Unionism needs to be big enough to admit its past mistakes

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“The leadership of the Resistance Movement has ordered the termination of the Campaign of Resistance to British occupation launched on 12 December 1956.

“Instructions issued to Volunteers of the Active Service Units and of local Units in the occupied area have now been carried out.

Terence O'Neill knew change was needed when he became prime minister but couldn't deliver

Terence O'Neill knew change was needed when he became prime minister but couldn't deliver

“All arms and other materiel have been dumped and all full-time active service volunteers have been withdrawn... Foremost among the factors motivating this course of action has been the attitude of the general public whose minds have been deliberately distracted from the supreme issue facing the Irish people – the unity and freedom of Ireland.”

That statement was issued by the IRA on February 26, 1962, marking the end of the Border Campaign. What struck me most was the unambiguous admission that nationalists in Northern Ireland were not on their side; although, to be honest, I don’t know what is meant by ‘deliberately distracted’.

Anyway, after 40 years of one-party rule from successive unionist governments it still seemed as though nationalists – while not cheerleading for Stormont – were not so opposed that they were prepared to support the overthrow of the state by violence.

Indeed, the fact that the NI Civil Rights Movement was later to prioritise equal rights and equality of citizenship suggests that it might still have been possible for unionism to reposition and recalibrate, leading to a strategy which would have allowed unionism and nationalism to work more closely together, particularly in Stormont and local councils.

Terence O’Neill – who replaced Brookeborough as prime minister a year after the IRA statement in March 1963 – knew that change was required, but he was too clipped, too remote and too out of touch with grassroots unionism to underpin his personal convictions with relentless political courage.

In my lifetime I have heard O’Neill, Chichester-Clark, Faulkner, Trimble, Paisley, Robinson (I think it was his DUP conference speech in 2012) and Nesbitt touch upon the relationship between unionism and nationalism and the importance of expanding pro-Union support. And while it’s true that there was evidence of regret in their speeches, it also seemed evident to me that the speeches had come too late in their careers. And therein lies the root of unionism’s problem: we’re always late.

In a recent letter to the News Letter (March 2, link below) Jason Ashford wrote:

‘However, there is an absolute unwillingness within unionism to honestly and bravely acknowledge the mistakes of the past. The simple fact that there was widespread discrimination against Catholics in NI appears to be too much for some to admit. I am not suggesting ... that my fellow unionists spend the rest of their lives apologising for the actions of their forefathers, nor do I ask that they abandon their pride in NI. A willingness to admit that mistakes were made does not make you any less loyal, it does not diminish your Britishness.’

Ashford is right. And he’s right for this reason, too: unionism needs to ask itself why so many people who should, in the normal run of things, be reasonably content to remain within the United Kingdom (even if they never have and never would vote for a ‘unionist’ party) seem to be veering away from that option.

Unionism also needs to ask itself why, in the last two elections (Assembly and general in 2017), parties and candidates with unionist in their title and a clear pro-Union stance in their literature, accounted for less than 50% of the overall vote (46% and 48% respectively).

I accept that a border poll – and I still think it could be closer than many think – is not the same as an Assembly, general, or local government election; that said, unionism cannot take it for granted that habitual non-voters would turn out to support the Union and nor should they assume, as some do, that a significant majority of Alliance would support the Union, either.

I’m not saying that a collective mea culpa from party political unionism would actually make a huge amount of difference to how nationalists and republicans view us (and I say ‘us’ very deliberately); but I think it might help unionism overall to address some very difficult and uncomfortable aspects of our own past.

We made stupid mistakes. We overreacted. We missed opportunities. We allowed ourselves to be goaded. Too often we showed the worst part of ourselves.

Our links with loyalist paramilitarism were unwise and did nothing to advance the needs of the working class from which those groups emerged.

But we were never the monsters that some now try to portray us as. We do not deserve to be collectively demonised by our republican opponents; particularly those elements of Sinn Fein who see everything in black and white and demand contrition from others while justifying most of what the IRA did.

We are now, I believe, in electoral endgame territory – something which SF acknowledges, too. Unionism needs to take a very close look at the voting statistics and the message it must set out. It needs to focus on the future, while understanding its past.

Or, as Jason Ashford ends his letter: ‘The argument for the Union will be won when its supporters make a case for it as inclusive, positive and outward looking, but it will be poorly served if they argue against the weight of history and insist that it has always been.’ Ashford is young and pro-Union. We need to listen to voices like his.

Jason Ashford: I am proud of my British heritage but unionism should admit past failings