Young unionists react to BBC’s Stephen Nolan: Why our peers don’t want to speak out in the media

Young unionists have been explaining why they think their peers are so reluctant to engage with the media, after broadcaster Stephen Nolan discussed the issue on air.

By Philip Bradfield
Saturday, 22nd January 2022, 6:00 am
Updated Saturday, 22nd January 2022, 1:09 pm

This week the BBC broadcaster shared an observation on air that while looking for young people to discuss politics on his TV show’s ‘Top Table’ it was “far easier to find young, articulate, interested nationalists than it was to find young, articulate, interested unionists.”

He said that there is “a very well-oiled... machine within nationalism, getting young people interested and training them up” and he then asked why it wasn’t happening in unionism.

The News Letter reached out to some young unionists to hear their reaction.

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Artist Brian John Spencer says media portrayals of unionism leave him feeling alienated. Photo: NY photography / David Paul Larson

Belfast artist Brian John Spencer believes the key reason young unionists are not willing to speak up in the media is because they have lost all connections with their past.

“So, middle class unionists become ashamed of their history because of the way media - even the big Hollywood blockbusters - has made them feel ashamed of the RUC,” he said.

But he believes there is much to be proud of.

“The Ulster Covenant was signed by half a million people - compared to the Irish proclamation, which was only signed by seven.”

Darrin Foster says leadership in unionism could do much more but that the media is also to blame.

A huge proportion of unionists will have relatives who signed the Covenant, he notes.

 “That was my way of finding identity and root in Ireland as opposed to someone who was made to feel foriegn and alien.”

He was prompted to explore his roots by comment such as that he encountered while on an Erasmus exchange where he met a fellow student from Co Mayo who was a keen fan of Irish nationalist movies.

“He was watching ‘The wind that shakes the barley [film] and told me - ‘Give us back our land!’ There were flippant comments passed off as a joke but there is an underlying sentiment there.

“That prompted me to reverse my deculturalisation and that made me cling to the Ulster Covenant. I went on my journey and found I have at least two great grandparents who signed it, possibly three.

“It  made me realise that if you go into a bar in Dublin, every other bar has the Irish Proclamation and a lot of young people have it on their walls, or icons of Michael Collins.

“Nolan simply verbalised a sentiment that I would sense. I have heard it said by a soft unionist playwright that when he did a play on the UDR it was almost impossible to get young actors to take the roles.

“Young unionists tend to be a lot more consumerist and disconnected from their history. The past is not as big a deal for them. They don’t have the grievance that is passed down the way nationalists would.

“Nationalists would talk about how they couldn’t get jobs for example though unionists do have cause for grievance too. I know a businessman in Belfast whose grandfather was intimidated out of Monaghan, but for some reason it is not as acceptable to say that.

“I don’t know if my art has suffered but if I was a young artist painting Michael Collins or the Irish Proclamation or railing against Brexit I think I would have a much bigger platform - but I can’t deny my history.

“So I enjoy painting Edward Carson and unionist figures, but that doesn’t really get any traction. I think it is as much to do with a bigger overarching culture of what mainstream institutions want to promote.

“I know the overarching culture in the media, Hollywood and arts [about Irish nationalism], I know how that makes me feel a bit abandoned or alienated and not spoken for.

“It is a primal feeling that hits you in the chest. There are some things that are said and other things that aren’t - the full picture is not being spoken so I feel compelled as someone who has a bit of a platform with his art and writing to speak out about it.

“I was so alarmed by Michael D Higgins’ focus on the Black and Tans activity in Balbriggan and burning of Cork in his speech last year. I thought - by all means draw attention to that - but why are you not also talking about the IRA burning down Shane’s Castle and Belfast Customs House and Liverpool Docks? And why not remember how the IRA intercepted letters from the Black and Tans and found out their home addresses in Cheshire and burnt out their families from their farms? Why are those stories not being told too?

“The feeling I got of being told ‘you are not legitimate, you are alien’ was in 2008/9. That made me start my blog that gave me the armory to put down these roots that had evaporated.

“The big Hollywood blockbuster movies - The wind that shakes the barley and Michael Collins - portrays all the British as the villains and the nationalists as the good guys but in fact the history is incredibly nuanced and complex.”

Twenty-six-year old Darrin Foster, a TUV assembly candidate from Upper Bann, felt the issue could be lack of opportunities.

“I know we have problems getting anybody else but [party leader] Jim Allister speaking in the media. They don’t want anybody else. They phone us looking for someone to speak and if we say ‘Jim is not available but I have got this guy’, they will say, ‘No, sorry it’s all right’. So there is actually a perception that they don’t want anybody else.”

Darrin posts his political views on Facebook but not on Twitter because “all you get is abuse”.

He adds: “If you look at my campaign video on Twitter there is just abuse about what you are wearing, where you are from, what you look like....”.

He notices other young unionists posting their views get similar volumes of abuse, usually from anonymous accounts.

Personally he would be very comfortable to speak about politics in the media.

“Obviously someone of my age may have a lot less experience than someone older. But you are only going to get experience through doing it.”

He does agree with Stephen Nolan that there are not many opportunities for personal development for aspiring unionist politicians, the TUV being the exception.

“Nationalists and unionists are given equal time to speak in the media but unionists are questioned differently,” he adds.

“If a unionist is speaking on Brexit and the union you will be challenged much more on that than someone expressing an opinion in favour of a United Ireland. You will be challenged to explain ‘What are the benefits of the union? Why do you think there shouldn’t be a border in the Irish Sea?’ “But if somebody says there shouldn’t be a land border it is just let go.”

He also feels unionist perspectives on legacy are not welcomed in the media.

“The narrative on soldiers is always about what they shouldn’t have been doing, though it was very rare indeed that a soldier was doing something wrong in the scale of things. But it is never noted that they wouldn’t have needed to be here in the first place if the IRA weren’t blowing up the country.”

Some unionists feared for their careers if they spoke openly about what they believed.

‘William’, a rural unionist in his early twenties, thought Stephen Nolan was “absolutely bang on” about the lack of training for young unionists.

“Some people say there are young articulate unionists but that they are scared to put their head above the parapets, but there has been a generational problem where we haven’t trained young unionists to think in a political way the way the other side have. I think that is a real problem,” he said.

“I think they are afraid but I also think they are ill equipped. I think there is a culture of shame. Our society by and large has made unionists - particularly young unionists - feel that being a unionist is something to be embarrassed about.

“In the way the media speaks about unionists, for example, somebody like myself who is anti-Belfast Agreement, will be labeled an extremist. It kind of makes it taboo.

“There is a problem with unionists being ill equipped - there is no doubt in my mind.”

The advantage with nationalists, he feels, may not so much be formal training as culture.

“Nationalists have a realisation from a young age that they need to articulate their aspirations in a way that we don’t. Unionism hasn’t adjusted to a modern Northern Ireland where we have to make our case. Young unionists are only given tickbox opportunities where nationalists get genuine opportunities.”

He argues that the age profile of nationalist MLAs is increasingly much younger than unionists MLAs, for example.

Asked what part of his culture he is made to feel ashamed of, he replies: “All of it. In terms of legacy, in culture. A shame has permeated our society around the unionist narrative of the past, particularly around the security forces.”

He believes society has “smeared” the reputations of the RUC and UDR unfairly and young unionists feel they can’t be associated with them.

“Culturally, particularly the Orange tradition has been constantly maligned in our society where it is now seen as taboo to associate with it. There are ‘useful unionists’, but to be one you have to be socially progressive - pro gay marriage and abortion - and you have to be pro Belfast Agreement to be seen as legitimate. Otherwise you are a non-entity.”

He believes that the Belfast Agreement has been responsible for “the legitimisation process of those who engaged in terrorism and bloodshed and the demonisation of those who tried to protect our society”.

But he is clear on the way forward: “The responsibility lies with our political parties and the loyal orders. There is no form or means for a young unionist to learn the political trade”.

‘George’, a university graduate in his twenties, believes that the lack of desire from young unionists to engage politically comes from universities.

“I have been in tutorials where if you say anything that isn’t from the playbook of nationalism or Irish republicanism you are shot down immediately - shot down by other students and even lecturers - they don’t come to your assistance. Often they are cheering on the nationalist perspective.

“If you suggest the security forces were right to fight terrorism and defend democracy and freedom - that is just not how the university will allow you to speak. The orthodoxy that is taught is that any discrimination, perceived or actual, against Catholics fully justified the IRA campaign. Protestant students are made to feel that they can’t speak up against that.”

He believes these same dynamics are exactly the same as the pressures young unionists feel against speaking out in wider society and in the media.

“Because that is putting your head above the parapet. The Irish republican version of NI history is now the accepted orthodoxy - it is historical revisionism. It is Northern Ireland’s version of cancel culture but it is far more effective here because it is policed by the IRA.

“On the mainland it is policed by political correctness which is not nearly as powerful.”

An Ulster Unionist Party spokesperson commented that it is committed to offering “a positive, confident brand of unionism as Northern Ireland enters its second century”.

He added: “Our youth wing – the Ulster Young Unionists – has a presence on Northern Ireland’s University campuses and is open to students and non students alike.

“They are encouraged to get involved in politics and regularly join canvass teams across Northern Ireland at election time. Some have gone on to become councillors and the Party is keen to promote new blood as part of the necessary and healthy process of change and renewal. Members of the Young Unionists have appeared on various TV and radio shows – including the Nolan Show - and have been encouraged to do so. As a party we would encourage young unionists – whether aligned with the Ulster Unionist Party or not – to make their voices heard when opportunities present themselves.”

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