Open Unionism


A forum to discuss new ideas and perspectives on Unionism…

Peace in our time…

In his speech to the party faithful on Saturday last, First Minister Peter Robinson talked about Unionism living in ‘peace time’. This phrase got me thinking for I felt that it was very relevant but needs explained further.

Unionism has the habit of continually placing itself in a war-torn society; which is fair comment after thirty-years of violence during which police men were killed, soldiers murdered and civilians butchered at the hands of the enemies of the state. However this is thankfully no longer the case. We have moved on and live in relative peace. Psychologically and politically this environment created a safe haven for Unionism to hide whilst the bullets flew and bombs went off, which not only created destruction to buildings and infrastructure but to society itself.

At present this attitude is changing and has changed. Unionism has overwhelmingly backed Stormont and devolution as the way forward. Things may not be perfect, but we do not live in a perfect world. During the years of direct rule Unionism had easy choices to make politically, mirroring a protest movement to the naked eye. This offered Unionism a safe foundation to base itself. It did of course come naturally as this was the territory in which it was born in the late 1880s.

In Government now, Unionism, as overwhelmingly represented by the DUP, has tough and real choices to make with regards to domestic policy as seen in education, health, and the economy to name but a few. The generation born during the troubles are emerging looking houses, jobs and a safe and secure environment in which to raise a family. This is the cycle of life; the basis upon which man and woman operate.

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Filed under: civic unionism, devolution, DUP, Shared future, Union 2021

Robinson versus the segregationists


Reproduced with thanks to 'amboo who?'


By Unionist Lite

Peter Robinson has ruffled more than a few segregationist feathers with this speech to Castlereagh Borough Council on Friday. This is the relevant part where he explains his views on our divided education system:

“In the area of education it has been said that considerable savings could be made with the creation of a Single Education Authority.   I still hope that agreement can be reached in moving away from the five education and library boards to a single authority.  This is not a difference of principle but one of detail and I am hopeful that it can be resolved in the next period of time. However, in the meantime I believe that a simple and speedy solution to achieve savings would be to create a single education and library board under existing legislation and leave the issue of additional powers to another day.

“Moreover, I feel I have to point out that the real savings in terms of education will not be gained by simply creating a single educational administrative body but by creating a single educational system.

“For me this is not just an economic but a moral question. We cannot hope to move beyond our present community divisions while our young people are educated separately.

“Not many of you will believe that my first contribution as a speaker at a DUP conference was on the issue of integrated education – and I spoke in favour.

“If one were to suggest that Protestants and Catholics would be educated at separate Universities it would be manifestly absurd; yet we continue to tolerate the idea that at primary and secondary level our children are educated separately. I believe that future generations will scarcely believe that such division and separation was common for so long. The reality is that our education system is a benign form of apartheid, which is fundamentally damaging to our society.

“Who among us would think it acceptable that a State or Nation would educate its young people by the criteria of race with white schools or black schools?   Yet we are prepared to operate a system which separates our children almost entirely on the basis of their religion.

“As a society and administration we are not mere onlookers of this; we are participants and continue to fund schools on this basis. And then we are surprised that we continue to have a divided society.

“The limited number of Integrated schools in Northern Ireland do offer a choice but more often than not they join in the competition for funds against the other two main education sectors and in truth will never create the critical mass needed to make a real difference.

“I entirely accept that such fundamental change will not happen overnight but that is no excuse for further delay in making a start. I know that we will face difficulties in dislodging the vested interests that are so strong in this sector, but I am absolutely convinced that we must.

“I don’t in any way object to churches providing and funding schools for those who choose to use them.  What I do object to is the State providing and funding church schools.

“The transition must begin and must be carefully planned and programmed.  It may take ten years or longer to address this problem, which dates back many decades, but the real crime would be to accept the status quo for the sake of a quiet life.  The benefits of such a system are not merely financial but could play a transformative role in changing society in Northern Ireland.

“Consideration should be given to tasking a body or commission to bring forward recommendations for a staged process of integration and produce proposals to deal with some of the knotty issues such as religious education, school assembly devotions and the curriculum.  Future generations will not thank us if we fail to address this issue.”

A snapshot of the reactions…

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Filed under: academic, DUP, Education, Shared future, , ,

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.

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Filed under: academic, Shared future

The way to a Shared Future?

Chekov began this blog last week with a piece on shared future and voluntary coalition. Andrew Charles now focuses in on recent tensions in Rasharkin and Dunloy and questions Sinn Fein ‘s commitment to a Shared Future… he argues that Sinn Fein are playing into the hands of dissidents when they could benefit from promoting mutual tolerance

This summer has been one fuelled by sectarian tension all over the province. Whiterock, the Tour of the North and Ardoyne have been areas of particular tension after a few years of calm. Much of this has been blamed on dissident republicans, which is being a term that we are getting more familiar with. However this term can and has been used to cover up for the people who no longer wish to be associated with such violence and mayhem. I am talking about Sinn Fein.

Tensions have not only been isolated to the traditional areas of inter-communal violence and sectarian fuelled hate crime. It has become clear that areas in North Antrim are becoming sore points for sectarianism and bigotry. Rasharkin and Dunloy are to name a few. However it is clear that trouble also exists in Coleraine and Ballymena.

My focus is on Rasharkin and Dunloy. This summer we have seen a growth in attacks by approximately 100 percent from last year. Orange halls have been attacked as have homes of Protestants living as minorities. I acknowledge the fact that Catholic associated property has also been attacked but these have not been on the same scale.

Flags in Northern Ireland are the traditional manner in how territory is marked – a bit like a cat marking out his territory. In Rasharkin we have an extra large Irish flag blowing outside the local supermarket. You would think it was a memorial garden.

The weekend just past saw two halls in Co. Antrim damaged by a tractor. Tullaghan and Granagh Independent Orange Halls were hit in separate attacks, although were thought to be linked. Clifton Street Orange Hall was also hit again. The trouble in Rasharkin has been astounding. Back in August the annual band parade through the town (that’s band parade, not Orange parade) was the focus of Catholic and Nationalist anger. Sinn Fein’s Daithi McKay was on the scene. Petrol bombs and missiles were thrown at the police. Catholics and Protestants were kept apart as both groups sought a fight. Each side taunted the other whilst bandsmen had abuse thrown at them as well as missiles. A petrol bomb was thrown at Police.

Whilst responsibility for this idea of a ‘Shared Future’ exists on both sides of the political divide I note with interest Sinn Fein’s view. Sinn Fein launched their sole strategy last week and blamed the DUP for holding back on the strategy compiled by OFMDFM.

What is Sinn Fein doing on the ground to reduce community relations? They have been on the ground in North Antrim but certainly not seeking to mend community relations. Daithi McKay stood at the barricades in Rasharkin in August then spent the next few days complaining about the parade. It would appear by his language that he doesn’t want to see a Protestant about the place. Why? Because they don’t vote for him.


What Sinn Fein and others need to learn is the meaning of ‘tolerance’.

Tolerance: a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one’s own; freedom from bigotry.

Tolerance and mutual respect form key terms in the Shared Future publication (OFMDFM, 2005). If Sinn Fein were offering real leadership in areas of sectarian tension they would try and pull their people back and certainly wouldn’t be leading them on the picket line. The results of such actions are demonstrated by the trouble experienced in North Belfast after the annual 12th day celebrations in July this year. Sinn Fein has lost control of their people there.

DUP MLA Nelson McCausland referred to Sinn Fein as having created a monster which they can no longer control. Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly, now a Junior Minister in the Executive stood in front of the cameras on the 14th July and blamed everyone but himself or his party. He even admitted defeat in suggesting that he wouldn’t be there every year now despite using the tensions as a political platform. In other words he said: it’s someone else’s problem now. This is irresponsible, stupid and immature.

Essentially Sinn Fein are shooting themselves in the foot and playing into the hands of dissidents rather than educating their people in the field of mutual tolerance and respect. What happens when all the Protestants are gone?

Sinn Fein’s Daithi McKay needs to take some lessons from North Belfast and his party colleague Gerry Kelly; otherwise the problem in North Antrim will escalate further. I argue that it already has as youths and gangs target homes and halls willy-nilly.

The cage door has been opened and the monster is poking his head out. Once he is out it’ll be difficult to get him back in.

Filed under: Shared future, Sinn Fein

Fantasy politics? An Assembly based on voluntary coalition and a shared future agenda.

Around this time of year, as the new football season gets under way, supporters pick their ‘fantasy team’ selections, composed of the Premier League’s top players. It is a good opportunity to let one’s imagination run wild and put together a line-up which would doubtless romp to title glory, in the full knowledge that it will never actually take the field. When we speculate as to how the Northern Ireland Assembly could operate more efficiently, or when we suggest strategies which it could implement, in order to improve society, it might seem that we are engaged in a similar exercise.

There are organisational changes to power sharing which, if they were initiated, would improve incomparably our province’s governance. And there are strategic objectives, which, if they were pursued resolutely, could begin to address some of the problems which our society faces. However, with a sectarian face off well-established at Stormont, all these schemes are so many Torres and Drogba centre forward partnerships. They are simply not going to happen, unless we have a dramatic shift in thinking or representation.

As the Assembly resumes business, this week, after its summer recess, attention has focussed on the threadbare legislative programme which will form its workload. If I were setting the agenda, I would focus less on specific bills, than on the power sharing structures themselves and the broad strategies on which they should be focussed. I will describe two prominent examples below.

It is an issue which rather exemplifies the futility of attempting to reform Northern Ireland’s institutions, but the stark truth is that the Executive will not be accountable to the Assembly, or by extension, to the electorate, until Stormont functions with an official opposition.

Each of the main parties, other than Sinn Féin, favours eventually implementing some type of voluntary coalition. Indeed SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, was attacked vigorously by republicans when he suggested that such a system would ultimately provide Northern Ireland with a more efficient means of government.

Prima facie, Sinn Féin’s argument holds that voluntary coalition would represent a return to unionist domination. There are an array of possible mechanisms which could ensure any Executive would require nationalist participation, none of which the party is prepared to discuss. We must assume, therefore, that it is only the likelihood of Sinn Féin’s exclusion from government which concerns its strategists.

Currently the four main parties are locked into mandatory coalition, but power is effectively retained by the DUP and Sinn Féin. With a de facto veto available to either of the bigger parties, Stormont operates through a system of communal horse-trading. Each party decides the priorities of its perceived community and drives them forward, to the best of its ability, by making certain countermanding concessions to the other. The SDLP and UUP are required to accept mutual responsibility for the Executive’s programme, but they are essentially powerless to shape its contents, outside the particular remits of their ministers.

The system does not make the Executive accountable, nor does it encourage a plurality of ideas to be put before the electorate at election time. Although the current dispensation is designed to achieve ‘cross community’ participation, it actually perpetuates division, and an exceptional brand of political discourse, rather than encouraging normal politics to emerge.

In some respects, therefore, new ideas in terms of strategy are unlikely to emerge unless there is an impetus to reform the institutions first. With Sinn Féin and the DUP relying on their positions as totems of their tribes to entrench their political ascendancy, there is little possibility that the ‘Shared Future’ document, or a viable alternative will be advanced soon (despite assurances). Neither party, in any case, has a genuine understanding of the dynamics of integration.

In a recent blogpost on ‘Three Thousand Versts’ I argued that ‘shared future’ is about much more than airy liberal aspirations. It is about cutting down on waste and encouraging people to emerge from their communal ghettoes in order to play an active role in THE community (as opposed to A community).

Integration does not involve the diminution of culture, or enforcing friendship on those who do not want it. Rather it allows us to have one well used leisure centre where previously there were two poorly used facilities, or one quality health centre, as opposed to two inefficient services and so forth. If you chat to employers, or to people who work in recruitment agencies, they will observe that jobseekers from areas where a particular communal mentality flourishes are often reluctant to take a bus to a town centre in order to work, because the employment is not within their perceived ‘community’. It’s a mentality which the Executive should be seeking to combat.

Despite the Belfast Agreement including a requirement to promote integrated education and housing, little work towards those ends has been completed, thus far. In fact representatives from the largest parties are frequently amongst the most strenuous opponents where shared housing provision is mooted. The political system rewards them for fighting for homes for their particular ‘community’ to the exclusion of the other. Meanwhile the education minister is fixated on children of different abilities sharing the same school, but appears impervious to a religious fissure. Indeed she is intent on exacerbating community division in schools by pursuing her pet project – Irish Medium Education.

Unionism, as I understand it, is concerned with the integrity of the United Kingdom. By definition, unionism in Northern Ireland should be preoccupied with eliminating dysfunction in our society, because that is the most effective means by which to prove that our continued membership of the UK is working for voters. We should be eager to promote a society which is at ease with itself, where a plurality of cultures and identities can feel comfortable. Every opportunity to heal division and normalise politics here should be seized. Therefore an Assembly based on cross community coalition, with a very real focus on integration, would be a profoundly unionist body in its function.

Filed under: Shared future, Voluntary Coalition

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