Owen Polley: Unionists need to match the relentless energy of nationalism

Once, when a fellow politician asked David Trimble, “what does unionism want?,” the former UUP leader apparently gave a short but insightful answer:

Monday, 25th October 2021, 9:07 pm
Updated Tuesday, 26th October 2021, 11:57 am
In the aftermath of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, unionists were frequently alarmed by the claims nationalists made of its “spirit” and “context”

“To be left alone.”

This reply contained a truth that is as relevant now as it was back then.

Throughout Northern Ireland’s one hundred year history, unionists have had few sustained opportunities to simply enjoy their place in the United Kingdom and lead a quiet life politically.

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At its birth, the state endured a terrorist offensive sponsored by the new Dublin government and one part of the community boycotted its institutions. Since then, unionism hasn’t had much opportunity to relax.

There was more terrorism in the fifties and, from 1969, the IRA tried to tip Ulster into outright civil war.

With some justification, unionists believed that various resulting political initiatives, from Sunningdale, through the Anglo-Irish Agreement, to the lead up to the Belfast Agreement, tried to appease nationalists by offering the Republic’s government an increased say in Northern Ireland’s affairs.

Unionism was divided by the choices it made to seal the Good Friday deal of 1998. Its supporters believed that the agreement was a settlement that justified morally difficult concessions like prisoner releases and the potential disbandment of the RUC.

They highlighted the document’s emphasis on the “principle of consent” and argued that acceptance of NI’s place in the UK was now at the heart of local politics.

In the aftermath of the agreement, though, unionists were frequently alarmed by the claims nationalists and the Dublin government made of its “spirit” and “context”.

Its provisions on identity were used to undermine the principle of consent and imply that the Republic’s symbols and institutions deserved “parity of esteem” with the symbols and institutions of the UK.

At the same time, an effective amnesty for terrorists did not result in republicans showing contrition for their many crimes. Instead, Sinn Fein and others exploited the opportunity to promote an unrecognisable history of the Troubles that portrayed the armed forces as aggressors and cast the chief perpetrators, the IRA, as defenders of rights and equality.

Most recently, the Belfast Agreement was invoked to justify raising an internal economic border separating this province from Great Britain, on the grounds that it was incompatible with checks and paperwork for goods crossing the Irish land border.

To this end, the government repealed critical parts of the Act of Union, which created the United Kingdom, and its belated attempt to restore Northern Ireland’s integral place in the Union has been met with hostility by the EU and Irish separatists in Dublin and Belfast.

Of course, unionists were not impotent observers during the last one hundred years and must accept some responsibility for their own uneasy history.

There have been periods of stability, when unionism could have tried to neutralise the grievances of minorities, integrate Northern Ireland more thoroughly with the rest of the UK and promote its success to potential friends and supporters internationally.

Trimble’s phrase conjures up people who feel unjustly bothered and put upon, but it also evokes unionists’ reluctance to explain themselves to the rest of the world. Even now, unionists sometimes struggle to find a vocabulary that fits their aspirations and motivations.

How often, for instance, do you hear pro-Union politicians or commentators using the phrase “political unionism”?

This is a form of words preferred by Sinn Fein and other nationalists, which suggests that, outside the confines of Stormont and dull meetings of activists, unionism is something non-political.

It implies a tradition or culture that can be accommodated in an all-Ireland republic, rather than a rational and deeply felt commitment to remaining part of the United Kingdom. Yet unionists parrot this phrase rather than finding more appropriate language.

Similarly, it’s not unusual to hear unionists referring to a “united Ireland”, “Irish unity” or even “Irish reunification”, which are all intended to sound positive and inevitable.

These are different ways of describing tearing the UK apart, destroying Northern Ireland and ending unionism. But unionists, who just want to be left alone, consistently weaken their own position by adopting this language.

You might think these failings reflect something about the character of people in NI, or even the whole UK. Is it that we’re all stereotypically taciturn Ulster Prods or undemonstrative Brits? Maybe, but I think it’s more complicated than that.

Put simply, people who are satisfied with the political status quo will always struggle to match the relentlessness of separatists. For example, unionists blatantly have right on their side in their view of the Troubles, as confirmed by fair-minded academics like Liam Kennedy, but they cannot match the zealotry that republicans show when they promote their distorted version of the past.

This is not just a problem for Northern Ireland. In Scotland too, nationalists devote their every effort to undermining the United Kingdom with an energy that pro-Union people find difficult to sustain.

That’s why unionists across the UK must keep trying their utmost to sharpen their ideas and finesse the case for the Union, even when they just want to be “left alone”.

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