Although I had ambitions to write about other topics today, two press releases, one from O’Loan and one from the DUP’s Sammy Wilson, encapsulate so neatly, on one hand nationalism’s failure to come to terms with consequences of accepting the principle of consent and on the other, the DUP’s abject failure to envisage unionism which is not defined by its entrenchment in one community, that I feel compelled to post once more on the Conservative / UUP deal. Together these statements exemplify the hopeless, insular, sectional nature of Northern Ireland’s current politics, which the alignment is seeking to change. Strap up in the back!
Let’s take Sammy Wilson’s observations first. I’ll warn you, they’re every bit as stupid as we have come to expect from the rubicund japester. Scrutinising David Cameron’s scrupulously pro-Union speech, Wilson has taken umbrage at an undertaking that, “the Conservative Party in government will never side with one part of the community over another”. According to Sammy there are times when ‘a side has to be picked’, according to the community it represents.
“In Northern Ireland there are times when someone has to decide whether they are on the Unionist side of the debate or the Nationalist side of it.”
Of course it is easy to pick apart Wilson’s argument. Even he must realise that adopting a position on the union is an entirely different matter to taking one community’s side over the other. David Cameron has made it clear that he supports the unionist argument on the constitution. He will nevertheless refuse to apply discriminatory policies, based on political aspirations which are different to his own or on the basis of which perceived community someone belongs to.
Despite choosing his words in such a way that they might refer to the constitutional issue, Wilson is simply attacking Ulster Unionists’ idea, shared with Conservative partners, that unionism can be inclusive. The coded message is that unionism must be tethered to an Ulster protestant identity; its principle objective should be advancing the interests of that identity at the expense of its Irish Catholic rival. His analysis simply reaffirms suspicions that the DUP is not interested in strengthening the Union per se, nor is it interested in participating fully in a modern, pluralist United Kingdom. The purest constitutional unionism is not unionism by the DUP’s prescriptions. It understands the word only when it acquires community connotations, to which adherence to any modern idea of Britishness can be merely incidental.
It is a dismal, sectarian vision which has little to do with the Union and little to do with unionism as I understand it. It is also a timely reminder that that which Conservatives and Ulster Unionists are shaping offers an entirely different formulation of what pro-Union politics in Northern Ireland can and should represent.
In its own way Declan O’Loan’s statement is just as grotty in conception and remains equally grounded in outmoded assumptions. It also betrays a common nationalist misapprehension as to what accepting the will of the people of Northern Ireland, in terms of its constitutional future, actually entails. There is unintended irony in a nationalist dismissing so casually unionist aspirations for Northern Ireland’s political future on the grounds that it compromises fair consideration of Irish nationalists’ own aspirations.
“It is a pretence to think that the future of Northern Ireland can be found in conjunction with a party whose appeal is that it might become the government of the United Kingdom. The future for unionism is to work out its development on this island and find its partners in the north and south of Ireland.”
O’Loan has encapsulated in these two sentences the patronising attitude displayed by nationalism toward unionist aspiration, a complete inability to acknowledge that the unionist viewpoint is legitimate, implicit rejection of the principle of consent and explicit rejection of the east-west element of the Belfast Agreement.
If O’Loan accepts that Northern Ireland should remain within the United Kingdom until its people say otherwise, how can he possibly object if unionists (or even nationalists in the meantime) have an ambition to play a part in the Kingdom’s government? What use is Northern Ireland’s membership of the UK if it is not to be accompanied by meaningful democratic input; if its residents are to be deprived of political entitlements which other people in the Kingdom take for granted?
The truth is that O’Loan hasn’t accepted the principle of consent at all. The implication of his statement is that he views the Belfast Agreement merely as a tactical expedient aimed at mollifying unionists until they come to the inevitable conclusion that their beliefs and imperatives are nonsense, or until nationalism manages to undermine Northern Ireland’s status sufficiently that unionists’ views become irrelevant.
A modern, pluralist unionist party seeking to achieve meaningful input into all the constitutional strands which accompany Northern Ireland’s status as a devolved region of the United Kingdom is anathema to nationalists such as O’Loan. Instead he prefers the sectional battles of the DUP, which can be separated with greater facility from the whole messy area of meaningfully adhering to the Union! No matter that the DUP is intolerant, bases itself solely in one community without any ambition to do otherwise and propounds an illiberal brand of Ulster particularism. Its unionism is clearly more convivial to Declan O’Loan because it is surely grounded in the exclusive context of Ulster, with no pan-UK connotations. Its understanding of unionism is more explicable to the tribal nationalist impulse.
There are similarities between the two interpretations of the Conservative / UUP link-up offered by Wilson and O’Loan. Both reject pluralist values of the modern UK, where different communities, cultures and identities can participate without prejudice to their status. Both discard the idea that unionism represents anything other than a sectional label to be applied to one of the communities in Northern Ireland. Both are dismissive of the notion that broader political relationships should exist between Britain and Northern Ireland. In the poverty of their vision they unwittingly illustrate why a new political force is needed.