It will not surprise regular readers that I reject this notion out of hand. Particularly as its rationale is based on Ramsey’s observation,
“The average unionist now views GB in a very different light... Psychologically, the union is over on both sides of the Irish Sea. The unionist community needs to acquire a post-union identity.”
This contention will come as a surprise to Conservatives and Ulster Unionists, to take an obvious example, who are currently engaged in forging a coalition, straddling both Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which puts the Union at its very centre. Indeed this electoral pact is likely to form the next government of the United Kingdom.
I would argue that the type of thesis which the article advances is nourished by the ascendancy of Sinn Féin and the DUP in Northern Ireland’s politics. Although both parties have pretensions towards operating within a larger political framework, and although each, respectively, would claim that the locus of its loyalty lies elsewhere, they are actually solidly rooted in the tribal politics of Northern Ireland. The larger political arguments are of rather nominal concern to the DUP and SF.
Indeed, against the political back drop which the carve-up coalition provides, and taking for granted the ethno political assumptions which shape the parties’ outlooks, Ramsey’s analysis makes a certain warped sense. Frequently, those who would define themselves as ‘unionists’ show little interest in or understanding of, what it means to be part of the United Kingdom in the 21st century. They are focussed, myopically, only on the demands of their particular ‘community’ and, if it is largely the sectional interests of their ‘tribe’ which animate them, then those interests might best be advanced by embracing an ethno-nationalist interpretation of their identity. ‘We are the people’, thunder the loyalist fans of one football club in Belfast. It is only a small leap to ‘we are a people’.
Fortunately, though, there remain, whatever Ramsey and McCann contend, a substantial number of self-declared unionists, whose unionism consists of their political belief in the continued efficacy of a United Kingdom and their continued commitment to that Kingdom.
When I refer to myself as a unionist, or write about unionism, it is this political philosophy which I am referencing, rather than preconceived assumptions about a cross section of people. When I talk about fellow unionists, I mean those who share certain fundamental political beliefs about the country in which we live, I don’t presume to imply those political beliefs from other incidental traditions which groups might share.
Of course everyone is comprised of a myriad of different identities, self-defined or perceived by others. There are undoubtedly elements of a distinctive Northern Irish identity, as well as an Ulster Protestant identity. It is even true to say that certain religious or cultural elements frequently coincide with a particular political viewpoint, in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. That does not render it correct to define a particular cultural, ethnic or linguistic identity in political terms. I am not greatly interested in Orange marches, I do not describe myself as Protestant, I do not attend a church and I certainly don’t call myself an ‘Ulster Scot’. I am not any less a unionist because I don’t conform to the stereotype, and nor is someone who does conform to the stereotype necessarily a unionist by the political definition.
I am by no means naïve enough to believe that complex strands of culture, identity and politics can be disentangled. But neither do I think that lazy use of political vocabulary to describe cultural traits is healthy or helpful. When we use the word ‘unionism’ we should be clear what we mean. If we are using it to define characteristics which are not related to political belief in the United Kingdom, then we would do better to use a different word, or at least be clear that we are referring to something different.