The article takes as its starting point Jim Nicholson’s ‘Vote for Change’ motif and its alleged inappositeness. Although I have rebutted this charge in a previous article, I can understand why it might be levelled, by commentators or by opponents of the Conservatives and Unionists candidate. I can even comprehend that Garland, and others, are cynical about conservatism’s compatibility with an agenda for change, on a broader, more fundamental level. I would contend that this is to underestimate the power of the notion of ‘progressive ends by conservative means’ and the philosophical roots of ‘One Nation’ conservatism. However, Garland’s proposition still lies within the bounds of sensible debate. It is when he begins to rant about ‘English Tories’ and dismiss the importance of participating in the British cabinet that the lease is utterly lost. Of the new force he claims,
“They feel uncomfortable with the very word “Ulster” and point us towards a future based supposedly on their non-sectarian politics. But diverting attention from the needs of this community towards those of English Tories is surely to hide our heads in the sand. The promise of seeing local politicians inside the British cabinet may appeal to ambitious politicians but won’t see many of us jumping for joy.”
Remember that these words are written by someone who purports to be a unionist! Leaving aside the incontrovertible fact that ‘Ulster’ remains part of the title which will grace Nicholson’s ballot paper, is Garland seriously implying that Westminster politics are an unnecessary diversion from the ‘needs of this [Northern Ireland’s] community’? No need to read the paragraph again. It is a rhetorical question. That is precisely what he states, quite explicitly.
Twice he dismisses the next government of the United Kingdom as ‘English Tories’, as if the authority of Britain’s government should be diminished, in unionist eyes, if it includes a great many MPs from the UK’s largest nation! It is the type of sneering insinuation, loaded with casual prejudice, which the DUP is familiar with.
If one were to attempt to cobble together something remotely rational out of Garland’s lazy argument, it might run something like this:
Northern Ireland is a divided society which is being operated on the basis of ethnic carve-up, presided over by the DUP and Sinn Féin. Although it would be better if the sides became more thoroughly reconciled, ultimately the new dispensation rests on an ethno-religious interpretation of politics here, and on parties staying myopically focussed on the minutiae of local government. If a unionist party begins to advance the notion that Northern Irish voters can participate properly in the politics of the United Kingdom, it will remind nationalists of the province’s constitutional status, which will annoy them. We’d better not do that. Best to keep focussed on the carve-up. He actually writes “we need to see the larger ethnically-based parties leading us out of the sectarian morass”!
Take away the anti-English references and the pretence of unionism from Garland’s article and you are left with something that could have slopped from the keyboard of Slugger’s Brian Walker.
I have emphasised before, and no doubt I will be required to emphasise it again, if a political philosophy does not prioritise preservation of and participation in the United Kingdom, it is only masquerading as British unionism, if it identifies itself as such. Contempt for the House of Commons is not a characteristic of unionism. The idea that east west relations should be glossed over, in order not to offend nationalist sensibilities, is not unionism. Any implication that it is not correct to try and promote the Union as the best political home for Northern Ireland, is most certainly not unionism.
As a reminder of what unionism does consist in, I cite the final two paragraphs of Alex Kane’s piece, which I mentioned at the outset of this article. It articulates how authentic unionism wishes to persuade its opponents of the merits of its arguments and participate fully in a modern, inclusive, civic state.
“So the primary task of unionism now is to build a strategy and political platform which makes it increasingly difficult for Sinn Fein to convince its core vote that a united Ireland is worth the candle. In my view, that isn’t likely to happen if the DUP and Sinn Fein continue down their present path of mutual veto and ‘us and them’ approach to devolution. It may suit Sinn Fein to keep the divisions alive in the form of a social/civic/electoral border, but it isn’t in the long-term interests of the Union.
Having forced Sinn Fein individually and the pan-nationalist front collectively into accepting an internal settlement, the next task for unionism is to sell the merits and continuing benefits of the Union and the United Kingdom. That requires us to lift our eyes from a little-Ulster perspective and focus on pan-UK unionism.”
Whatever the idea that carve-up along ethnic lines needs to be perpetuated in order to sustain a settlement and that it is a waste of time for Northern Ireland parties to aspire to participate in the British government might be, it is certainly not unionism.