Somewhere on a slightly different path lies a better future for the union, if we look for it now… – Slugger O’Toole
“I don’t care about your religion. I don’t care about your gender. I don’t care about your ethnicity. You can be a unionist and will be welcome in a union of people? “
– Doug Beattie, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, 2021
Is it as inclusive, diverse and progressive as political unionism is becoming? Is there a deeper meaning in telling those of diverse ethnicity, gender and religion than as a trade unionist …… .. I do care?
People in Northern Ireland who experience or have suffered discrimination and injustice because of their faith, sexuality, race or ethnicity are surely more interested in hearing that issues that decrease their quality of life are resolved.
This is more important than a close to free welcome to a trade unionism largely defined by a binary identity rather than by solutions to social and economic problems. They’re the ones that more or less impact everyone, regardless of the obsessive labeling that dehumanizes and has passed its expiration date.
Political unionism should think more; to definitively get rid of the constraints of old symbols and thought, too influenced by partition and the policy of insecurity it engendered. The rooting of the unionist apparatus and spotless governance story could benefit from the positive turmoil of creative and radical political action and decision-making; beyond the ideological fixation of the besieged constitutional ground, the communal and lazy categorization.
The pro-union electorate, and those who find it increasingly uncomfortable to associate with political unionism, yearn for this but become frustrated by an overly slow and overly cautious pace of development supported by limited vision.
Trade unionism ceased to rule Northern Ireland in 1972. Its influence in the period that followed fluctuated. Previously, as the Centenary reminds us, trade unionism ruled from 1921.
There is an industry of polemics, some of which have recently become available, to catalog the failures of a predominantly unionist society. state failure of Northern Ireland from 1921 to 1972. The ideologues of a fourth green field, indulging in the bizarre claim of having lived in conditions similar to black Americans in states like Georgia are unlikely to be persuaded otherwise.
Historian Patrick buckland in its history of Northern Ireland may have felt justified in titling its publication The factory of grievances but that people ever had to sit in a particular seat on a bus or restaurant or use a particular water source because of their religious or political background surely could not have been in his mind.
However, this does not justify the general response of Unionism which is to erect barricades in the face of a difficult history. In 1920-1925, the threat of nationalism may have been real, but as suggested J Ruane and J Todd, ‘the means taken to fight it were counterproductive. ‘
Too little has been done to make Northern Ireland work for everyone.
Many political unionists have not learned the folly of repeating the mistakes of the past. The argument that the principle of consent enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement will be acquired, not by tribal demography but by the implementation of a significant policy, is silenced in particular by the irrational culture of provocative parades, bonfires and flags and opposition to values found elsewhere in the UK.
The answer to the zeal of Ireland’s Future dream factory and similar pressure groups do not find themselves repeating the past. The same goes for getting drawn into the perversion of mutual respect that prefers to keep a town hall in the dark rather than lit up to mark an important historical commemoration. Such people would draw energy from any light in order to avoid their darkness.
At the end of the summer, the results of a survey in Britain were released. Its findings should be read by anyone who aspires to maintain and strengthen a connected UK, including Northern Ireland. The ideas confirm what pro-Union groups and individuals have been saying for some time. By highlighting points of consensus, they relate to what people, free from fear and negativity, want to hear and see, in and for years to come.
The language is clear with an emphasis on public priorities around a lexicon centered on key issues:
- Healthy: – a healthy NHS, a healthy economy and healthy families. A healthier nation for everyone, everywhere;
- Responsible: – the responsible company; responsible government, accountability to one another;
- A map: – not an agenda, not a manifesto, not a promise but detailed planning to make life better;
- Honesty: – managers; Say what you think and think what you say;
- Responsibility: – take charge of your mistakes and correct them, immediately
- Equality: – where everyone is treated the same regardless of what they do; where are they from; and
- 4 rupees: – responsible, realistic, respectful and results.
Identity politics does not come all over on the list.
To succeed, political unionism needs a major overhaul of its thinking. As important as it sounds, there is too much reliance on slogans and sound bites, evasion on answers to honest questions; too much reliance on tactics that misinterpret the sophistication of the electorate; and too much reluctance to break the carnage of constitutional tussles with parties that are only happy when they are at war.
False piety, too little humility, and a lack of self-criticism have equally limited appeal.
To summarize: political unionism must empty the swamp of its own past mistakes: notably the recurrent and uncontrolled politics which hardens into lesser forms of civility. There’s a lot to be gained from a generative examination of missed opportunities and what held him back in order to learn how to avoid defeat before moving forward again.
Be passionate about the endings, but think about how you go about achieving the single long term goal of making Northern Ireland work.
Telling people that you don’t care about their background or status if they want to join you may be well-meaning, but it’s a lot different than saying you to do to care about their life; to make them better by removing constraints, past or present, on your ability to deliver.
Terry Wright is a former UUP member who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities, works independently to promote civic unionism.