The supposed fragility of “Unionist” identity

Alex Kane is on the warpath again:

Sinn Fein has been inviting all sorts of non-republicans to address their ‘uniting Ireland’ conferences.

They would have you believe that it’s part of their ongoing mission to persuade us that we would be better off outside the United Kingdom and that we would have nothing to fear inside a united Ireland.

Well, we wouldn’t have a political identity or a constitutional purpose. We would be denied a mechanism for reversing the decision at another time. We wouldn’t have any structures to protect and promote our core values, or determine our own destiny. Republicanism, it seems, can be given a voice and a chance to secure its end goals inside Northern Ireland: but unionism would never be given the same rights within a united Ireland.

I can think of no reasons or circumstances in which unionists in Northern Ireland would ever vote for a united Ireland. Even ‘turquoise unionists’ – those who indulge the fancy that you can be both Irish and British – would probably come to their senses and realise that once the border went, their Britishness would go with it!

Apparently it is the border that defines Huns, and without it they would cease to exist. The constitutional link with Britain is the sum total of Ulster-British-Protestant identity and is therefore a precious, fragile thing. This is a classic refrain, and one that is accepted by many without question. It is a negative, reactionary line that is born not of pride or self-confidence, but of fear and an assumption of weakness and inevitable failure.

It is a pernicious idea because it implies that an individual’s identity, his self-image, derives not from his own qualities but from an external source. It tells you that your identity can be taken away from you by others, that it depends on political permission. And this has historically suited the purposes of political Unionism, because it sustains the communal block vote.

Nobody argues that Scots ceased to be Scottish after 1707, just because a border was redrawn. Scots are currently an even smaller minority in the UK (8%) than Unionists are in Ireland (15%), yet Scots maintain an identity beyond mere politics, one that survived the loss of their independent state and is in rude health today. The “Unionist community” has never been defined by its own members in such a robust fashion. At times it seems to hang from a thread, its entire existence deriving from a line on a map. This is largely the fault of political Unionism itself, which invested all its energy in building defences against Irish nationalism, and precious little in working out who it was defending.

Ethnicity is not defined by politics. One can be a Scottish Unionist or a Scottish Nationalist, and still be equally Scottish. But political Unionism has not yet understood this. It does not believe that there can be a difference between political Unionism and its ethnic counterpart, as evidenced by Kane’s quote above. Four hundred years of Ulster-British-Protestant history, culture and identity are reduced to a single political issue barely a century old. If there were a united Ireland, political Unionism may well die. But the cultural legacy beneath it would continue to exist after Unionism, just as it existed before Unionism.

And this is where Unionism is failing those that it purports to represent. By framing the constitutional debate in apocalyptic terms it may galvanise the faithful, but it also gives unrealistic hope to its enemies. If one vote for a United Ireland will make the Huns disappear into the mists of history, then there are many who will cheer the process on. A political movement that survives by making its supporters fearful and its opponents confident is probably best described as parasitic. A significant proportion of its own voters believe Unionism will eventually fail, and this lack of confidence can be seen at the root of many of Unionism’s neuroses.

A healthy political culture would not constantly tell itself that it sat on the edge of a precipice. It would try to give its people confidence in their own future security, come what may. But would it still be Unionism?

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2 thoughts on “The supposed fragility of “Unionist” identity

  1. I agree that Unionism in Ireland has long been on the defensive but I think you need to distinguish more between cultural identity and political identity. If the border went, the Huns may still keep their Britishness culturally, but the political institutions that govern their life would obviously have changed. That is their problem. Constitution, institutions, legal system, even specific laws, currencies etc are all part of our political identity. For example, there are plenty of Americans that celebrate their family connections and shared historical cultural identity with the Huns and/or Taigs here but politically they are Americans (+state and local identities to varying degrees).

    Could this in part explain our differing attitudes to the EU? You see that the EU doesn’t really change the cultural identity of the British, Irish, French, etc and are more willing to see changes to current political structures, while I am more concerned about the political identity (i.e. where political decisions are made, who gets to make them, and who does (and equally importantly does not) get to choose who gets to make them)?

    • I’m not sure what you mean – I’ve spent the last few posts trying to untangle ethnic and political identity. My accusation is that political Unionism (and Nationalism) does not appreciate the difference.

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