In the previous two pieces I defined unionism in its wider context as the United Kingdom’s constitutional imperative and examined the specifics of Ulster unionism, identifying the civically inclined strand as more firmly rooted in a genuine wider unionist ethos.
My view is that Ulster unionism, when it focuses on the civic essentials and jettisons the more nationalistic impulses which masquerade under the same name, is an intrinsically superior philosophy to Irish nationalism.
Ernest Barker’s view was that nations did not exist before the advent of nationalists to forge them. To paraphrase, nations do not beget nationalists, nationalists beget nations. Whilst nationalism mines fundamental tribal human impulses, evokes spurious ancient precedent and frames itself as perpetuating natural law, nationality is as contrived and amorphous a notion as any other, on which to base statehood.
Whilst my citation is woeful as ever, it is Arthur Aughey’s thoughts on the genesis of Irish nationalism as contrasted to unionism which I call to mind. Aughey traced Irish nationalism’s roots to the movement of 19th century romantic nationalism in Germany. This movement of course was the wellspring of Hitler and National Socialism with all the attendant ethnic paraphernalia that suggests. Irish nationalism is about identity whilst unionism is about values, institutions and freedoms.
Aughey of course is referring to the broad, outward looking, inclusive strand of unionism which emphasises its belief in the United Kingdom’s institutions, rather than merely emphasising a negation of a United Ireland. Already in the previous post I have drawn unflattering parallels between the increasingly Ulster nationalist leanings of many so-called unionists and Irish nationalism. To my mind, if unionism is advocated merely as a competing nationalism it has no intrinsic superiority to its Irish counterpart and we have ceded any notion of a higher politics in Northern Ireland.
Having established the parameters which should characterise a genuine vision of unionism, I wish to address briefly the challenges which that vision faces and some of the attitudes which it should adopt against these challenges. I am making an assumption, and it is an assumption which can be contested, that the most amenable home for an outward looking British unionism (see Rodney’s comments below) is the Ulster Unionist Party. There are three relationships primarily which define the challenges to be met. Firstly the relationship with mainstream UK parties and our position within the wider constitutional debate on these islands, secondly our relationship and reaction to Irish nationalism and thirdly the relationship with competing strands of so-called unionism. The first two of these I will touch upon in this piece.
The imperative of becoming involved in the wider UK constitutional debate I have emphasised in the 1st thread of this series and only intend to touch upon here. Ulster Unionism cannot be seen to be colloquial. The DUP is a notoriously colloquial party. Its attendance at Westminster becomes ever more fitful since the advent of devolution and it has flirted with Scottish and Welsh nationalists rather than engaging with British unionism. Ulster unionists routinely complain about Northern Ireland being treated as an exception in the UK, as different from the other nations within it. How can we challenge this assertion if we continually reinforce the stereotype ourselves and don’t assert our unionism within a UK context? Without wishing to labour this point, a unionist who is fully engaged in the UK-wide constitutional debate is O’Neill with his excellent blog, A Pint of Unionist Lite. More of this engagement from unionists and in particular from politicians would see Ulster Unionism in a much healthier state.
Turning to the issue of our relationship with Irish nationalists I find myself coming back to the Union Group’s document. Predominantly cultural unionists by necessity have boxed themselves into a corner and they are slugging it out on at best on equal terms with Irish nationalism. You look after your “volk” and we’ll look after ours as it were. Those of us who draw more deeply from the civic strand however, have no such necessity to accept parity with nationalist doctrines. We should not apologise for being unionists. We should not concede any notion of equivalence between our philosophy and the crude reductionist dogmas of nationalism. There is no need to accede to a nationalist agenda or to needlessly embrace greater constitutional ambiguity and in doing so weaken our own case for the Union. In particular, with Northern Ireland’s status secured and with their place in its government a given, we have no further need for “outreach” or accepting the overtures of Sinn Fein. Work with them only in so far as the institutions of government necessitate it. Do not allow ourselves to be deceived into legitimising their agendas for cultural polarisation.
Whilst many of these initiatives are deceptively couched in the language of inclusion, the effects are anything but. I have already elucidated the difference between respecting difference and fostering division and separateness. We must remember, and be firm in our contention, that unionism can accommodate and respect all cultures, ethnicities, nationalities and aspirations whilst nationalism cannot.
The challenge to assert the civic position within unionism is a subject unto itself and I will therefore leave it for another post.