Saturday, 25 July 2009

Britishness entails participation

This is a piece which I wrote for another source prior to the twelfth. It wasn't used, so I reproduce it here.

Ostensibly David Cameron should be reassured by the pageantry scheduled to take place in Northern Ireland over the forthcoming holiday weekend. By striking a deal with Ulster Unionists the Conservative leader has asked people here to express their Britishness through participation in national politics.

With the province’s popular public holiday consisting of demonstrations which affirm the Union and celebrate foundational constitutional events in the UK’s history, Cameron’s appeal should find, ready made, a large and receptive constituency. But despite the fact that our place within the United Kingdom is now settled, and despite the fact that an incoming Tory government will strive to normalise our position further, Northern Ireland retains a contradictory attitude to national British politics.

Since Gladstone introduced the first Home Rule bill in the 1880s, Irish unionists have had a difficult relationship with Westminster. Throughout the existence of Northern Ireland, suspicion of the British government’s intentions has often had a sound basis. But it is also true that Ulster unionism has not always used its links with Great Britain to better explain itself, or to cement its membership of the United Kingdom through meaningful engagement on national issues. We have been guilty of focussing too much on a little Ulster and not enough on a big United Kingdom.

Thus the marches which take place on Monday will be viewed by many others on these islands, not so much as a manifestation of Northern Ireland’s exceptional Britishness, but rather as a symbol of the exceptionalness of Northern Ireland’s British citizenry. Which is not, of course, to suggest for a moment that there is anything wrong with being different. Orangeism represents just one of the varied cultures which exist within our diverse Kingdom.

But the Northern Irish unionist party which currently returns most representatives to Stormont and Westminster refuses to engage constructively with politics at national level. We should be mindful of the message that that sends across the water.

Sammy Wilson has begun his tenure as Finance Minister by railing against the possibility of Northern Ireland delivering its share of public sector spending cuts. Like Nigel Dodds before him, he has made no attempt to justify his position as regards the parlous state of the UK’s finances. Indeed by claiming that Conservative promises to ring-fence health spending could impact Northern Ireland, Wilson appeared to miss the fundamental fact that devolved government is funded by a block grant and it will be HIS responsibility to determine how much is spent on each department.

One of the regrettable impacts of devolved government is its tendency to establish rival centres which necessarily compete for power with central government. To a degree that is unavoidable and it is certainly not an effect unique to Northern Ireland. However when unionists adopt, as default, an attritional attitude towards politics at Westminster, challenging the mandate of the UK parliament to make decisions here, showing little interest in national issues beyond their consequences for Northern Ireland, making derisive allusions to ‘squatters’ and so forth, then the ties which bind our kingdom together sustain collateral damage.

Just like people in other parts of Britain, we will often find ourselves disagreeing with the government in London, but the best means to strengthen our position within the UK is to be involved in the debates and arguments which take place at Westminster, not in a semi-detached capacity, but as fully and wholeheartedly as we can. The settled nature of our current constitutional position within the Union means that we no longer have an excuse to exclude ourselves from national politics, whilst nevertheless volubly proclaiming our membership of the nation. The United Kingdom is about participation and those of us in Northern Ireland who value its continued existence must properly participate.

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