The News Letter carried a lengthy interview last week, in which former communications director Alex Kane explained his departure from the Ulster Unionist party. Branching out, to speak about unionism more broadly, he declared its “vision, strategy and promotion … a mess”.
One comment from Kane, which does not appear online, struck me as a very self-evident, but entirely pertinent piece of analysis. Contemplating the post Belfast Agreement landscape, Kane implies that the core of political instability in Northern Ireland, the reason that a ‘centre-ground’ is prevented from emerging, lies with nationalist parties.
Both Sinn Féin and, more importantly, the SDLP, each view the Good Friday accord as ‘a staging post’ on the road to eventual dismantlement of the border.
Well of course they do! Nationalism’s goal is a thirty two county Irish republic.
A justifiable retort might point out that nationalist aspirations need not prevent unionism being confident and outward looking. Unionist parties can still build up relationships across the United Kingdom and participate fully in the business of national and regional politics. Indeed they can cooperate, across the constitutional divide, with the aim of normalising Northern Ireland politics, within a British framework.
However I believe Kane is driving at something beyond a statement of the obvious here. He isn’t simply whinging about nationalists being nationalists.
One of the prime obstacles to developing power-sharing which works, to getting on with making Northern Ireland a stable and inclusive entity, is nationalist failure to embrace fully the principle of consent. And it is that failure, to which I believe Alex Kane is alluding.
The Belfast Agreement unambiguously upholds the right of a majority within this region to determine its constitutional future. The nationalist understanding of this provision is, however, very far from unambiguous.
Rather than accept the status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, and work to persuade a majority to accept a united Ireland, nationalists have quite openly and unapologetically pursued a strategy aimed at making membership of the UK as meaningless as possible.
Most commonly this has been within the context of a peculiar reading of ‘rights’ which conflates equality of aspiration and cultural equality with equality of political outcome. Nationalism maintains that, in the interests of fairness, its adherents should be free to ignore constitutional reality in Northern Ireland and have access to ever greater institutional recognition of their perceived allegiance to the Republic of Ireland.
You can see it in the SDLP’s demand to extend elections for the southern president north of the border. It is clear whenever either nationalist party claims ‘parity of esteem’ for the Republic of Ireland’s flag. And, let’s be honest, it lies at the bottom of the assumption that northern players should be free to play for the southern football team.
The idea is that, because British and Irish identities are accorded an equal status under the Belfast Agreement, everyone should be free to pick the institutions that he or she prefers, whether they are UK or ROI based. And if you suspect we’ve only seen the thin end of the wedge, in terms of this type of thinking, you’re most probably right.
If northern deputies sat in the Dail, for instance, even if they started off only with observer status, there would soon be a push for them to have full voting rights. The raft of Republic of Ireland symbols, institutions and entitlements which nationalists might seek to access swiftly becomes endless.
So how should unionists respond? Was it a mistake to back the Belfast Agreement, as Kane intimates, because nationalists are intent upon using it for their own ends?
The constitutional core of the Good Friday accord remains beneficial to unionism. Northern Ireland’s constitutional status is no longer a matter of constant, rancorous dispute, however much republicans in particular attempt to claim otherwise.
Nationalism is restricted, for the time being, to attacking the expression of our membership of the United Kingdom, rather than its substance. Whilst the main nationalist parties’ commitment to the principle of consent is certainly illusory, they cannot doom a concerted unionist effort to normalise our place within the UK to failure.
The responsibility on unionists, if they are not to appear incorrigible, is to pick their battle-grounds carefully and to make a genuine effort to disentangle the political entitlements which are essential to full membership of the United Kingdom from the ‘parochial stupidities’ which, traditionally, they are more accustomed to defending.
A positive will to participate fully in the UK’s institutions, political or otherwise, and a constructive campaign to ensure equal treatment within the Kingdom, positions unionism as outward looking and engaged. Such unionism is likely to flourish, particularly in the event of a Conservative government. And it can form an effective counterweight to nationalist attempts to dilute our British status.
Unionism which is preoccupied only with sectional ‘Ulster protestant’ interests and is most grimly determined to deliver constant humiliation to, for instance, the Irish language or the GAA, will only create resentment.
It does nationalism’s work for it, by encouraging the notion that ‘Irish’ cultural preoccupations must be wedded to a nationalist political allegiance. The Union Flag becomes a symbol of cultural subjugation, rather than political reality.
The outlook for unionism should not be grim as Kane paints and opportunities for cross community cooperation which is good for unionists do exist. The key is getting our priorities straight.