Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Larkin's blueprint for unionism has a logical lacuna

In something of a departure for a site more accustomed to demotic tub-thumping, A Tangled Web carries a thoughtful essay by a Queen’s Law professor with a distinguished name – Dr Phil Larkin.

Dr Larkin’s article on the SDLP was mentioned on this blog before.
Turning his thoughts to unionism he has produced some considered and insightful observations, undermined by a deeply flawed central thesis.

Larkin’s championing of economic liberalism, his rejection of the cultural model of unionism, his encouragement of an inclusive approach etc. are all beyond reproach. However the conceptual flaw in Larkin’s argument is that whilst roundly rejecting the communal model he then encourages the unionist community to coalesce around a single political monolith.

The argument for a single unionist party has been covered in depth on this blog on several occasions, and it belies an ultimately limited understanding of unionism that Dr Larkin falls back on this flawed concept as his vision for the philosophy's future.

Larkin has clearly noted that Ian Paisley and the DUP have largely followed the UUP’s lead in eventually accepting the Good Friday Agreement. But to extrapolate further that the party is ready to discard the vestiges of cultural unionism, still less move beyond communal politics and to believe that their electorate would move with them is extreme naivety.

The core of the DUP’s acceptance of SF as partners in coalition is not the same desire to safeguard the union which motivated David Trimble. Rather it is to institutionalise a communal carve-up which established the party as the undisputed leader of their “tribe”. The limitations of such an approach is becoming daily more evident and for unionists who wish to move beyond communal politics to shackle themselves to such a group would be hubris.

Larkin is at his surest when he highlights the weaknesses inherent within nationalist parties and republicanism in particular and when he proffers advice on how unionists might effectively counter nationalist argument and tactics. He correctly identifies the poverty of Sinn Fein’s understanding of economics. The party have yet to fully expunge their adolescent Marxist posturing never mind replace it with a modern understanding of how best to forward an economy.

To imply, from a passing familiarity of some of its more able representatives with the vocabulary of economics, that the DUP are ready to advance a dependence economy toward private sector growth and market competitiveness, is optimistic indeed, given that the party’s policy has thus far merely been to demand a greater subvention in the most hysterical and emotive language.

Larkin advances sounds arguments encouraging unionism to present itself better and to reach out to members of the other community with the unionist message. He makes astute observations regarding the methods we should be using to win “the battle of history” as he terms it, involving a realistic and candid assessment of the limitations of unionist rule. Larkin’s contention that acknowledging the misdemeanours in our own past will prompt a less febrile and more realistic debate about the extent of those misdemeanours is indeed a fair one. Acknowledging that unionism had flaws in the past shows that lessons have been learnt and strengthens confidence that modern unionism will not repeat the same mistakes.

The academic’s comments about unionists embracing their Irish heritage also have merit, all be it qualified by the assertion omitted by Dr Larkin that embracing Irishness in no way undermines the legitimacy of unionists’ sense of Britishness. Whilst it would certainly be wonderful if a unionist politician could address an audience in fluent Gaelic, neither should unionists be buying into a prescriptive sense of Irishness which posits that language as an indicator of its authenticity.

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