Alex Kane: Our constitutional identities are at heart of any debate

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In a recent, very thoughtful interview for the Irish Times, with the journalist Freya McClements, the actor James Nesbitt spoke of his desire for what could be described as ‘something different’ politically.

He referenced an initiative, Connected Citizens, he’s involved with, part of whose mission statement reads: ‘We want an inclusive and informed discussion about the future of the North/Northern Ireland, one free from political bias and designed to be inclusive and ambitious in its vision for the future.”

Bearing in mind that the fixed point of division in Northern Ireland is the constitutional question, I’m not sure how you remove the political bias; that said, Nesbitt does make some interesting observations. He notes: “The politics here are sectarian. Is Northern Ireland a sectarian place, I don’t know, but is the sectarianism reflected in its politics, I would say yes. I think that’s what most people are now beginning to challenge and I think that is the key. I think it’s moved on hugely from being a sectarian place, but I don’t think the politics has moved on from being sectarian.”

When reminded that the two largest parties are distinctly orange and green he replies: “Well I think we stop giving them that choice. I do think there is an appetite for people to actually celebrate the many different identities that there are here. It doesn’t matter – you can call yourself Irish, or British, or both. It just feels that there’s been a silent majority here for far too long that actually needs a voice.”

His observations fit in with an oddly optimistic view from some quarters (and I don’t question the integrity or desire for a genuinely better way of doing politics from those quarters) that there is a majority which really does want something different; but it doesn’t fit in with the reality of what is actually happening.

Take integrated education, for example. Poll after poll since 1998 indicates huge support, but it still accounts for less than 10% of provision. Meanwhile, the DUP and Sinn Fein threw their weight behind a gloopy, neither one thing nor the other model called ‘shared education’: in other words, going through the pretence of integration while deliberately ignoring the nitty-gritty. Typical of what happens with so many issues.

The ‘stop giving them that choice’ comment re the DUP/Sinn Fein reflects the view of those behind the Connected Citizens project, but again, ignores the reality. In the 1998 Assembly election 87% of those who voted did so for parties with an unambiguous stance on the constitutional question. In the 2017 Assembly that figure had reduced to 85.4%. In the 2019 council elections it was 80% and in the Euro elections it was 78%. The shift in the 2019 elections was mostly to do with Remain unionists rowing in behind Alliance: but in the event of a border poll (and Nesbitt is right, it is inevitable) the majority of those votes will be for the Union. Orange/green politics survives because the constitutional question remains – and will continue to remain – the key question.

I’m not persuaded that celebrating the ‘different identities that there are here’ is as straightforward as he, and others, imagine it to be. The problem boils down to this: how do you celebrate an identity that is not your own and whose constitutional ambition not only competes with your identity but actually threatens it?

I cannot imagine anything that unionism could ever have done which would have persuaded Irish nationalists ‘trapped’ in the new Northern Ireland to abandon their desire for a ‘nation once again.’ (Mind you, that’s not to say that unionism couldn’t have done a damn sight more to try and make them feel welcome). And nor can I imagine anything that could be done to celebrate, promote and protect my unionist identity in a united Ireland.

Your constitutional/political identity is not the same as your ethical/sexual/social/economic identity. It’s a different thing altogether and cannot just be accommodated and celebrated. If it could then the Good Friday Agreement would have closed down both the Troubles and the root of the Troubles. It didn’t. It can’t. And while I used to believe that with enough trust and cooperation the agreement could have produced new levels of inter-party, inter-community tolerance, I now recognise that particular ship has sailed in the opposite direction.

While Brexit may have shifted the dynamics of political debate since 2016 the fact remains that narrowing demographics, the ongoing collapse of the SDLP and UUP, and the failure to establish a stable, genuinely consensual relationship at the heart of government had already increased the levels of political toxicity to once unimaginable heights. And at the dead centre of that toxicity is the identity issue: who we are, who we want to be and how we protect our position.

To be honest – and I’ve been observing this very closely for over 30 years – I’ve not detected what Nesbitt describes as the ‘silent majority here ... that actually needs a voice”. The majority who vote are still voting for orange/green parties. Those who don’t vote (and I’ve long held the view that they aren’t moderates and liberals in search of a home) have done very little to create their own new vehicles. The debate hasn’t shifted to how we create and build a new, better Northern Ireland; instead, it has shifted to border polls and a ‘new Ireland’ and to something which Nesbitt calls a ‘new Union’.

Nesbitt is right, though, when he says that we need a debate. But it must be a debate which goes beyond what seem to be the fairly narrow parameters he has set out in the interview and which appears, also, to be a follow-on from a debate already under way. Some unionists won’t like what he has said, but they should neither ignore it, nor refuse to engage with him and others. If their identity matters to them, they need to let opponents know precisely what that identity is. I disagree with him: but this interview has made me think.