Last summer I revisited Norman Porter’s influential book, ‘Rethinking Unionism’, and reflected that although its content had been prescient, at a time when unionism was moving towards an accommodation with nationalism and republicanism, it was also, in retrospect, deeply flawed. In imagining how a post peace process Northern Ireland might look, Porter underestimated the capacity of unionism, focussed squarely on the entire United Kingdom, to encompass an Irish dimension.
The author’s rethink, rather than operating within the parameters of the philosophy with which it was dealing, chose instead to accept nationalist absolutes as regards political and cultural identity. Ironically, in attempting to furnish unionism with the conceptual dexterity it needed to reach a settlement, Porter jettisoned a multi-layered understanding of politics and culture which allowed it to contemplate simultaneous Irish and British identities in the first place. Liberal, or British unionism, which he doubted would ever reach an accord with nationalism, made the agreement and operated it. Porter’s approach sought greater flexibility by accepting rigid nationalist doctrines. His paradox failed.
If the writer behind ‘Rethinking Unionism’ has recorded any thoughts about the Conservatives and Unionists arrangement in Northern Ireland I would be interested to read them. I detect echoes of Porter’s thinking, when I read a certain brand of highly strung argument against national parties involving themselves directly in Northern Ireland. The emphasis is on fudging the issue of British sovereignty here, on cauterising its political consequences. It accepts the unsubstantiated nationalist proposition that the Belfast Agreement committed successive British governments to the status of disinterested referees in Northern Ireland. Where it departs from Irish nationalism is that it neither foresees not desires any end to this state of suspended animation, but it does share a disregard for the principle of consent as anything other than a hand-break on progress towards a united Ireland.
Porter identifies, in his book, confusion between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome which is inherent in the notion of ‘parity of esteem’. Yet although nationalism expresses the idea differently, demanding to choose between Republic of Ireland and UK institutions (despite putatively accepting the principle of consent), the tendency to see panacea in Northern Ireland's effective political isolation, with causeways of identity and finance providing only strictly necessary connections to Dublin and London, also carries the same assumptions in its DNA.
The author did explicitly repudiate equal status for unionism and nationalism, stating that, naturally, as unionism retained the larger electoral mandate, the British connection should carry the weight of sovereignty and symbolism. But in its emphasis of Northern Ireland as an entity which could be politically separate from the United Kingdom, and its suggestion that a full role in the UK’s politics should be curtailed because of the peculiar position which Northern Ireland holds within the Kingdom, Porter was coming close to Humespeak, whether he acknowledged it or not.
‘Rethinking Unionism’ was written before the Belfast Agreement was conceived or instigated. Whether, with the Irish nationalist aspiration guaranteed a role in Northern Ireland’s government, safeguards for identity and culture and a cooperative relationship with Dublin central to the dispensation, Porter would deny Conservatives and Ulster’s unionists’ entitlement to strengthen Northern Ireland’s participation in Wsetminster is doubtful. Certainly he would recognise that the Agreement does not require that the British government refrain from such a project. With the luxury of retrospect, contemporary commentators have less excuse for their misinterpretation of a document which they have had eleven years to digest.
Of course Northern Irishness is in itself an identity. It is an identity which is often nested within various degrees of Irishness and Britishness. But whilst unionists might view their Northern Irishness and Irishness as integral to who they are, their political identity is British rather than Northern Irish. As a unionist, I am not interested in Northern Ireland, as a political entity, outside the Union. Retaining some nominal sense of separateness might be a cultural objective, or it might shape my sense of identity, but it does not form a political end. Unionism in Northern Ireland, if it can be meaningfully described as unionism at all, prioritises its membership of the United Kingdom over its separation from the rest of the island of Ireland.
Which is why an honest interpretation of the principle of consent is crucial to unionism. If the majority of people in Northern Ireland wish it to remain within the United Kingdom, that cannot be interpreted merely as a temporary break on a united Ireland. The political consequences which flow from the decision must be respected. Which means that certain symbols and furniture of state are appropriate and that full participation in Westminster politics should be encouraged.
The essence of the Belfast Agreement is a level, democratic playing field for political aspirations, rather than equal status for two political results with unequal mandates. David Cameron and Sir Reg Empey have grasped the crucial difference. Indeed by offering people in Northern Ireland the option of participating fully in national politics, Conservative and Unionists are not only in compliance with the letter of the Agreement, but they are expressing its basic principle more fully than any other competing party.