Open Unionism


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Can ‘middle Ulster’ find common ground with ‘middle Ireland’

Hat-tip to OConall Street & Ultonia for reproducing Arthur Aughey’s contribution to the McCluskey Summer School. Here he addresses the future of Liberal / Progressive Unionism…

Speech by Arthur Aughey

One of my old tutors, the political philosopher Bob Berki, used to argue that every political movement worth its salt needed both insight and vision.

What is the insight of liberal/progressive Unionism? It is that the Union has no security unless Catholics too can feel secure in Northern Ireland and unless there is goodwill between North and South.

What is the visionof liberal/progressive Unionism? It is that the United Kingdom remains the best arrangement for at once reconciling and transcending the enmities of the narrow ground of Ulster politics. Formerly the civilisational aspect of this was central, the idea of participation in the providential mission of the United Kingdom. Today the instrumental aspect is often cited – that Northern Ireland’s material welfare is best served by membership of the United Kingdom.

Of course, insight and vision are often coherent and consistent only within an ideological tradition. They can be sincerely subscribed to even when reality is resistant to their appeal to benevolence. In short, it remains rhetorically powerful if not practically convincing.

There is an assumption at the heart of liberal unionism and it is the possibility that ‘middle Ulster’ can find common ground with ‘middle Ireland’ (within Northern Ireland and between North and South). That common ground can be found insofar as Unionists and Nationalists think rationally and put material interests before sectarian ones. (Liberal nationalism, of course, assumes something similar albeit the role and mission are inverted).

This is nothing new, of course.

The Irish Association, for example, was founded in 1938 on the best liberal Unionist values in order ‘to make reason and goodwill take the place of passion and prejudice in Ireland’. However, as one of its stalwart members, Mary McNeill, wrote at the time – ‘I don’t see how you can go blethering to Catholics about goodwill if you are not prepared to hold out some hope of fair treatment’. The old Stormont regime was unable to do that, even though the discrimination attributed to that regime was never to the oppressive excess which Nationalist and Republican ideologues have claimed (see John Whyte).

When thinking of Nationalists the liberal vision is often at odds with the insight, resolving itself into the proposition that the Northern Ireland problem would resolve itself once Catholics became British – explicitly in Terence O’Neill’s view in 1963 that, if given a chance by Stormont, Catholics would behave like Protestants; and implicitly in Bob McCartney’s Campaign for Equal Citizenship which thought that, if given the chance to support UK parties, Catholics would begin to vote like free-born Brits.

If liberal Unionism, then, seems to misrecognise nationalist opinion (rather, idealise it according to its own requirements) it can often fail to understand the anxieties and concerns of unionists. The criticism of liberal unionism can take a number of forms, three of which are familiar in the communal language of Northern Ireland politics.

1 That liberal unionism is fine but only for those who can afford to escape or ignore Northern Ireland’s sectarian reality – locally known as GPS or ‘Guilty Prod Syndrome’.

2 That liberal unionism ignores the fact that politics in Northern Ireland is all about Friends and Enemies. Unionist enemies will only take liberal moderation to be weakness and, in its compromising tendency,  it is no longer clear whether the liberal/progressive is a friend any longer and may compromise the communal security of unionists – or, to use that old Provo phrase, when liberals choose to ignore its popular ‘base’, what it proposes may be wonderful but its not politics.

3 That liberal unionism tends towards one of those solutions which assume that Unionists aren’t Unionist and Nationalists aren’t nationalists – and how many of those have we come across in the last 40 years? One of those solutions was Norman Porter’s civic unionism which, when further elaborated in his book The Elusive Quest, is a solution for angels not men and women.

In other words, liberal unionism (like liberal nationalism) is always dogged by the fundamentalism of the zero-sum problem.

Take, for example, one of the questions from the latest Northern Ireland Life and Times survey. Those surveys tend to present Northern Ireland opinion in its Sunday best but I think this one is most revealing.

The question is: A political gain for one religious tradition in Northern Ireland usually results in a loss of ground for the other? – 53% agreed and 15% were too polite to say! However, with all allowance for positive response syndrome, it looks like about three-quarters of the Northern Ireland electorate believe this is a truism of politics.

Despite all the progressive, liberal sentiments you find in Northern Ireland Life and Times survey I think that is one of the most revealing responses.

So liberal/progressive Unionism risks irrelevance on both counts – unpersuasive for nationalists and missing the point for unionists. To which one may now add a third – having its clothing stolen by the DUP. This must appear a very pessimistic assessment.

However, when you consider the contributions to the Newsletter’s Union 2021series it is striking that (with a few exceptions) contemporary Unionism – in its diversity – is reasonably optimistic about its future, possibly most consistently for a generation. If this is true, then the future is not without its promise. For liberal Unionism requires optimism in order to flourish.

To return to Bob Berki: his magnum opus was On Political Realism and its message was that historical pessimism must be qualified by present optimism. And the situation has changed such that the meaning of liberal unionism needs to be modified too.

Having won the principle of consent to constitutional change, unionism has had to accept the principle that nationalists must consent to political arrangements in Northern Ireland. And it is no longer clear that the old prescriptions convince no longer, especially in a society in which reconciliation remains skin deep.

Schopenhauer’s fable of the porcupines may suggest a way forward.

A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told — in the English phrase — to keep their distance . By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked.

The DUP and Sinn Fein have both made the most of that fable politically but want – and prosper – by the ‘two communities’ keeping their distance. Liberal unionism – and liberal nationalism – can only prosper by accepting that moderate distance also requires mutual warmth. In our present circumstances, that culture of goodwill is not to be lightly despised.


Filed under: academic, Shared future

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