Time to listen to ‘liberal’ unionists


Criticism of unionism is not necessarily anti-unionism.

A vocal critic can be a valuable friend, while the most hardline unionist can be the greatest enemy to the Union.

I watch with interest and empathy for Mr A Thompson, a unionist from Dungannon who wrote (July 21) [see sequence of letters from A Thompspn here] against the burning of Irish flags on the Eleventh, and who labelled the Orange Order “anachronistic”.

Ivan Blair of Coleraine wrote in disagreement (July 23) [see sequence of letters from I. Blair here] and I share his sentiments, the Orange order is not obsolete but has the potential to contribute richly in the years ahead. However it is wrong for Mr Blair to simply discard Mr Thompson as a “liberal unionist” as though his criticisms are invalid.

Instead of addressing the issue of flag-burning and the weaknesses of parading, the debate descended into an intra-unionist slanging match.

Like a theological debate over who is the rightful heir to unionism, with claim of “liberal unionist” and counter-claim of “self-styled super-unionist”. This is pointless.

The spectacle of flag burning angers not just republicans, but many unionists too.

Maybe they are “liberal unionists,” but they are unionists nonetheless.

You don’t have to be an Orangeman, or bandsman to be a unionist, you can be a fervent unionist and do without the stereotypes and patriotic trappings.

There are around 30,000 members in the Orange Order, while 290,407 people voted unionist in the 2009 European elections.

Unionism is not singular and monolithic, but plural and changing.

Mr Blair and the Orange Order need to listen to other unionists and their legitimate grievances on flags and marching, even if the criticisms are hard to take. The isolationist behaviour, of flag burning and raucous marching, is extraordinarily counter-productive, and a great many unionists see this with lucid clarity.

It is time for people like Mr Blair and the Orange Order to listen to their “liberal” unionist brothers and sisters, otherwise they will lose them too.

Brian John Spencer, Belfast