‘Get economics right and NI will work politically’
The fact that the Union is safe is not enough. If unionists can make Northern Ireland work economically, it will work politically
By Owen Polley
No contributor to Union 2021 so far, with Jim Allister the conspicuous exception, believes that Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom is under immediate threat.
I agree with the majority view. Our constitutional status is safe.
The important question is not whether we will be part of the UK in 2021 (we will). Instead, we should consider how we can start to participate fully in the UK at a political level and broaden acceptance of our British status, locally and nationally.
These goals are within the grasp of unionists in Northern Ireland like never before. The key to their realisation is outward-looking politics, plugged into the UK mainstream.
The biggest threat to their achievement is a possible retreat to the trenches of identity politics, under the guise of “unionist unity”.
With a new pro-Union government at Westminster, unionists in Northern Ireland are, for the first time in a generation, working with the grain of British politics.
If there is a will to move from the sidelines, we have an unparalleled opportunity to normalise our position within a devolved UK.
That means striving to build an enterprise economy, so that we can be weaned off our dependence on the financial subvention from London. 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. If we are seen to pay our way, then mainland resentment at our addiction to subsidies will die away.
Unionism should always work to make the UK successful and ensure that Northern Ireland benefits from that success.
It must always seek to be broader, rather than narrower. It is hard to envisage a single unionist party broadening, rather than narrowing, unionism’s appeal.
If truth be told, the most common arguments for “unionist unity” concentrate less on defending our UK status and more on culture. The mentality is that one tradition needs, constantly, to fight its corner against the other.
The notion is therefore advanced that unionism must unite in order to counter the advances of nationalism.
In fact, nationalism is strengthened whenever unionism is monolithic, inward-looking and concerns itself with the well-being of one community. Where unionism is pluralist, outward-looking and emphasises its compatibility with a range of cultures, nationalism becomes uncomfortable.
Unionists from across these islands should certainly argue together the benefits of the United Kingdom and the harmfulness of nationalist separatism, but in Northern Ireland unionism should also seek to reflect a broader range of social and economic opinions at the ballot box.
At assembly level, it is important that unionism’s diversity is represented and that power-sharing works well. It would be silly to become preoccupied with the largely symbolic matter of whether Sinn Fein can claim the first minister’s post.
Unionist parties certainly need to rethink their politics, but ‘unity’ threatens to divert, rather than concentrate, their energies on that task.
No right-thinking person wants Martin McGuinness to become first minister.
Sinn Fein’s success is the most conspicuous political evidence of sectarianism in Northern Ireland. However, if McGuinness were to take the post, it would be a symbol of our dysfunction, rather than its cause.
Unionists’ best response is to continue to build a plural and positive case for Union. And to make Northern Ireland a successful and indispensable region of the United Kingdom.
Owen Polley’s blog, Three Thousand Versts of Loneliness, was shortlisted for the 2009 Orwell Prize