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What is unionism? August 11, 2020

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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That, surely, is the question at the heart of Alex Kane’s thoughtful piece recently in the IT on the nature of unionism at this point in history. Of course, as he notes:

A unionist is, first and foremost, someone who supports the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. For some the support is unconditional, but for others (as we have seen with EU membership) it is conditional. Unionism is also spread across a number of platforms: political parties, the loyal orders, Protestantism, loyalism, civic unionism, paramilitary groupings and a growing civic/secular unionism. It’s important, too, to distinguish between unionists (who would mostly support traditional political/electoral unionism) and those who prefer the description pro-union (and seem happy to vote for middle ground parties like Alliance and Green).

But…

What is missing in all of this is a broad, coherent, commonly agreed understanding of unionist/pro-union identity and what, precisely, defines a unionist. Without that, unionism cannot talk with anyone else about the future, because some sections of unionism don’t even know what is acceptable to other sections of unionism.

It is fascinating to see how unionism does indeed overlap a large number of groups and how it is riven by different approaches. Granted this is true of nationalism (and republicanism) too. But as Kane notes:

The future of Northern Ireland depends on sustaining a majority for the union. No unionist can take that majority for granted anymore. This isn’t 1921 or 1974 or 1985 or even 1998. Brexit presented a problem. Irish sea borders present a problem. The United Kingdom crashing out of the EU without a deal (still possible) would be an even bigger problem. And the biggest problem of all comes if the moment arrives when increasing numbers of those from a pro-union background believe they are on the losing side and think a deal should be reached in advance of “inevitable” unity.

That sense of inevitability is an intriguing dynamic in and of itself. How does it shape matters and perceptions? After all, one could make a strong case that it is engineered into the heart of the GFA/BA dispensation itself. If Northern Ireland seeks to merge with the Republic there is no path back from that. But I think there’s an even more intriguing question. Assume for a moment a ‘deal’ was accepted. How would that encompass unionism in the future? What would unionism become in that context? What accommodations would be necessary in the context of a new Ireland? I ask that question because even if politically some arrangement was arrived at it seems implausible to the point of impossibility that the weight of sentiment and history and culture would see ‘unionist’ attachments simply dissolve. So what form could they possibly take?

Comments»

1. NFB - August 11, 2020

I suspect that, if it came to the point where unification was seemed so imminent that a deal would be better than resistance, that unionists would seek some form of federal structure so they could retain a majority in a self-governing section of the north-east.

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WorldbyStorm - August 11, 2020

Even if they didn’t have an outright majority – agree. It would almost be a psychological thing. Though I can also anticipate ‘change the terms of the GFA/BA’ to allow us to rejoin the UK’ lobbying to emerge perhaps. Wonder how London would feel about that. One thing when Scottish independence was weak to talk about a UI in the future. V different with a strong pro Scottish independence tilt.

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WorldbyStorm - August 11, 2020

Btw can you email me? Got a question to ask. Or is there an email for you on your blog that works?

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NFB - August 11, 2020

I don’t know your address? Is it on the site?

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WorldbyStorm - August 11, 2020

It is, on the right hand column some way down, just interpolate @ and . For AT and DOT – cheers

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benmadigan - August 11, 2020

a Unionist “self-governing section”
This could appear as a sort of re-partition with a smaller “orange” state. The GFA makes no provision for this.

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WorldbyStorm - August 11, 2020

Nightmare scenario

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NFB - August 11, 2020

I could see it being sold as part of a larger enhancement of local government across the island. Dublin, Leinster, Munster, Connacht and the three counties, North-East.

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rockroots - August 12, 2020

I can’t think that repartition of a defined area would be either practical or desirable for either community. It would boil down to a district-by-district assessment, like the Gaeltacht. More practical would be a voluntary enrolment on an island-wide register, akin to First Nations communities in parts of the Americas, which would carry some extra rights around identity (alternative but legal flags, emblems and anthems, opt-outs on language education, for example) and some political weight. Not veto powers, and not a few Seanad seats like the establishment universities, but somewhere in between.

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WorldbyStorm - August 12, 2020

That’s a very interesting idea. That might offer a way forward. Btw I’d imagine quite a number of unionist adjacent TDS would be elected to a UI Dáil.

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Blissex - August 19, 2020

«that unionists would seek some form of federal structure so they could retain a majority in a self-governing section of the north-east.»

Perhaps but all the arguments used by our blogger pale in comparison to another: southern Ireland is not a popist hellhole where poverty-stricken fanatics hunt down and burn at the stake the protestants that hide among them.

When the younger generations of northern irish protestants look at the south they actually see a richer economy without sectarian discrimination against minorities, which is rather better than northern Ireland itself on both aspects.

Why then would they want a self-governing section, what would the point be other than keeping the freedom to continue discriminating against popists? That is something that most younger protestants really don’t care that much about.

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2. EWI - August 11, 2020

Join FG, like their southern compatriots? And a certain contingent of working-class trade union men like Kemmy, who seemed quite dazzled by the UK, in Labour.

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3. sonofstan - August 11, 2020

One of the things that unionism isn’t is a calculation based on economic advantage. There’s a quite insulting strain of opinion in the republic which seeks to point out to unionists how much they stand to gain from a united Ireland, as if that’s all they care about. Like it or not, the desire to remain part of the UK is integral to the identity of about a million people and explaining how much better off they might be in a UI is as likely to change their mind as the reverse argument – rejoining the UK on the basis of something or other (not a easy argument at themoment admittedly) – might be for nationalists in the rest of Ireland.
Attempting to negotiate a UI on the basis of ‘inevitability’ is a really bad way of persuading those for whom this outcome represents a threat to their sense of themselves. No matter how unjust the history that feeds into that sense of identity is, you’re never going to bribe people into surrendering it.

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WorldbyStorm - August 11, 2020

Very much agree. Indeed it’s like the old conundrum for leftists about nationalism in general – it’s be handy if it didn’t exist or rather people didn’t feel an attachment to it but they do and it can’t be wished away and one has to engage with it on the level of it having power and influence and impact ( and my feeling is that it’s not so much two ‘nations’ on the island so much as two national identities that overlap in a shared geographic space, which doesn’t actually make the issue easier!). Still the need to provide contexts that acknowledge this prior to during and after the establishment of a UI is important.

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Blissex - August 19, 2020

«the desire to remain part of the UK is integral to the identity of about a million people and explaining how much better off they might be in a UI is as likely to change their mind as the reverse argument»

To me (a foreigner) that seems like in most part some pious bollocks, because the protestants in northern Ireland were a colonial plantation that was given, and defended by hook and by crook, huge economic privileges, in particular as to having priority over “disloyal” irish catholics for access to the “good jobs”; and vice-versa the irish catholics across Ireland were fed up even more with economic discrimination than with religious persecution.

I guess that there are northern irish people that believe themselves the pious bollocks about “british identity” being central to their beliefs, but my impression is that like in every similar colonial situation the vast majority of the “orange” people have just been trying to defend their economic privileges under cover of that pious bollocks.

Now that the northern irish economy is way inferior to the southern irish one, thanks to the latter’s independence, help from the EU, and shrewd management, and that it is evident that the southern irish culture is free of discrimination against protestants etc., those huge economic privileges that the northern irish protestants had in their little colony are practically irrelevant.

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sonofstan - August 20, 2020

That’s exactly the argument I was refuting above. The example of Brexit should teach us that people don’t automatically balance identity and economic advantage in the same calculation.

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tafkaGW - August 20, 2020

There used to be this entity that allowed people of one national ‘identity’ to live in another country without hassles.

What was it called again? I think it began with an ‘E’ and ended in a ‘U’.

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WorldbyStorm - August 20, 2020

+1 to you both.

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4. benmadigan - August 11, 2020

“two national identities that overlap in a shared geographic space”

This isn’t actually a problem as the GFA allows people born in NI to be British or Irish or both. I can’t see that changing for the present population with Re-Unification

After Re-Unification, NI will cease to exist as a UK possession. The irish govt will confer irish citizenship and only the UK will be able to confer British identity on people living in NI. It either will or won’t, as it decides.

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WorldbyStorm - August 11, 2020

That’s true but in a way how do people with a British national identity express that and I’m not even talking about political expression.

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benmadigan - August 11, 2020

“how do people with a British national identity express that?”
Lots of British people live in the ROI.

How do they express their British identity?
As far as I can see by behaving like normal, law-abiding citizens, going about their daily work and life,socialising with friends and workmates,playing whatever sports they like, voting whoever they want or not voting when election times roll round.They tell you they are British if asked.

I know what they don’t do – they don’t express anti-sectarian, anti-irish views, they don’t march triumphantly around republican areas like for example Drimnagh in Dublin extolling these views.

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WorldbyStorm - August 11, 2020

Again that’s true but I wonder is it like and like in a way, for example individuals or family groups entering Ireland are different to full blown communities already preexisting in a geographic space, or put it a different way, we don’t expect nationalists and Republicans in the north to not express themselves as nationalists and republicans whether politically or otherwise.

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benmadigan - August 11, 2020

“full blown communities already preexisting in a geographic space”
When ireland gained independence with the Treaty, there was a full blown community of British-supporting civil servants, police and armed forces, who had administered British rule in ireland. Admittedly they were distributed throughout the country, not focussed in 1 area.
however, some left for GB with the promise of their jobs continuing or, in any case, preferring to live there, taking their wives, children and servants with them. The others stayed and settled down peaceably.
This was fruit not of a “Brits Out” policy directed against individuals but a conscious choice by individual heads of households.
Something similar may happen after Re-Unification.

“we don’t expect nationalists and Republicans in the north to not express themselves as nationalists and republicans whether politically or otherwise”.

Are you worried that Unionists in a Re-United ireland wiould not be allowed to express anti-Irish and anti-sectarian views?
I would imagine they wouldn’t if they violated laws against hate speech. Just as anti-Traveller and anti-Disabled speech is discouraged.

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WorldbyStorm - August 11, 2020

No not worried about that because it wouldn’t be right for bigoted or sectarian views to be expressed but – for example – expressing unionist or pro British views are not in and of themselves sectarian or bigoted. And I’d be very leery about a situation where people born on this island felt they had to leave en masse. But again are we really engaging with substance here? That being that a unionist is not going to become a republican overnight and will likely still seek to express unionism and pro Britishness in various ways and I’m trying to find out where and how that can be done within a UI – ASFs reverse GFA is a possible start where NI became an entity within a UI but with various features such as the parity of national flags in certain public spaces etc

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sonofstan - August 11, 2020

” they don’t express anti-sectarian, anti-irish views, they don’t march triumphantly around republican areas like for example Drimnagh in Dublin extolling these views”

I know loads of small ‘u’ unionists in NI who do none of these things – and none who do.

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benmadigan - August 11, 2020

But lots of large U Unionists/Loyalists do. Gregory Campbell MP delights in mocking the irish language

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sonofstan - August 11, 2020

I wouldn’t judge Kerry people by the Healy-Raes: would you?

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5. roddy - August 11, 2020

For me its not “identity” at all.Very simply Britain is an imperialist country that plundered the world and still gets involved in imperialist adventures and I want nothing to do with it.

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WorldbyStorm - August 11, 2020

I get that completely, indeed I share that attitude in large part, but what about those who don’t see that at all, for whom Britain is core to their self identification?

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WorldbyStorm - August 11, 2020

And I’m not talking about not going for a UI of one form or another, it’s more how will that different self identification function within this UI of one form or another?

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sonofstan - August 11, 2020

“Very simply Britain is an imperialist country that plundered the world”
It’s also a place where people live and feel attached too just the way we do to Ireland – quite often with a full consciousness of that imperialist heritage and not proud of it. Plenty of people who live here with roots in countries that were part of that plunder are quite happy to consider themselves British – including plenty of second generation Irish.

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Colm B - August 11, 2020

One of the problems with the debate is imprecision about what is being discussed. Is it a discussion about a political position/ideology or an ethno-religious community? Of course you can’t really discuss one without discussing the other but distinguishing between the two adds clarity.

Holding a set of political ideas is not the same as an ethnic/national identity though these may correlate strongly, as they have done in the North. “Unionism” as a set of political ideas is thoroughly right-wing, pro-imperialist, hostile to all movements for equality, hostile to any forms of socialism and wedded to the most reactionary aspects of the British state etc.
But the unionist/Protestant community is a group of people who share common traditions, history, sense of identity etc. At the moment many of them hold those right-wing views but this was not always the case in the past and it won’t necessarily be the case in the future. You can imagine a situation where that community retains its sense of identity as a separate “people” but minus the politics/ideology. Unlikely at this point, but possible.

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Alibaba - August 11, 2020

Interesting.

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WorldbyStorm - August 11, 2020

Yes that might be fruitful as a way forward

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6. roddy - August 11, 2020

All Unionist parties up here support all British imperialist adventures past and present .

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crocodileshoes - August 11, 2020

Interesting that the discussion has got this far without mentioning the word ‘Protestant’. 40 years ago, my northern prod relations were in no doubt about why they didn’t want to be ruled from Dublin and it had very little to do with pride in the Empire or wanting to march – they despised the Orange Order as much as they did the IRA. Theocracy frightened them, so did economic matters – everything from funding of public services to road quality. Of course, many things have changed. I don’t have many contacts or family left up there, but those I do see are rather less critical of the republic – several have offered praise of the way Covid has been dealt with south of the border.
On a lighter note, did anyone see RTE weather forecaster Joanna Donnelly on Friday night refer to ‘the six counties’, giggle, blush, start listing them (Armagh, Down…) clearly regretting she was ‘live’? Obviously Met Éireann, like the Dept of Foreign Affairs, has strict rules about names!

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WorldbyStorm - August 12, 2020

🙂

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7. tafkaGW - August 12, 2020

Good discussion. I’m as anti-(British) imperialist as Roddy – but we wont get to the end of the British power in NI by ignoring the deep emotional attachment to other identities in the North.

There was an opportunity during the Brexit negotiations to develop a kind of dual-identity / dual-national federalist solution for NI, but Unionist politicians chose to scupper that.

What’s important is to support anyone in the unionist tradition who wants to talk creatively about these possibilities after the inevitable border shitshow coming down the pipes this December. There will be movement all over the shop.

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