Unionists can't afford Northern Ireland to be seen as a place apart
This was said to me on a petrol forecourt last week, by a youngish woman filling her car at the adjacent pump: 'I think you're a very good writer and commentator, Alex '“ and I really love and often weep when I read your personal stuff about your children and your adoption '“ but surely it isn't your job to be so critical of unionists or unionism. Why don't you focus more on attacking Sinn Fein and the IRA?'.
It’s a reasonable question to ask someone like me; and it has been raised by a few people on my Twitter timeline as well.
Anyone who has followed me over the years should be aware that Sinn Fein and the IRA campaign have often been the focus of my columns. I have written many, many times about Sinn Fein’s efforts to rewrite history and reinvent themselves as some sort of freedom fighters. I have written about the IRA’s jumping aboard the Civil Rights campaign 50 years ago and, in so doing, undermining any chance there was of liberal unionism and liberal nationalism moving closer to each other. I have written about the IRA using terror even when they were aware that it could never, would never deliver a British policy of unilateral withdrawal. I’ve often written about Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. I’ve voiced my concern that the ‘new, modern faces’ of Sinn Fein, Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill, find it impossible to distance themselves from the IRA, let alone consider the possibility that the IRA prevented change rather than helped change.
And yes, every one of those pieces has been met with accusations that I am a ‘cold-eyed unionist who is happy to ignore the faults of a sectarian state that treated non-unionists as second-class citizens’. Or, if the piece happens to be about the actions of the UDA, UVF, RHC et al doing enormous damage to the image and reputation of unionism (and I’ve written many of those columns down the years), then I’m accused of being, ‘a pretend unionist who doesn’t understand life on the ground for the loyalist working classes’.
An odd accusation considering I’ve argued for years that mainstream unionism has done more damage to the loyalist working classes than the IRA has ever done and that they ‘need a credible, coherent voice of their own’.
I regard myself as a writer/commentator who happens to be a unionist, rather than a unionist commentator. I have never seen it as part of my role to be blindly, stupidly, uncritical of unionism.
I value the Union. I value my citizenship of the United Kingdom. No one has ever presented me with an argument which has come anywhere close to convincing me to swap my British citizenship for an Irish one; or to believe that a united Ireland would be better than the United Kingdom. I’m a unionist.
But I’m also a unionist who has long believed that the Union is best secured when a very comfortable majority of people living in Northern Ireland – and I don’t care about their background or religion – also believe that the existing benefits of UK membership continue to outweigh a constitutional alternative. And in my opinion that has always meant unionism reaching out to everyone here, promoting the benefits of equal citizenship and always being credibly positive rather than constantly reacting to the arguments and positions of others.
The biggest danger to the Union is the impression of Northern Ireland as ‘a place apart’ and of unionism here not being quite the same as unionism in Great Britain.
An ideology survives when it adapts and adjusts. Nothing is permanent in politics. Nothing stands still. Nothing is free from challenge or change. The unionism of the 1880s (which is when what is now understood as ‘Ulster unionism’ first emerged) is not the unionism of 2018. The Northern Ireland of 1921 is not the Northern Ireland of 2018. The demographics of 1921 are not the demographics of 2018. The mores of 1921 are not the mores of 2018. The DUP of 1971 is not the DUP of 2018 (actually the DUP of 1998 isn’t even the DUP of today).
I focus on unionism because it is unionism which matters most to me. That’s why it is important to me – as it should be to every unionist – that we get it right. And if that means that I have to point out where I think we’re getting it wrong, then so be it. Look at Sinn Fein. A decade ago they were in a hole. The overall nationalist vote was actually falling slightly. They were part of a government in a Northern Ireland which was still firmly locked into the United Kingdom. A united Ireland remained as far away as ever. Yes, they had the power to veto, but it wasn’t accompanied with the power to make one-side progress.
And just look at how many U-turns Sinn Fein has performed since the mid-1980s: U-turns performed to increase their chances of being in the right place if unexpected opportunities arise. U-turns performed because they realised that previous tactics weren’t going to deliver for them. The Sinn Fein of 2018 is barely recognisable when compared to the Sinn Fein of 1981 (when the armalite/ballot box strategy was adopted).
All I’m saying is that unionism has to be similarly adaptable; and, more important, canny enough to recognise the need for change before the change is forced upon it. On same-sex-marriage, for example, neither the Union nor unionism is threatened by making it legal in Northern Ireland. As I noted in last week’s column, equality of citizenship must be one of the bedrocks of the United Kingdom.
I’ll finish on this: with so many voices (DUP/UUP/TUV/PUP/OO/elements within loyalism/conservatives/liberals/churches etc) competing across and within unionism, it’s sometimes very difficult to hear what we actually stand for.