Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons

The recent News Letter series of opinion pieces on the future of Unionism has had its moments, particularly when the more thoughtful commentators have tackled the limitations of political unionism. Mick Fealty makes a good start:

In my view, the key to a settled political future is leadership, vision and the selection of coherent policy choices informed by the interests of the wider population of Northern Ireland and not just of those who actively vote for or against the Union.

Owen Polley follows up with:

If Northern Ireland can be made to work economically, then it will work politically. It makes little sense for unionists to keep pushing the constitutional issue to the fore. If instead the focus is on economic achievement, contributing to the politics and culture of the UK and ensuring that Northern Ireland is a desirable place to live for everyone, then support for the Union will flourish.

In an earlier piece, Christopher Montgomery poured cold water on that line of argument:

As Marxists and honest republicans could both point out, when you consider the full spectrum of unionism, which runs from self-regarding, status quo-entrenching Alliance members, all the way to piously non sectarian, reactionary Tory integrationists, the hope has been the same, and it was of nationalists. That one political act or another of ours, be it amelioration, cooperation or outright appeasement would result in the same thing: it would dim their nationalism. It hasn’t.

Lee probably shoots closest to the mark when he says in a response post:

Making Northern Ireland better economically is a no brainer regardless of the perceived political benefits for Unionism or not.  It is what needs done.  The budget cuts pretty much remove choice in the situation as well.  The idea that we fix the economics and we fix the politics has its attractions.  However, for a number of reasons I remain dubious that it will prove so straighforward.

The issue with which all of the above are struggling, in their separate ways, is the idea that nationalism can be killed with kindness. Variations on this theme can be found throughout the liberal wing of Unionism – acceptance of Irish culture, improved cross-border co-operation and/or economic prosperity will convince sufficient numbers of nationalists to acquiesce in the Union. That the fabled Catholic Unionist has not yet turned out in numbers at the ballot box is, depending on how Liberal one’s Unionism, evidence that either not enough has been done, or that it is a futile exercise. Both interpretations miss the obvious flaw.

There probably aren’t that many Catholic Unionists out there. There is no doubt that they exist, but not likely in the numbers that some assume. There are, however, plenty of Pragmatic Nationalists. These might be content for the Union to continue, given sufficient reassurances, but would never consider self-identifying as unionist. Unfortunately, the Liberal Unionists are not reassuring to the Pragmatists because, as Lee has implied, their logic is completely backwards.

For Liberal Unionists, doing the right thing by Nationalists is a tactic by which they hope to achieve the strategic goal, which is maintenance of the Union. For even the liberal wing, Unionism is an end in itself, with economic and social policy positions a tool to that end. This is a reversal of the stated argument for Unionism, which is that the Union is demonstrably the best means to protect Northern Ireland’s economy and society. Strategy and tactics have exchanged places.

For the Pragmatic Nationalist, economic and social well-being is the strategic goal, and all else is tactics. The Liberal Unionists may attempt to court him by pledging support for his concerns, but this support is not rooted in principle. If policy concessions do not result in an increase in overt support for the Union, he rightly fears that the Liberal Unionists will be revealed as fair-weather friends. So long as the Union remains the top priority, over and above the well-being of nationalists, Pragmatist  support will remain elusive.

The solution is for the Liberal Unionists and the Pragmatic Nationalists to come to an arrangement under which they work together in the best interests of the economy and society as a whole, regardless of whether that implies the long-term continuation of the Union. This would require a significant change in mindset on the part of the unionists, one which many may find unpalatable. But if any common ground is to be found between unionists and nationalists, the future status of the Union must be recognised as merely a means to a shared end, and not an end in itself.

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One thought on “Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons

  1. AndrewG, this is a great read.

    It highlights, once again, the continued failure of the liberal wing of unionism to acknowledge the strength, deep-rootedness and significance of national identity.

    I sense that many well-meaning unionists are in denial. This state of denial may be directly related to the reality that if the softest form of unionism cannot lure large swathes of the Catholic community towards Unionism, then no form of Unionism is capable of breaking the mould of sectarian politics.

    Since your post appeared, there has been a contribution to the 2021 series by Margaret Ritchie. It is interesting that she is trying to put an emphasis of making Northern Ireland more prosperous. As well as the points already made, the Polleyites need to face the fact that economic prosperity is not the exclusive property of unionism.

    It is not clear to me whether the SDLP is making any genuine attempt to allure unionists to their camp. I suspect not. I think that most of the SDLP rhetoric, including talk of a shared society, is shallow and worthless. There are hints in Ritchie’s article that she understands this. Ritchie tells the Unionist Parties to stand up for what they believe in, as if she has no intention of competing for votes from that community. She admits, at the end of her piece, that her real political enemy is Sinn Fein. She and her party can not offer any credible vision of non-sectarian politics.

    It is a common belief that the more extreme political parties have no intention, let alone a capability, of bringing normal non-sectarian politics to Northern Ireland. What is less understood is that neither can the moderate designated parties.

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