Wednesday, 4 August 2010

No magic bullets but doing the right thing can still benefit unionists.

Civic and economic arguments for Union are not magic bullets which can transform ideological nationalists into enthusiastic unionists.  I don’t think anyone ever suggested that they were.  Certainly I’m under no misapprehensions in that regard.

In my contribution to Union 2021, I advocated unionism which plugs into the UK mainstream, and addresses economic issues as a matter of urgency, because it can make Northern Ireland more successful and secure wider acceptance of our place in the United Kingdom.  Lee at Ultonia, in a constructive blogpost, accuses me of economic determinism, which I don’t think is quite fair.

I prioritise economics in the article because economics will frame the fiercest debates in the UK over the next ten years and reshaping Northern Ireland‘s economy is the immediate task for local politicians within that context.  If unionism is to move beyond its constitutional preoccupation, to offer 'unionism plus', then economics has got to be the place to start.  I certainly don’t believe that growing the private sector is a panacea for all our difficulties.  I don't believe it will make separatism disappear.

Nor should a new emphasis in unionist politics be viewed as some type of ’triangulation’ exercise (to use the hideous jargon of party tactics).  An unreformed unionism attempting to lure centre ground voters by turning its attention away from a hardcore of supporters which it takes for granted.

The goals of normalising politics, participating nationally and appealing across community boundaries, are worth pursuing in and of themselves.

The dogmas of nationalism will not dissolve because unionism starts emphasising its compatibility with a range of identities and cultures.  However, fewer of the twenty odd per cent of Catholics who are sympathetic to the Union might be inclined to vote along communal lines.  In the event of a border referendum, it’s difficult to envisage how unionism’s cause would be damaged by paying less attention to identity issues and more to the economy.

That’s why Christopher Montgomery’s analysis in the News Letter puzzled me.  Nationalists are not unionists, nor or they more unionist than they used to be, he argued.

And?  I’m not sure that anyone had ever suggested either of the theses which he is so keen to rebut.

Regardless of how nationalism chooses to present itself:

Unionists' best response is to continue to build a plural and positive case for Union. And to make Northern Ireland a successful and indispensable region of the United Kingdom.


Lee said...

"accuses me of economic determinism"

It had been intended in the spirit of a comment rather than accusation.

Enda McLarnon said...

An interesting post though I have to slightly open the thinking that nationalists are not unionists.
There are many nationalist people in Northern Ireland who are neutral in their stance when it comes to their opinion on a union with Britain. I am reluctant to use the word indifference but that is often the reality. It would be very wrong to assume that all nationalists want a United Ireland and want out of the union.

Chekov said...

With all due respect Enda, being a nationalist very specifically means that you want 'out of the Union'. I'm sure that you're using the term more loosely, i.e. 'the nationalist community' or something similar. I prefer to use it in its political context.

peteram79 said...

The Enda-Chekov exchange is interesting in that it emphasises the paucity of language to describe mindsets outside of the NI societal norms.

"Nationalist" and/or "Catholic" is used to describe a homogenous community where, as Enda points out, not everyone holds nationalist views and, in this increasingly secular society, many may not be practicising Catholics or even have any sympathies for the Church of Rome. "Protestant" is similarly problematic, although I'd suspect, by dint of a lower number of dissenters, "unionist" might be less so.

The difficulty arises, and hence isn't tackled by many of the mainstream political commentators on laziness grounds, in trying to come up with alternatives. The Gaelic and Ulster-Scots languages have become so politicised that to try to use these labels which define cultures but do not impose a certain political or religious viewpoint is impossible. Other terms, for example "planter", carry their own baggage.

The whole Northern Irish lexicon depends upon society fitting comfortably into one of the two boxes. You need only to consider the ludicrousness of terms for those who subvert this. On the mainland, you'd squirm if a Daily Mail-reading relative of pensionable age referred to the union of a Caucasian and a non-white as a "mixed marriage", but you'd forgive them them on contextual grounds. To hear anyone under 60 and of passable education say the same would be a serious warning sign of far right sympathies. And yet, in NI, the term is common parlance to describe those breaking a cultural taboo.

A de-sectarianising of language would be a useful tool in the de-sectarianising of politics and of society as a whole. Perhaps the three are inextricably linked?

andrewg said...


Finding accurate labels for the "two communities" in NI is a futile exercise, because there is no objective method to define them in the first place. You can use the method of your choice - politics, religion, national identity, language - but each one gives you a different result.

We humans have a very bad habit of thinking in absolutist terms, and in NI we have been brought up to believe firstly that there are exactly two sides, and secondly that everyone else uses the same definition that we do. If we can't even agree on the definition of what we're talking about, what hope of agreeing on a name for it?

brian said...

Northern Ireland suffers a budget deficit of approx 32%. Without the subsidy from Westminster the quality of life here would plummet. The forebearance of the treasury in continuing that support will be politically challlenged over the next 10-15 years by a number of factors which are outside of any control from within NI.
Chiefly, the rise of English nationalism and a consequent reluctance to continue to butress the UK through the Barnett formula. UKIP and others will be the main electoral threat to the Torys retaining a parliamentary majority which is almost exclusively English based. If that majority is threatened by English resentment of the Celtic fringe, then look to Cameron to ditch Barnett to stop the bleeding of Tory support to the English "seperatists".
Cameron's Unionism is not up front and central in the way that NI Unionists would like it to be. It is probably somewhere down the middle of page 3 and eminently expendible if it means holding the core of central England. The threat to the Union does not come from the seperatists in NI, Scotland or Wales. Middle England is waking up to the fact that they are paying the piper for the Celtic fringe who heap aprobium on them at every chance.
The death of the current Monarch may well be the turning point in an emerging debate among the English on the value to them of the Union. Their conclusion may be the if the other "nations" of the UK so value that Union then let them pay for it.
Let them paddle their own canoes with the sweat of their own brows and stop spongeing of the English taxpayer. Since most people are more exercised by the coin that butters rather than the flag that flutters, the implications for continued support for the Union would be profound.