Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Defining Unionism III - unapologetic inclusion

In the previous two pieces I defined unionism in its wider context as the constitutional imperative for the United Kingdom and examined the specifics of Ulster unionism, identifying the civic strand as more firmly rooted in a genuine wider unionist ethos.

Ulster unionism, when it focuses on the civic essentials, can claim to be an intrinsically better philosophy than Irish nationalism.

Ernest Barker’s view was that nations did not exist before nationalists set about creating them. To paraphrase, nations do not give birth nationalists, nationalists give birth to nations. Nationalism mines fundamental tribal human impulses, evokes ancient precedent and claims it is perpetuating natural law, but nationality is as contrived a notion as any other, on which to base statehood.

Arthur Aughey traced Irish nationalism’s roots to the movement of 19th century romantic nationalism in Germany. This movement was also the wellspring of Hitler and National Socialism. Irish nationalism is about identity whilst unionism is about values, institutions and freedoms.

Aughey refers to the broad, outward looking, inclusive strand of unionism which emphasises its belief in the United Kingdom’s institutions, rather than merely emphasising disapproval of a United Ireland. He does not refer to so-called 'unionists' with Ulster nationalist leanings.  If unionism is advocated merely as a competing nationalism it has no intrinsic superiority to Irish nationalism and we have ceded any notion of improving politics in Northern Ireland.

So that's how I believe genuine unionism is defined, what about the challenges which it faces and some of the attitudes which it should adopt against these challenges?    I believe there are three primary relationships which determine 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 with Irish nationalism and thirdly the relationship of civic unionism with competing strands of unionism.

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 has become worse since the advent of devolution and it has flirted with Scottish and Welsh nationalists rather than engaging with British unionists.

Ulster unionists routinely complain about Northern Ireland being treated as an exception in the UK, differently 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.

As regards our relationship with Irish nationalists I find myself coming back to the Union Group’s document. Predominantly cultural unionists 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. Civic unionists however, have no necessity to accept parity with nationalist doctrines. We should not apologise for being unionists. We should not concede equivalence between our philosophy and the dogmas of nationalism. There is no need to give in to a nationalist agenda or to embrace greater constitutional ambiguity.  In doing so we weaken our own case for the Union. With Northern Ireland’s status secured and with their place in its government a given, we have no further need for “outreach” to 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 agenda.

Whilst many of these initiatives are couched in the language of inclusion, they have the opposite effect.  There is a 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 while nationalism cannot.


O'Neill said...

“Cultural” Unionism and its very close cousin, Ulster nationalism, have chosen a very limited-space battleground; Irish nationalism needs this, it’s also delighted that the fight is concentrated largely on protecting the “rights” of the “Protestant people of Ulster as these “rights” can be guaranteed within a United Ireland, as easily as they can be within the United Kingdom.

Horizons need to be widened:
Why does the UK continue to make sense economically, socially, politically for all the people of the UK and not just NI?
Is it just the prods of NI who’d suffer if the UK was to disintegrate?
Who are our potential allies in England, Wales and Scotland (and not just our trad ones either, the tories, a solid argument for the Union can be made on both liberal and socialist grounds)?

These are the questions unionists in NI should be dealing primarily with; not whether an Orange march should be pushed down some street or if we should be engaging in outreach with people who have the Union’s destruction as their sole aim. SF needs us, we don’t need them

CiarĂ¡n said...

I don't mean this as a baiting opportunity O'Neill, but the problem Unionists face is inherent in your comment. You assume that you'll get the answer you want from these questions - that is that the UK is preferable to a United Ireland. But that suggests that pragmatic arguments are merely strategic feints obscuring a deeper nationalism.

I've just blogged slightly more coherently on this here.

O'Neill said...

You assume that you'll get the answer you want from these questions - that is that the UK is preferable to a United Ireland.

Question One is genuine; if there are no economic, social or political reasons to continue the the Union, then why exactly are we Unionists?

Qustion two and three, yes, you're right, at the present time I already know the answers. An independent Wales, Scotland, N.Ireland and England will produce more losers than winners economically and culturally. Our potential allies? Minus the nationalist parties, then everyone, although for very different reasons(eg Brown and much of NULabour are not conviction Unionists, but need the UK out of real politik).

I'll read your post and answer its points there.