I’ve been rereading Norman Porter’s ‘Rethinking Unionism’ over the past few nights. It had been a long time and my memory of it had grown dim. When I first read the book its rigour, vision and ambition made a strong impression on me, but while I thought what Porter said was important, I also found it flawed. His attempt to furnish unionism with a philosophy through which to pursue a rapprochement with nationalism was necessary, indeed in many ways he was successful and his ideas anticipated the contours which would shape the Belfast Agreement, but he was prone to throw the baby out with the bath water and underestimate the flexibility of unionist thinking that subsequently showed itself to be less rigid than Porter described.
In his book, Porter defines two strands of unionism that he thought prevalent at the time he was writing. He argues against both of these strands and proposes his own 'superior' philosophy. He identified forms of unionism that accorded more importance to, on one hand a specific Ulster protestant character, and on the other political Britishness. That was not new, but the phrases ‘cultural unionism’ and ‘liberal unionism’ became widely referenced wherever unionism was discussed academically.
The book describes a third form of unionism, closely aligned to a notion of civic politics, which he describes as ‘civic unionism’. But rather merely than advocate that unionism focussed on the civic idea of a state (and in particular the civic character of the United Kingdom), Porter proposed a particularly Northern Irish outlook separate from a broader vision of the Union.
It is easy to be wise in hindsight, but while Porter’s attempt to make philosophical space for an accommodation with nationalism within Northern Ireland was influential and timely, he failed to anticipate that unionism could accept devolution, recognise Irish nationalist claims and yet retain its focus not on Northern Ireland, but on the totality of the UK. Of course devolution had not yet happened in the rest of the UK when Porter was writing his book, but ‘civic unionism’ at its best and at its purest is actually the strand that is focussed on the Union and focussed on normalising and integrating politics in Northern Ireland with the rest of the UK. It is the ‘British’ unionism which Porter dismisses in his book that wears most easily the civic clothes he commends. In many respects liberal unionism has become synonymous with civic unionism, whereas the specific conception which Porter gave the latter term has not come to fruition.
Of course one of the primary difficulties encountered in Porter’s book, is that in seeking to explain why unionism must come to an accommodation with nationalism, he begins to accept nationalist assumptions and nationalist terminology. There is much conflation of the term Ireland and Irish with the Irish Republic for example. Porter accepts that ‘Irishness’ must be afforded a political manifestation and this manifestation he links to the Irish Republic. Like all those who accept nationalism's inflexible views on identity, he denies that those terms can have different meanings for different people. He fails to seriously address that unionism might have its own idea of Irishness, or that it might have several, or that a multitude of different groups might understand Irishness in a different way. Instead his formulation is that Irish nationalists understand Irishness in a particularly political way and therefore it is that understanding that must be recognised. How this process is to be limited, or what consequences it might have for other understandings of Irishness, is again not addressed.
While concessions have been made to Irish nationalism, it is not necessary, as Porter believes, to also accept the terms by which nationalists understand them. The Irish Republic’s consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland has been recognised, for example, but that has little to do with a specific Irish dimension or an Irish identity, it merely recognises relationships which exist on this island. When Irish nationalism is recognised within the frameworks of Northern Ireland, it is Irish nationalism that is being recognised, not Irishness. When ‘Irish identity’ is mentioned in the Belfast Agreement that is a different matter again and Irish nationalism does not enjoy a monopoly of that term. It is important not to be cavalier with the concepts and terms that surround culture and identity. It is the broader and more nuanced approach that thinking unionism brings to these terms, reflected in the language it uses, which underpins the pluralist vision which should be at its heart.
Porter was seeking to destroy unionist shibboleths and explode unionist excuses for not moving the political situation forward, when he wrote this book back in 1996. To a degree he succeeded. But his haste to sweep the floor clean for a compromising vision, he was too dismissive of the nuance and pluralism which led many people to their belief in the Union and in the United Kingdom. He was also too eager to reject thoughtful renunciations of nationalism’s narrative and assumptions. Something that is clearer in retrospect than it may have been at the time.
Incidentally, I was going to nudge this post toward the inappropriate display of the Republic of Ireland’s flag in the Belfast Lord Mayor’s office. My discursiveness seems to have defeated that intention.