonymity) it seems I’m only used by the BBC because I suit its pro-nationalist bias. What about Jim Allister, Jim Wells, Jim Wilson, Nelson McCausland, Jim Rodgers, Chris McGimpsey, Jamie Bryson, Christopher Stalford, Sam McBride, Ben Lowry, Kate Hoey, Ruth Dudley Edwards and others? Do all of them suit the BBC’s alleged bias? All of them are used as regularly as I am; and in a few cases probably used more regularly.
Some of us supported the Good Friday Agreement and some didn’t. Some of us are pro-Brexit and some aren’t. Some of us have no political/moral difficulty with same-sex-marriage and some do. Some of us are more closely linked to one unionist party or unionist worldview than another. Yet all of us would be regarded as unionist and pro-Union.
So, back to my opening question. A unionist is someone who, broadly speaking, believes that the constitutional/geographical integrity of the United Kingdom is preferable to the possible alternatives; and, given that belief, is much more likely than not, in the event of a border poll, to vote in favour of the status quo.
Mike Nesbitt mentioned in a recent article/interview – and was criticised for saying it – that there were people he knew from a perceived unionist/pro-Union background who, as a consequence of the Brexit result, might be prepared to listen to the case for Irish unity.
Does that make them any less unionist, though? Of course not. There have been a number of occasions in my lifetime when unionists have asked themselves about the nature of the relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. I remember standing in the grounds of Stormont on March 28 1972, along with a crowd of around 100,000. It was the last meeting of the NI Cabinet before Parliament was prorogued a couple of days later and there was a palpable sense of anger and of having been betrayed. There were also fears within sections of the unionist/loyalist community that the relationship with Westminster could never be repaired.
On November 23, 1985, a week after the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed, I was in the huge crowd protesting outside Belfast City Hall. Again, there was that same sense of anger and of betrayal; that same feeling that the relationship between unionism in Northern Ireland and Westminster was utterly destroyed. People, including friends and family who had been part of my life for decades, were openly questioning the value of a union in which, as one person so memorably put it, “Northern Ireland and unionists are treated as the poor, unwanted cousins”. I noted in my diary at the time that, just as in March 1972, ‘unionists are clearly looking at other options; chief of which is, how do we best protect our identity and interests?’.
The constant theme of my writing and commentary for the past 30 years has focused on that question: ‘how do we best protect our identity and interests?’. People, many of whom have been regular readers of this column, will often have disagreed with my analysis and my steers; but very few have ever questioned my commitment to the Union and the United Kingdom. I’ve always argued that what is understood as ‘Ulster’ unionism (which is an off-shoot of broader pan-UK unionism) needs to be as broad-based and welcoming as is possible. Put bluntly, if someone can be persuaded of the merits and value of the Union over the alternatives then I don’t give a damn about their colour, gender, religion, sexual orientation, views on abortion etc. It’s what they do in the polling-booth that matters to me.
Of course I was aware in 2016 that a victory for Leave would raise challenges for the Union – I addressed the issue a number of times during the referendum campaign. But Brexit is not, in and of itself, a ‘nail in the coffin’ for the Union. The fate of the Union does not rest in the hands of Westminster, Dublin or Brussels, let alone in the border-poll campaigning by Sinn Fein (who are simply and predictably playing the latest version of ‘England’s misfortune is Ireland’s opportunity.’) The fate of the Union rests in the hands of the people of Northern Ireland. Nowhere else.
As I have written and said over and over again for the past 30 years or so, it is only unionists – of whatever background – who can set out and sell the case for the Union with any conviction: every day and from every available platform. That was my view in 1972, 1974, 1985 and 1998; and it remains my view right now. It will continue to be my view. Anyone who thinks the BBC – or anyone else who offers me a platform – isn’t aware of my pro-Union views, is just plain wrong.