Thursday, 26 June 2008

A Unionist Academy should be run by those who value the Union, not the DUP.

The DUP intend in the autumn to launch a think tank entitled the ‘Unionist Academy’. The party states that its aims are, to “promote… unionist culture and the advantages of the Union; encourage unionist learning in the community and provide a forum for unionist strategising and policy-making”. Along with a mooted ‘British Cultural and Equality Unit’, which is to provide legal advice on republican attempts to excise and erode British emblems from public life, this group aims to liaise with a wide range of ‘community groups of all types’.

From the outset Three Thousand Versts must record scepticism as to whether the DUP values the Union sufficiently to explain why it carries intrinsic value, understands that British culture is something broad and mutable enough to encompass a plurality of religions, races, lifestyles and political beliefs, or is capable of developing strategies and arguments which promote the whole Union in a modern and inclusive fashion. Presuming that the tone of the News Letter article which announces the initiatives takes its cue from press statements by the DUP, it is hard to envisage this ‘Academy’ advancing anything approaching reasoned, nurturing arguments for a strong, inclusive Union.

Peter Robinson’s comment reveals the thinking behind these DUP plans, "there has been something of a cultural war in Northern Ireland. We intend to fight back”. His party believe that there is an ongoing struggle between British culture and identity and Irish culture and identity and they intend to man the trenches through the formation of these groups. So instead of promoting the multicultural benefits of Union, their intention is to enter into a narrow sectional tug of war. This standpoint is informed by a conception of identity, culture and nationality which both Sinn Féin and the DUP share. It is a nationalist conception which cleaves cultural identity to political nationality and does not acknowledge the possibility of plurality of identity as it is often felt.

There does not need to be a war between British and Irish cultures in Northern Ireland, however those cultures are conceived or understood. Clearly by the DUP and Sinn Féin, this stand-off is viewed as a battle between what they adjudge to represent Ulster Protestant and Irish Catholic culture respectively. Of course both these cultures can be encompassed and accommodated by the pluralist, tolerant conception of Britishness which lies at the heart of modern secular unionism. The DUP’s language certainly suggests that it has no grasp of such niceties.

A Unionist Academy think tank could represent an opportunity and a useful idea. It could synthesise and collate what the Union means to various adherents. It could set about forging coherent arguments by which the Union can be promoted and defended. It could examine the many and varied conceptions of British culture. It could bring together various strands of pro-Union thinking from across the British Isles, fostering understanding, friendship and cooperation. Indeed it could present a programme for protecting and cherishing all the many strands which form the kaleidoscopic culture of the modern United Kingdom, of which the Ulster Protestant tradition is undoubtedly one. It could even set about defending the symbols of the United Kingdom from inappropriate encroachment by those of other states.

This blogger does not expect the DUP led Unionist Academy to follow such a programme. Other unionists on a UK wide basis (and why shouldn’t bloggers lead?) certainly should.


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