Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Defining Unionism II - Ulster unionism and the difference cult

Writers on Ulster unionism have long recognised the existence of two competing forms of the philosophy. Civic and Cultural Unionism, of course, are ambiguous and elusive concepts, particularly when we try and neatly classify unionist politics into either category. Civic unionists have often used the language of cultural unionism to bolster a wavering electorate, there has been a certain amount of crossover between the two strands and many unionists and unionist politicians straddle the two definitions to a greater or lesser extent.

Broadly, the civic unionist position is focused on the importance of the shared political, legal and cultural institutions of the United Kingdom. Cultural unionists are focused on the particulars of the British and protestant traditions in Ireland. There is no mutual exclusivity between the two unionisms, but generally the former has a tendency towards political rationalism, inclusivity, plurality and secularism whilst the latter tends to be narrower, to be focused on the interests of Ulster Protestants, on occasions to flirt with religious dogmatism and in many cases has an insular character. It is when this latter tendency manifests itself in ambivalence to the rest of the United Kingdom and indeed to the Union itself, that Cultural Unionism becomes Ulster Nationalism and becomes a contradiction in terms.

With its emphasis on religion and ethnicity, Cultural Unionism has much more in common with Irish Nationalism than its civic counterpart. It is no accident then that Republicans can much more comfortably identify with Ian Paisley for example, rather than Lord Kilclooney or David Trimble, politicians cut from a much more mainstream British cloth, and men as comfortable in Westminster as Stormont.

This instinctive understanding of nationalism has manifested itself also in the new Stormont administrations flirtation with Scottish and Welsh nationalists. The strand of the DUP most in tune with their leader and most steeped in Ulster particularism, see less danger in pandering to Sinn Fein’s ethnic identity rhetoric, as long as their own perceived identity is also indulged. This is where ethnic nationalists in the DUP and the “sopping wet unionists” Alex Kane sees in the Union Group tend to converge, in a willingness to indulge Sinn Féin under the guise of diversity. The DUP in many cases are paid up members of the cult of the loyalist community and so are prepared to sign up to the cult of the republican community all the more easily.

Respecting difference is an important tenet of liberal democracy and by implication of Civic Unionism. Pluralism, tolerance and diversity are three of the ideas we believe are safe-guarded by the Union. There is a very clear distinction, however, between valuing diversity and institutionalising, emphasising and fetishising difference. Rather than building bridges, the agenda of the two main parties, which others are allowing themselves to be drawn into, is to polarise and separate our two communities.


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