Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Rethinking Unionism 12 years on. Or a post about SF and flags as it was originally conceived.

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.


Ignited said...

Might have to track down a copy of Porter's book.

I'm a student of the Dean Godson's school of unionism. The devastating critique of the Trimble years.

Democratic-Centre said...

I remember reading this book some time back. I don't think liberal unionism has won out in that each individual accepts that they are 'equal' under UK citizenship, a la Bob McCartney style. The removal of old crown/British symbols is proof of the changed thinking post GFA.

Rather, it was a critique on Unionism versus nationalism and how it should respond to the then pending democracy. 2008 we are still seeing how slow unionism is at responding to cultural demands at the assembly.

Porter, I thought, hoped that acceptance of terms outside of exclusivist unionism might enable agreement which would help assist with wider belonging inside NI.

To say Unionism has many takes on Irishness ignores the essence of cultural identity and culture.

Mairead Nic Craith states that:

'Culture is a state of struggle and contestation wherein meanings are continually negotiated.'

So it would be correct to say that Unionism in response to SF's demands, for example, would likely shape culture by negotiating what, at state level, is acceptable. Proving what the GFA really is, a political mechanism ensuring that certain people don't get it their own party-political way.

I was reading too that the Tories are looking into stronger local government. I think very strong local government here might actually help shift thought towards better service provision and put more power in the hands of a tighter functioning and more operational form of democracy. Perhaps better away from that troublesome elitism up at Stormont.

This would clearly change the Union at a structural level. Of course New Labour tried to get movement on this, but couldn't figure out how it would sit with centralised taxation responsibilities.

dub said...


How right you are that Irishness is not the sole preserve of the nationalist community, and that respect for Irish identity in the north means a lot more than links with the Republic. It also means of course respecting the Irishness of everyone in the North and the meanings that Irishness has for unionists.

How wrong you are, on the other hand, not to accept people as they define themselves, ie in this case northern nationalists. The one immense step that sinn fein and northern nationalists in general took with the GFA was to start treating unionists as they saw themselves. You do not seem willing to do this for nothern nationalists. You can accept them as they are, and accept that for them irishness means, among other things, links to the Republic, and the right to play for the ROI in any sport, and ALSO, in addition, press a wider Irishness which is not state specific. The latter, as you correctly and eloquently point out, is so important. But so is the former. Your non acceptance of the former meams that the wider non state specific Irishness in a uk context, is simply another way of not including nationalists in NI. New wine, old bottle.

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