Friday, 1 May 2009

Unionism is a political philosophy, not an ethnicity or 'a people'.

Although I rarely agree with Eamon McCann’s politics, I have a great deal of respect for his analysis and the lack of chauvinism which he brings to his writing. I cannot, however, agree with his latest piece, in which he endorses a suggestion by Robert Ramsey, a retired former civil servant who has penned his memoirs, that unionism should seek to define itself in ethno-linguistic terms, aligning itself with ‘Ulster Scots’ and seeking to establish that identity as one of the recognised ‘peoples’ of Europe.

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.


O'Neill said...

“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.”

As soon as you see that word "community" you know it's time to run!

I was going to wade in on the corresponding thread on Slugger but once the racist (in both directions) Afrikaan, southern US states comparisons started, you knew what quality of commentator you're dealing with and cleaning out the toilet became a much more exciting prospect.

Unionism is "merely" a political philosophy which straddles the whole United Kingdom. A person who votes for a Unionist party at the ballot box is a Unionist- that's it. Who we vote for doesn't make us part of a *community* or mean that we all have to go to the same church, be "ethically" Ulster-Scots, support the same Glasgow team, wear a sash or even be a royalist (see Alex Kane for proof).

The potentially the most exciting thing about the UUP/Conservative link-up is this move away from this type of communal politics which ultimately can only be ever of a defensive and negative variety.

Chekov said...

I gave the Slugger piece a wide berth for similar reasons and instead stuck my tuppence worth here.

Gary said...

Slugger is an utter car crash. I gave it up long ago, it descended into the usual myopic, "Nationalists are victims and Unionists are bigots" bile long ago.

Chekov said...

Gary - you're not joking. The usual 800 year potted histories of oppression are coming out. Irish nationalism is simply a reaction to perfidious Albion apparently. Nothing exclusive about it. Of course that's the type of wonderful pluralist discourse we're all supposed to marvel at. It's not just the same hectoring republicans out of control.

Gary said...

Indeed, a marvelous way to encourage Unionism into a "united" Ireland.

Incidently, did you read the fugitive, Rita O'Hare's piece in the Irish Echo??

Chewie said...

Ramsey seems to be alluding to an Ulster nationalist identity, which is more DUP territory. Not surprised you lot aren't fans. Interesting ideas though perhaps too inward looking pour moi.


Anonymous said...

Is Ulster-Scots the only separtist identity to be state funded!

Isnt the money supposed to be just meant spent on language things?

Admin. said...

Unionism is a wide ranging philosophy and a progressively expanding one which should be welcomed.

Of course it has historic and cultural roots which should be celebrated, on a personal level I am a civic unionist first and foremost. On a cultural level Ulster Scots, Anglo-Irish and Orangeism is an interest and part of my identity.

Even culturally these tradions aren't necessarily unionist, many Ulster Scots were republicans, Anglo-Irish nationalist leaders, and the Orange Order originally rejected the Union

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