Unionism needs the confidence to answer some difficult questions

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One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve got older is that former certainties weaken, while my here-I-stand-I-can-do-no-other fixed positions crumble around me.

When I first started to write opinion pieces and columns – around 35 years ago – I wasn’t for budging on anything. I lived in a world of black and white: right and wrong. I couldn’t understand those people who took the, “well, on the one hand...” approach to issues.

Age and experience make you see things differently. Going through pieces from the 1970s I realised that most of my old certainties were wrong. A lot of my cocky, oh-so-confident predictions didn’t come to pass.

The problem, of course, was that all I did back then was give an opinion. Not a measured, thought-through, looking at an issue from different perspectives piece: just an opinion. My worldview at that point didn’t extend much beyond I think this is right or wrong – and that’s the end of the matter.

The other thing I’ve realised – and I’ve spent a lot of time lately looking through my diaries, notebooks and published pieces – is just how much life has changed. Pieces I wrote about atheism, the monarchy, power-sharing and homosexuality, for example (pieces which were considered quite daring and radical in their time), now look old hat. So much has changed, in fact, that they read as though they come from the 1920s rather than the 1970s/80s.

The big change for me – the shift from being someone who just gave an opinion, to becoming someone who tried to analyse and explain what was happening around him – came in the aftermath of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, in November 1985. Up until then I argued that “the full might of the UK state could easily be deployed to destroy the IRA: and that’s what the government should be doing. No mercy. No quarter.”

But in December 1985 I posed a very specific question to myself: Why isn’t the IRA being destroyed? Why is the government, along with its Irish and American counterparts, trying to reach some sort of political deal with them?

The conclusion I reached was that the British viewed a draconian response as a short-term measure: a measure that didn’t provide an answer to the ‘Irish question’ or ‘Ulster problem’. In other words, what they were looking for was a solution into which all sides could buy. On the back of that conclusion I argued that unionism would have to begin to provide “some creative long-term thinking and strategy, rather than just sitting around whinging, protesting and responding to events”.

Well, that was 30 years ago and I would still argue that unionism hasn’t moved much beyond the whinging, protesting stage. We seem incapable of steering events. We seem incapable of analysis. We seem incapable of understanding that if we make a coherent, attractive case we might inspire our own side and make others more willing to listen to us.

I can understand the residual anger many unionists have for Sinn Fein and the IRA; I can understand the continuing pain felt by many victims of the IRA; I can understand why so many unionists still recoil when they see Sinn Fein in the Assembly and in government.

But there’s something else unionists need to understand. No amount of anger or pain is going to erase the reality that unionism is stuck with Sinn Fein. That party will continue to have an influence on local politics, irrespective of whether we have devolution or direct rule. That much was clear to me in December 1985 and it remains clear to me now. And the question that I posed back then remains as relevant today: how does unionism deal with the political/electoral/ideological realities of Sinn Fein?

The underlying weakness of unionism – and I’ve mentioned this before, by the way –is that we aren’t good when it comes to confidence. Oh yes, we are pretty good at the fairly pointless triumphalism of parades, bonfires, flags and assorted symbolic paraphernalia: but when it comes to exuding confidence, promoting our ideology and selling a strong argument linked to a clear vision for our future, then we are monumentally awful. Easier, it seems, for the UUP, DUP, TUV, Ukip, PUP, UPRG and various loyalist offshoots to lay into each other than to work together to promote common cause on the Union.

The irony, of course, is that while Sinn Fein and some mythologising outliers of nationalism are hosting events to talk up the prospects of and pathways to Irish unity (the latest poll says only five per cent think unity likely within 20 years and just 28.5 per cent view it as a long-term aspiration), unionism is doing nothing that amounts to a hill of beans. The DUP mentioned a Council of the Union back in 2012 and the UUP are setting up some sort of all-party pro-Union body in Westminster. But the real work needs to be done across Northern Ireland. We need to get to grips with two basic questions: what does it mean to be a unionist here; and how do we promote our collective beliefs and values?

One thing I’ve learned after almost four decades of analysis and commentary is that realities and difficult questions don’t go away. They need to be addressed. They need to be answered. We’re just six years away from the centenary of Northern Ireland’s creation: so is it too much to hope that unionism, all of it, will face those realities and difficult questions head on?