Four years from NI’s centenary, there is no sign of unionism upping its game

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

In the News Letter on November 2, the journalist and author Walter Ellis wrote: “History, which is never just about the past, is coming down in favour of unity ... a unity in which Protestants and unionists within a generation will have found their place.

“The difficulties will be many and progress will be stuttering. But the direction of travel is clear and the time is fast approaching when unionists, as well as nationalists, should think further ahead than the next election and towards their ultimate shared future.”

Ellis is entitled to his opinion; and I think the paper was right to publish a piece, which many readers will have disliked. I was surprised that he didn’t mention even one point in favour of the Union.

I don’t know if there was ever a time when he was a unionist (he is 69 and grew up as a Protestant in east Belfast), because he doesn’t write about it; so I don’t know if this is a conversion piece or the summing-up of a lifetime’s position.

As it happens, I think he is wrong: completely, fundamentally wrong. I don’t understand how any unionist – someone who purportedly believes in the political/constitutional/geographical integrity of the United Kingdom – could ever find ‘their place’ in a united Ireland.

Someone who has abandoned their unionism could, easily enough, find their place. Someone who had never been a unionist would have no problem in finding that space; indeed, they’ve probably already identified the space.

Let’s be frank, the vast majority of nationalists in Northern Ireland never found their ‘space’ here. Things were clearly never so bad that they chose to leave Northern Ireland and live elsewhere, yet they always voted for parties which favoured a united Ireland.

Ellis’s piece doesn’t address what, precisely, the ‘space’ he writes of would look like. In other words, how would unionists be accommodated?

Unionism, by the way, is more than the chance to watch Orange marches and retain a passport which says British citizen. It’s also about promoting and protecting your identity; not as some distant memory, but as a living, breathing reality.

Irish nationalism didn’t disappear in 1921. Irish nationalists in NI continued – and still do – to promote their cause. Would unionists be allowed to do that in a united Ireland? Would the door be left open for them to promote an exit from a newly united Ireland? Of course it wouldn’t. Irish unity means the death of unionism.

It means reducing it to the status of a political/constitutional eunuch.

The French historian, Joseph Renan, tried to describe what makes a nation: “The common possession of a rich heritage of memories, the actual agreement and desire to live together, the will to preserve worthily the joint inheritance.

“To share the glories of the past and a common will in the present. To have done great deeds together and to desire to do more: these are the essential condition of a people’s being.”

By that definition –with which I broadly agree – both Irish nationalists and Northern Ireland unionists have separate and mutually contradictory identities.

That being the case, I’m not sure that it would ever be possible to find a permanent place for themselves in a state in which they were the constitutional minority.

It didn’t work for Irish nationalists here: and I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t work for unionists in a united Ireland.

What Ellis’s piece does highlight is the fact that the Union debate is now more important than ever: it dominates and eclipses every other political issue. I’ve written before that this is endgame territory – Brexit, the loss of the unionist majority in the Assembly in March, and ‘unionists’ failing to represent an overall majority at the last two elections upended the usual political dynamics – and that everything is now about overall numbers. Nothing else matters. And that, obviously, presents huge problems for both unionists and nationalists.

In Ulster and the Irish Republic (published in January 1957 and described as ‘a brief survey of Irish republican propaganda and an exposure of its fallacies’) William Carson – a Democratic member of the New York State Senate – wrote: “Unfortunately (the unionist in NI) does not see any need to tell his point of view to the world because he thinks it is self-evident. He does not realise that world opinion can be greatly influenced against him by propaganda, and that if his point of view is to be understood he must set forth his case for all to see.”

That was true 60 years ago, yet unionists mostly ignored the advice. Today, you’d be hard pushed to find many people outside of unionists in Northern Ireland who make the case for the Union and are sympathetic to our cause.

The deal between the DUP and Theresa May is based on arithmetic rather than genuine affection and I wouldn’t expect her to do unionism any long term favours.

I make no secret of the fact that I’m an unashamed, unapologetic, unembarrassed unionist. I’ve been arguing for almost 40 years that we need to up our game, deconstruct the arguments against us, hone our own pro-Union arguments and become part of a much broader pan-UK unionist vehicle.

Four years from Northern Ireland’s centenary and we’ve still a lot to do. The ‘it’ll be alright on the night’ complacency within elements of the pro-Union family worries me very much.