Deconstructing “Unionism”

I have long maintained that the terms “unionist” and “Unionism” as currently used in Northern Ireland are an obstacle to discussion and understanding. Because there is much more to unionists than Unionism. Indeed, there is much more to Unionism than Unionism. What have tray bakes and soda farls got to do with the constitutional question? The same words are used for multiple related yet distinct things, and the capital letters that one can use for disambiguation in print(*) are worthless in speech.

This use of insufficiently precise terminology has had two separate, but equally destructive effects.

Firstly, it has served to drive a wedge between the Union and those not from a Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist background, and severed Irish Republicanism from the Dissenter tradition that gave birth to it. Once “Unionist” and “Nationalist” became markers of identity rather than mere political descriptions, the idea of a “Catholic Unionist” or a “Protestant Republican” became almost paradoxical. Those who refuse to order from the political set menu are seen as ridiculous, or even dangerous. And it has become impossible to discuss political ideas on their own terms without the accumulated moss of cultural identity, and vice versa.

Less obviously, but perhaps more importantly, it has also led to many people from all sides believing that without the Union, “unionists” would in some way cease to exist. That without the defining embrace of the UK, the people themselves would wash away. This fantasy has fuelled both Unionist paranoia and Nationalist triumphalism. But if you build a definition upon sand, it is the definition that is unsound, not the objective reality you are trying to describe.

This is why academics and specialists are constantly creating new jargon and terminology. Lack of precision becomes crippling when discussing malleable things, because for every single thing that can be defined at a given instant, there are multiple different ways that it can behave under different circumstances, depending on how the definition was constructed. One can say that A is the same as B, but will that always be the case? What happens when A changes? Will B change also or will it stay the same?

If I say “the Mayor is tall” I am obviously talking about the current holder, who will presumably remain tall as a private citizen; while if I say “the Mayor chairs the meetings”, that applies to past and future individual Mayors, but only during their term of office. I can use disambiguation such as “the current Mayor” or “the then Mayor” or “the office of Mayor”, but it gets complicated very quickly. What if I say “the current Mayor owns a black car”? It depends on whether the car is personal, or a perk of the job. “The office of the Mayor currently owns a black car”? What if the car gets resprayed? “The office of the Mayor currently owns a formerly black car”?

Complex concepts demand simple, but unique names. What do you call a “unionist” who emigrates to England? Or Dublin? What do you call a “unionist” whose family have lived in Donegal for generations? What if there is a future United Ireland? “Unionists” wouldn’t just disappear. They don’t stop being who they are, or forget where they’re from. But the term “unionist” loses its meaning when shorn of its native context. The word no longer corresponds to the concept that it was intended to represent. When you talk about “unionists” in a hypothetical United Ireland, are you talking about those people who are currently “unionists”, or just those who will continue to be “unionists”? Or “Unionists”?

At bare minimum, we need a name for small-u cultural “unionists” that captures the identity of the group but which still retains meaning outside the particular context of 20th century Northern Ireland. “Protestant” isn’t a solution – not all unionists are Protestant, or even Christian, and the vast majority of Protestants in the world have never set foot in Belfast. “PUL” merely smashes three equally inaccurate terms together into a meaningless TLA. “Hun” is pithily accurate but unacceptable in polite society. “Anglo-Irish” means something else entirely, as do “Scots-Irish”, “Ulster-Scots”, “Ulster-Irish” and “British-Irish”. “Northern Irish” is both too broad in one direction and too narrow in another. “Ulster(wo)man” is equally inaccurate, and a gender bear-trap.

“Ulster-British” is probably the best that can be constructed without resorting to pejoratives or acronyms.

And what of big-U “Unionism”? It has become common to see “pro-Union” used to distinguish the narrow issue of the Union itself from the “Unionist” political parties, but this may not be sufficient by itself. Unionist parties are unlikely to rename themselves for the sake of an academic debating point, but the concept of big-U “Unionism” is far from monolithic.

Set aside the economic and social policy differences that are irrelevant to the constitutional issue, and never mind the UUP/DUP split that owes more to the Anglo-Irish/Ulster-Scots cultural division than it does to policy of any kind. The “Unionist” parties are divided within themselves even on constitutional matters – between Ulster Nationalists, British Nationalists, integrationists, federalists, Liberal Unionists and even the occasional Irish Unionist. At one time in the 90s there was a repartitionist faction. The only thing that seems to unite them is a shared antipathy to Irish Nationalism.

For some (such as the integrationists and liberals) it is nationalism of whatever flag that is more offensive, while for others (such as the Ulster Nationalists) it seems to be Irishness, particularly the Gaelic flavour. Anti-Nationalism and Anti-Gaelism are distinct trends even though many individual big-U Unionists subscribe to both. And these trends often pull against each other, leading to an epidemic of doublethink. The logic of Anti-Nationalism is to embrace all those who would be content to live in a multi-national state, regardless of their cultural heritage. The logic of Anti-Gaelism is to resist any such blurring of the communal lines and maintain the cultural distinctiveness of the Planter heritage.

Despite these internal tensions, big-U “Unionism” remains a valid identifier for as long as Unionist organisations remain part of an identifiable movement opposed to Irish Nationalism. If Unionist parties don’t always act as outsiders might think “Unionists” should (on a literal reading of the name), that is not enough to invalidate the word. Names don’t have to be literally descriptive.

But given that big-U “Unionism” remains useful, small-u cannot. Using the same word conflates cultural and political identities that can be subscribed to independently. Small-u is therefore best avoided, particularly when discussing hypothetical futures. It is an oxymoron to talk of a “unionist” identity in a consensual United Ireland, but that doesn’t mean that the Ulster-British culture that we call “unionism” would be meaningless. We should be careful to remember that Unionism and Ulster-Britishness are not the same thing, and using the same word for both only perpetuates the tribal, set-menu vision of Northern Ireland.

(*) Capitals aren’t even that useful in print, given that the first letter of a sentence is always a capital…

This post was originally published on Slugger.

The end of the world

In the 19th century national identity in Europe was more deeply entwined with religion than it is today. Witness the creation of Belgium in 1831 from the remains of the Spanish Netherlands, when formerly Hapsburg areas seceded from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands to form a Catholic-majority, multilingual state with a French-speaking aristocracy. In the 20th century the focus of national identity shifted: the same Belgian state is now hoplessly riven between French- and Dutch-speakers, regardless of religion. The focus of politics changes with the tide, but the driving force is always the same: collective power.

The nature of power is that those without it will always be jealous of those with it, and those with it will always fear having it taken away. Power may be measured by economic might, land, legal privilege or social status. But no matter the measure, there will always be haves and have-nots. And there will be times when the haves consolidate their power, and times when power passes from one group to another.

In a democracy, those who don’t have power are comforted by the belief that their turn may soon come; and those with power are comforted by the belief that even if they lose, their turn will come again. But problems then arise when people start to believe that they will never have power, or that once power is taken from them they will never get it back. If power is apportioned by socio-economic class, one can always dream of climbing the greasy pole to become one of the powerful. If however the basis of power is identity, there is no such dream.

Because class is how society defines you, but identity is how you define yourself. Transgressing the boundaries of class is an act of liberation; transgressing the boundaries of identity is apostasy.

So when identity trumps class, when birth rather than passing circumstance picks the teams, politics becomes a predetermined game. One cannot work or buy one’s way onto the winning side. That has a profound effect upon the perennial losers, but it has an equally profound effect upon the winners. Because if they don’t need to fight to win, they forget how to fight. So when eventually some outside force tips the scales against them, those who were once guaranteed victory can find themselves facing defeat while simultaneously discovering their own impotence.

Unionism is in this pickle right now.

The last six weeks has seen a torrent of discussion on the future of Unionism. Every Unionist paper is running opinion pieces, and every Unionist name is throwing in their two cents. The question “what if?” is being seriously asked, and in some cases seriously answered. The constant theme is that Unionism as a movement is experiencing a dark night of the soul. Because political Unionism has never seriously examined the nature of its own self.

The American politician Tip O’Neill had a famous catchphrase that said “all politics is local”, and it can be applied to Westminster and Leinster House as easily as to Capitol Hill. In Stormont however, all politics is identity politics. Local issues still matter to the average elector, but nobody believes that they significantly affect election results. Elections are explicitly about which identity holds more power. That this power is effectively limited to symbolism and a seat scorecard makes little difference. For They must learn that We are in charge here. It’s all about the psychological victory, about status, and Face.

For as long as Ulster Unionism has existed as a movement, it has been dominated by the fear that They might gain power over Us, and They can’t be trusted to rule in Our best interest. In the 19th century, identity was (like in Belgium) largely a matter of religion, and the sectarian gulf in Ireland was understood as a religious one, backed up by a history of confessional privilege. After Irish Unionism performed its strategic retreat to the defensible north-east, it adopted the clothes of a rival nationalism. “Ulster” was the new identity around which Unionism gathered itself, one which was quite happy to have Home Rule, so long as it was from Belfast rather than Dublin. So long as it was Us in charge and not Them.

But Unionism never escaped from 19th-Century confessional identity. And this fear of Them was Unionism’s original sin. Because instead of bringing Them inside the tent, instead of selling a vision of the future where everyone prospered together, Unionism shut Them out. Perhaps it would have been an impossible task, but there was no urgent need to try; Unionism was electorally safe. But now that its majority has evaporated, Unionism finds itself temperamentally incapable of making even the smallest concession on culture and identity. And when all you ever willingly offer is thin gruel, it’s no wonder They keep asking for more.

Unionism has become an apocalyptic religion, forever warning that the end is nigh. And yet its leaders reassure the faithful that it will not come in our lifetime. This incoherent brew of brimstone and honey is a tactical advantage, but a strategic weakness. When victory is defined merely as staving off the apocalypse for a few more years, there can be no strategy, no vision, no hope.

Because Unionism gave up on evangelising the other side a century ago. To become an expansive, accommodating, all-inclusive political movement would require a fundamental cultural reappraisal. And now that the end of the world is starting to look like a real possibility, Unionism has neither the breathing space nor the self-belief that such a paradigm shift would require.

Nobody can predict when the end will come, but it’s unlikely to be a lifetime away. Attitudes are hardening on both sides, demographic change still moves in the same direction, albeit more slowly, and Unionism still fails to attract support from beyond the trenches. So there are two possibilities.

Firstly, Unionism fights to the bitter end regardless of the long-term consequences to Northern Ireland’s community relations, and succeeds merely in stretching out the life of the Union for a few more years until there is no more road to kick the can down.

Or secondly, Unionism gives way to a broader movement that maintains a belief in strong links with the UK, and stands up for the interests of the Ulster-British-Protestant-whatever community, but which doesn’t hang its entire worldview on the defence of a constitutional status quo that may soon be untenable.

Somebody’s end of the world happens every day, yet the world keeps turning. And ironically, the only way for Unionism to avoid the end of its world is to accept that it might not be so bad.

This post was first published on Slugger on 2018/05/10.

One thing that unionists might want

In a previous article, I made the bold assertion that “Nationalism has nothing that Unionism wants”. What I should have said was “Northern Nationalism has nothing that Unionism wants, and Nationalism in general has nothing that Unionism wants… yet”. While Northern Nationalism may still not have much to attract Unionism, after 30th March next year the Republic will have something that unionists may quickly find themselves jealous of.


While their colleagues in Stormont and Westminster get seemingly endless airtime, Northern Ireland’s three MEPs have been quietly getting on with the job in Brussels and Strasbourg. Outside the political mechanics of the elections themselves, the only occasion any NI MEP made the front page was when Paisley heckled the Pope. But this lack of press coverage does not reflect a lack of importance; the European Parliament is a powerful body, and one in which individual members enjoy more influence than any backbencher in either Westminster or Leinster House.

On current plans, the three MEPs will vacate their seats on March 29th 2019 along with the rest of the UK’s delegation. And with them will go one of NI’s strongest tools for protecting its economic interests. Whether it is manufacturing exporters in Ballymena, content producers in Bangor, or dairy farmers in Fermanagh, the EU’s regulations, as drafted in the European Parliament by MEPs, are the framework of the modern economy.

And Brexit will not change this one bit.

As the British Government struggles to reconcile its red lines with the cold realities of a hard Brexit, virtually every economic lobby group from the CBI to the TUC is campaigning for the UK to remain as closely aligned to EU law as possible. On top of that, the Irish Government has secured a commitment that there will be “full regulatory alignment” between North and South, which effectively means between East and West also. The only plausible alternative to a cliff-edge Brexit demands that the UK as a whole continues to follow EU regulations, but without any representatives in the parliament where these regulations are drafted.

Norway’s so-called “fax democracy” is sometimes overstated. Norway has to transcribe into national law all EU regulations in the areas covered by the EEA. And yes, it has more influence on the drafting process than sometimes admitted to, as it meets regularly at governmental level with EU members in order to defend its interests. But there is no question that its voice carries less weight due to its lack of representation in the increasingly powerful European Parliament. And so it will be with the UK. It is big enough and rich enough that its concerns will never be completely ignored. But it will be Downing St making the representation, not local politicians. NI will find its voice to be very small when compared to that of London or the South East.

But not silent. It is unthinkable that Sinn Féin’s remaining MEPs would fail to stand up for the interests of their party’s electorate north of the border. Northern Nationalism will therefore have a direct line to the corridors of power via the local SF advice centre, something that political Unionism will find difficult if not impossible to replicate. Small businesses and farmers from the unionist community will find themselves either asking their local MP to ask the relevant minister to make representation on their behalf at the next bilateral summit, or holding their noses and contacting their local Sinn Féin representative.

It will be a long time before ordinary unionists fully trust Sinn Féin. But what if there were some friendly MEPs who were less objectionable to unionist sensibilities, and whose members sat with more influential groups than the relatively small European United Left? The other parties in the Republic have a golden opportunity, even a moral imperative, to take on the responsibility of representing the economic interests of Northern unionists in the EP. Without expectation of any quid pro quo, without any implied consequences for the constitutional status. Just because it’s the solemn duty of a public representative to represent the public.

Would that be something that unionists might want?

(This post originally appeared on Slugger)

Making friends with the cat next door

One of the most disappointing things to come out of recent NI political history was Sinn Féin’s much-vaunted, but quickly forgotten, Unionist Outreach project. In theory, this had a lot of potential. In practice, it was like a toddler trying to make friends with a cat.

To make friends with a cat, you have to make no mistakes. It doesn’t matter how many nice noises you make, or how nonthreatening you make yourself appear. One wrong move and the cat is on the other side of the wall, and you have to start again from scratch.

And that’s assuming that the cat has any inclination towards making friends with you in the first place.

As Mick has so often pointed out, Irish Nationalism is strategically very weak. Unionism has what they want – a blocking majority – but Nationalism has nothing that Unionism wants in return. The republican movement once had a cessation of violence to offer, but they consistently overestimated just how valuable that was, and it was spent getting the GFA over the line. Recognition of the PSNI and devolution of justice got us St Andrews and the chuckle brothers. But that was a decade ago, and there’s nothing left in the bank.

Transactional politics, where the art of the deal is paramount, has run out of road. The system is broken again, and there is nothing left for SF to trade except a return to the status quo ante, which the DUP seem to value as much as the Emperor Qianlong valued European goods.

If anything game changing is to be brought to the table, it is Nationalism that must bring it. Nationalists will protest that this is unfair, and they would be right. Politics is unfair. It is the advocate of change that has to put in the work, because their opponents are not going to help.

And so we return to the cat.

The cat has nothing personal against the child. It just sees no potential reward from engagement that could possibly balance the risks. The way to make friends with the cat is threefold: offer a tasty reward; make no threatening moves; and have infinite patience.

The reward must be generous – there is no point offering the cat a dead bird; it is perfectly capable of getting one of those for itself. Cooked chicken is good; steak is better. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are promising the cat steak dinners every day. Think of it as a loss leader.

The prohibition on threatening moves is absolute; trust is hard won and instantly lost. Whatever you do, don’t even think of mentioning even the distant future prospect of tummy tickling.

And patience is a virtue. The worst thing you can do is change your cat strategy just when the cat is starting to re-evaluate its risk/reward calculation, for then you have demonstrated the deadliest sin of all – insincerity.

Transactional politics is the politics of enlightened self-interest. By definition, it cannot further the common interest.

(This post originally appeared on Slugger)

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?

In praise of pejoratives

I have complained before about the giant hole in NI cultural terminology. There are things that exist that do not have names, and because they do not have names we cannot discuss them. Instead we use euphemisms that mean different things to different people, and waste our breath fruitlessly arguing over semantics. To demonstrate, consider a recent exchange on Slugger:

unionists are for the union, pretty straight forward, Im sure there are some in the Alliance as well.

Unionism is a tribal identity and by using the term you are identifying with it.

The core of this is a fundamental disagreement over what “Unionist” means. To some it is a political ideology; to others it is a tribal marker. The two meanings have become confused because in recent history they have referred to (approximately) the same subset of people, but this does not mean that the same must be true always. “Unionism” and “Nationalism” no longer have universally-understood meanings, and so have outlived their usefulness as descriptive terms.

The problem with names

The name we choose for a thing can either illuminate its true nature, or obscure it. In particular, if we use the same name for two different things we implicitly obscure their differences. If these differences are not important, this can be very useful. But if these differences are crucial, then we have just hamstrung ourselves.

If we use the words “Protestant” and “Catholic” we imply that the core of the dispute in NI is a matter of religious interpretation. While this may have been true in the 17th century, it is an archaic dispute to most people today. If we instead use the terms “Unionist” and “Nationalist” it is in one sense an improvement, as it captures the surface detail of the conflict, but in another sense it is a step backwards, as it implies the disagreement is a rarefied, intellectual disagreement of individual conscience, not the visceral and tribal one we know it to be.

“Unionism” and “nationalism” are fluid terms that referred to different people in different ages – around the time of the Act of Union many Catholics were Unionist and Protestants Nationalist, because of the promise that the Union would bring about Catholic emancipation. Political labels mask the underlying problem, which has roots in plantation and confession, but which has survived for hundreds of years wearing whatever political clothes befit the times.

It’s worse than you want to admit

Imagine a country whose most lasting division is into two groups who rarely intermarry, and in some parts of the inner city barely even meet. Everyone brought up in one of these groups knows instinctively where this divide lies and what its history contains. They all know what side of the line they (and others) come from, no matter how hard they try to ignore it. Previous governments have used it as an excuse for repression, and the effects are felt even today in both politics and wider society.

I’m talking about blacks and whites in the USA, of course. But when we see this description applied to ourselves we put our fingers in our ears and insist it’s not an ethnic conflict. Aren’t we all the same race, after all? We may look the same, and yet I challenge you to tell the difference between a Greek Cypriot and a Turkish Cypriot if you passed them on the street. We speak the same language, but then so did Serbs and Croats. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

We already have a solution – but you won’t like it

Since we don’t have names for such an ethnic division in NI, we delude ourselves into thinking it isn’t real. If something doesn’t have a name, it doesn’t exist. But despite all I have said above, we do have such names. They are perfect names because they describe the ethnic divide succinctly and precisely. Everyone in NI knows exactly what they mean, and they are used every single day. They’re just not considered polite.

Huns and Taigs.

Wait, I hear you cry. We don’t need these ugly pejoratives. They’re just synonyms for more polite, more acceptable words; they don’t have a distinct meaning. This is understandable, but it is nonsense. To prove it to yourself, consider the following four questions carefully, and answer them honestly.

1. If a Hun joins the Hare Krishnas, is he still a Hun?
2. If a Taig converts to Buddhism, is he still a Taig?
3. If a Taig joins the UUP, is he still a Taig?
4. If a Hun joins the SDLP, is he still a Hun?

The ordinary folk who are suffering the most from this ethnic conflict know exactly what its nature is, and have come up with pithy, descriptive terms for their everyday experience. Polite society recoils from pithy, descriptive terms, but it does not have adequate “polite” alternatives – perhaps because polite society does not want to admit the truth, that the intellectual concerns of polite society are a polite fiction. It’s not about the Pope, or the structure of church governance. It’s not about the constitution, or the role of monarchy in a modern society. It’s about what tribe has the upper hand.

Might as well get used to it

So we have established that there exist things for which the only accurate names are insults. This may not be so important, were it not for the fact that the Hun/Taig divide in NI is the single most destructive flaw in our society. If we want to fix it, we need to talk about it directly, not through shifty euphemisms such as “Protestant” or “Nationalist”. The first step to recovery is admitting the depth of our problem, and that means straight talking. Since there are no polite alternatives, we must reclaim the pejoratives and be unafraid to use them when no other word will do.

I plan a series of posts to demonstrate how pithy terminology can aid clarity of thought when discussing the conflict in NI. Please feel free to throw in your suggestions.

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.

Can unionism and republicanism be reconciled?

The short answer is a qualified “yes” but to explain why, we must first define our terms. It is a sad truth that words often mean something different in Northern Ireland than they do elsewhere, but then clarity of thought is often the first casualty of any ideological conflict.

Compare the use of the terms “nationalist” and “republican” in the Northern Ireland conflict with that of, say, the Spanish Civil War. In NI, nationalists and republicans are assumed to be (broadly) on the same side. In Spain, they were mortal enemies. This is due in part to the malleable nature of republicanism as a concept — republican movements have often encompassed wide variations in political opinion — but is also telling of how the central political conflict in Northern Ireland has appropriated political concepts to fit the purposes of its protagonists.


Classical republicanism is an enlightenment ideology concerned with essential liberty and the fight against tyranny. The central concept is that of the social contract, where all citizens regardless of creed, class or any other distinction, consent to be bound by the rules of society in order to obtain the mutual benefits of security and prosperity. These universalist ideals were hard fought for, but are uncontroversial in 21st century Europe — it could be argued that under this definition even the constitutional monarchies are “republican”, although (unlike Rousseau) modern republicans would certainly balk at any suggestion of inherited power.

The corollary of the social contract, the right of the people to revolt against a regime that violates the contract, is more problematic. This concept is the claimed root of modern Irish Republicanism, but the identification of injustice is by itself insufficient — one also needs someone to revolt on behalf of. Does every individual have the right to rebel against unjust authority, or only if he can gather enough friends? Who constitute a “people” for the purposes of revolt – a nation, a region, a social class? In the Spanish Civil War, it was largely a social class who revolted against the aristocratic Nationalists. In Northern Ireland by contrast, the oppressed people were defined by nationalism.

While Irish Republicanism has consistently claimed to be struggling on behalf of all the people of Ireland, whether Catholic, Protestant or Dissenter, it has long been de facto an Irish nationalist movement. This is an important distinction: while there have been many prominent Protestants in the Republican movement, they have all self-identified as Irish. Those people who do not self-identify as part of the Irish nation have played a vanishing role. As anyone familiar with the Balkans can attest, religion plays a large part in national identity, and the nationalist movement of the late 19th century left most Protestants, particularly those in Ulster, cold. As Protestants drifted away from an increasingly Catholic, Gaelic nationalism, the Republican movement that relied on nationalism for its legitimacy lost its claim to universality — and republicanism without universality is a contradiction in terms.


Unionism never pretended to be a universalist doctrine, but it too has drifted away from its roots. The Irish Unionism of the 19th century emerged from the Whig aristocracy, while its sister Ulster Unionist movement was (and still is) based in the industrial heartland. What unified them was a shared concern for the economy of an Ireland cut off from its trading partners by new tariffs, but they differed in important ways — Ulster Unionists, particularly Presbyterians, were more exercised by the fear of a Catholic-majority state than the Dublin-based (and predominantly Anglican) Irish Unionists. After the establishment of the Free State, Irish Unionists saw their economic interests as best defended by Cumann na nGaedheal and Dublin-based unionism faded away.

In Northern Ireland, the traditional unionist concern for the economy is consistently raised, whereas fear of domination by the Catholic Church, still explicit on the fringes, has evolved into a counter-nationalism — while a hundred years ago northern Protestants called themselves Irish, soon they began to self-identify as Ulster-British. The Irish Unionist concern for the well-being of the island economy was replaced by relief, even schadenfreude, at the economic disparities between North and South. Cut off politically from its erstwhile allies in Dublin, Ulster Unionism became increasingly parochial. Partition, accepted with reluctance by Carson, became a shibboleth. Home Rule from Dublin was anathema, but once transplanted to Belfast it was quickly embraced. Modern Unionism, in its popular form at least, is for most practical purposes merely an Ulster-British nationalism.

There are exceptions, of course. There is a notable integrationist streak in unionism, although this is much less vocal now that all the major parties have signed up to the Agreements and devolution for NI is no longer a special case. There is also a prominent “Liberal Unionist” presence amongst the cognoscenti, which has recognised the nationalist element in unionism as a destructive influence and seeks to reclaim the intellectual high ground. Yet neither of these movements is truly universalist — they are still primarily a rearguard action against further erosion of that which exists today. Even the liberal unionists are hostages to Caledonian fortune — a sovereign Scotland would in many ways be a more comfortable bedfellow for Northern Ireland than a rump Englandandwales, but that discussion remains taboo.


So can unionism and republicanism be reconciled? It is clear that as currently formulated they cannot. This is not due to the inherent principles of unionism or republicanism, but rather to the ethno-nationalist conflict that they have been grafted onto. There are only two ways that a internecine conflict can be resolved: either one nationalism defeats and subdues the other, or both can submit to the creation of a new, shared identity. In Northern Ireland the former has been tried with disastrous results, while the latter shows no sign of progress. Nationalism, whether Irish or Ulster-British, is the irreconcilable baggage that must be discarded in the search for a political synthesis.

If republicanism in NI wishes to reclaim universality, then republicanism and Irish nationalism must be divorced. Those who would prioritise Irish unity over reconciliation should properly be called nationalists, while true (classical) republicans are those who would seek a renewed social contract within whatever borders are realistically available. This is almost exactly the converse of the positions of the so-called “republican” and “nationalist” parties, but more consistent with the use of terminology outside Ireland.

Unionism must also ditch its nationalist past, but it must also free itself from sentimental attachment to one particular form of union. A universalist unionism would embrace political co-operation with anyone willing to engage on reasonable terms, whether inside the UK or beyond. The EU is a union of a different character, but the basic principle of diverse polities uniting to mutual benefit is the exact same one that unionism holds dear. A multiplicity of relationships is a strength, not a weakness.

We can thus regard unionism and republicanism as complementary — republicanism stresses the common bond between individuals within a society, and unionism expounds the bonds between societies. One concerns itself with equality within, and the other equality without. While nationalism sets neighbour against neighbour, unionism and republicanism share a common interest in building bridges. What both lack is the confidence to step back from the entrenched conflict of nationalisms and engage on matters of universal principle rather than parochial dogma.