On a couple of occasions people have mentioned that I might have certain common ground with the Union Group. This has surprised me, as other than a desire to see unionism presenting itself in a more articulate and thoughtful manner, there is little in the Group’s documents which I could subscribe to.
Central to the documents they have produced are assumptions which I regard as wrong. Firstly they assume that the issue of the Union can only be understood in terms of identity politics, ceding the argument that unionism is a better or more inclusive political philosophy than Irish nationalism. The Union Group’s thesis is that to be inclusive, both political traditions on the island must be accorded equal status. That rather undermines the entire concept of being a unionist and is reflected in the all-Ireland vision the group outlines.
While national identity is an important aspect of Irish politics, it is not the only consideration in ordering a state or political arrangements, nor in my view is it the best one. A civic political identity can be established which need not threaten religious, cultural or national identities which can be subscribed to in parallel. I see the United Kingdom as a multinational, multicultural state which nevertheless has a strong civic identity fostered by a shared history, shared values and shared institutions.
It is a unionist’s job to advance this argument, not to concede that the contrary view is equally legitimate or to stop persuading people in any community, whether they consider themselves British, Irish, neither or both, that their interests are best represented within the United Kingdom.
I think what offends me most about the Union Group’s papers, is that although their rhetoric is grounded in liberal intentions, their thinking is not so very far from Sinn Fein and the DUP. They view the Northern Ireland political divide in purely ethno-nationalist terms. They make allusions to a more complex picture by quoting John Hewitt, but there is no sense in which they attempt to divorce political identity from a sense of cultural or ethnic nationality. People can identify themselves as they wish, seems to be the message, but generally unionists aren’t Irish and Irish Catholics aren’t British. That to me, is to throw the liberal unionist baby out with the bathwater. The task for liberal unionists should be articulating unionism a way that includes the Irish national identity.
The John Hewitt quote I have mentioned is as follows:
I am a Belfast man,I am an Ulster man,I am British and I am Irish,And those last two are interchangeable,And I am European and anyone who demeans,Any one part of me demeans me as a person.
It concludes the 21st Century Unionism document and frankly it is the most interesting part of it (the document’s equality-speak is impeccable – but there’s little which really addresses unionism’s future within the document). The quote is as good a jumping off point as any for the debate about the Irish identity within unionism, and for discussing this issue, at least, the Union Group must be congratulated. Interestingly as I’ve been writing this post, a debate about the relationship between Irishness and unionism has also sprung up on Slugger O’Toole.
A commenter makes the correct observation that those unionists who reject any notion of Irishness strengthen the case of those who would define the identity in purely Gaelic, Catholic terms and weaken their own position in the eyes of the world. Thus the twin strains of ethnic, identity based politics perpetuate each other’s exclusivist outlook.
The narrow idea of Irishness articulated by Irish ethno-nationalists and supported by their Ulster opponents is vocal on Irish language issues, . The Gaelic / ethno-nationalist strand views Gaelige as an intrinsic and defining part of Irishness. The ethno-religious strand of unionism detests the language because its assumption is that this must be correct. Balanced, inclusive unionism acknowledges the language’s history and cultural significance within Ireland and the United Kingdom, but rejects linguistic or religious criteria as necessary for political identification. This pattern is repeated for many aspects of culture and tradition which are considered Irish.
Unionism must reject identity as the prime determinant of political allegiance and as such it is wrong to be prescriptive about the identities which unionists should feel. It is certainly a trend however, that unionists who are comfortable with being referred to as Irish and see Irishness as a vital part of the makeup of their cultural identity, are by far the more self-confident, articulate and consistent proponents of the Union.
Where I feel that the Union Group are mistaken, is in assuming that embracing the Irish part of our identity means diluting our unionism or being apologetic for our allegiance to the United Kingdom. Their documents are useful in that they allude to the complexity of identity which many of us feel but they have few ideas which would actively strengthen the Union and they place little emphasis on Irishness being as vital and intrinsic to the UK as it is to the Republic of Ireland.
I return once again to David Trimble paraphrasing Emerson Tennant “we add to the glory of being British, the distinction of being Irish”.