On a couple of occasions it has been mentioned to me that I might have certain common ground with the Union Group. This has surprised me, as other than a desire to see unionism presenting itself in a more articulate and thoughtful manner, there is little in the Group’s documents which I could readily subscribe to.
Central to the documents they have produced are assumptions which I regard as wrong. Firstly that the issue of the Union can only be understood in terms of identity politics, thus they cede the argument that unionism is a superior or more inclusive political philosophy than Irish nationalism. The Union Group’s thesis is that to be inclusive, both political traditions on the island must be accorded equal status. That rather undermines the entire concept of being a unionist and is reflected in the all-Ireland vision the group rather amorphously outlines.
My contention remains that whilst national identity is an important aspect of Irish politics, it is not a given that it is the only consideration in ordering a state or political arrangements, nor in my view is it the best one. A civic political identity can be established which need not threaten or negate religious, cultural or national identities which can be subscribed to in parallel. I see the United Kingdom as a multinational, multicultural state which nevertheless has a strong civic identity fostered by a shared history, shared values and shared institutions. It is a unionist’s job to advance this argument, not to concede the contrary view as equally legitimate or to stop the job of persuading people in any community, whether they consider themselves British, Irish, neither or both, that their interests are best represented within the United Kingdom.
I think what offends me most about the Union Group’s papers, is that although their rhetoric is grounded in liberal intentions, their thinking is not so very far from Sinn Fein and the DUP. They view the Northern Ireland political divide as purely an ethno-nationalist divide. They make allusions to a more complex picture by quoting John Hewitt, but there is no sense in which they attempt to divorce political identity from a sense of cultural or ethnic nationality. People can identify themselves as they wish, seems to be the message, but generally unionists aren’t Irish and Irish Catholics aren’t British. That to me, is to throw the liberal unionist baby out with the bathwater. The task for liberal unionists should be articulating unionism in such a way that the Irish national identity is comfortably encompassed within the philosophy, as it is in actuality within the United Kingdom.
The John Hewitt quote I have mentioned is as follows:
I am a Belfast man,I am an Ulster man,I am British and I am Irish,And those last two are interchangeable,And I am European and anyone who demeans,Any one part of me demeans me as a person.
It concludes the 21st Century Unionism document and frankly it is the most interesting and instructive part of it (the document’s equality-speak is impeccable – but there’s little which really addresses unionism’s future within the document). The quote is as good a jumping off point as any for the debate about the Irish identity within unionism, and for intorducing this issue to their considerations, at least, the Union Group must be congratulated. Interestingly as I’ve been writing this post, a debate about the relationship between Irishness and unionism has also sprung up on Slugger O’Toole.
A commenter makes the correct observation that those unionists who reject any notion of Irishness strengthen the case of those who would define the identity in purely Gaelic, Catholic terms and weaken their own position in the eyes of the world. Thus the twin strains of ethnic, identity based politics here perpetuate each other’s exclusivist outlook.
The narrow conception of Irishness, which is propounded by strands within Irish nationalism and perpetuated by the equivalent strand within unionism, is prescient when the language issue (discussed below) is considered. The Gaelic / ethno-nationalist strand views Gaelige as an intrinsic and defining part of Irishness. The ethno-religious strand of unionism detests the language because its assumption is that this must be correct. Balanced, inclusive unionism acknowledges the language’s history and cultural significance within Ireland and the United Kingdom, but rejects linguistic or religious criteria as a precept to political self-definition. This pattern is repeated for many aspects of culture and tradition which are considered Irish.
Unionism must eschew identity as the prime determinant of political allegiance and as such it is wrong to be prescriptive about the identities which unionists should feel. It is certainly a trend however, that unionists who are comfortable with being referred to as Irish and see Irishness as a vital part of the makeup of their cultural identity, are by far the more self-confident, articulate and consistent proponents of the Union.
Where I feel that the Union Group err, is in assuming that embracing the Irish part of our identity means diluting our unionism or being apologetic for our allegiance to the United Kingdom. Their documents are useful in that they allude to the complexity of identity which many of us feel but they have few ideas which would actively strengthen the Union and they place little emphasis on Irishness being as vital and intrinsic to the UK as it is to the Republic of Ireland.
I return once again to David Trimble paraphrasing Emerson Tennant “we add to the glory of being British, the distinction of being Irish”.