Flag-flying furore suggests unionists don't know when they have won
Opinion:Within a week of the 1994 IRA ceasefire, graffiti on the loyalist Shankill Road declared, “The Protestant People of West Belfast accept the unconditional surrender of the IRA.”
The writer may have been premature and tongue-in-cheek, but the Belfast Agreement, IRA decommissioning and the participation of former IRA leaders in the partitionist parliament at Stormont, all bear out the truth of that writing on the wall.
Like it or not, the unionists won the long war. They have not only secured Northern Ireland’s future within the UK for the conceivable future, but remarkably gained republican acquiescence to it.
In signing up to the Belfast Agreement, the republican leadership acknowledged not only that the unionist veto on an all-Ireland exists, but that it has the right to exist.
Unfortunately though, in the zero-sum politics of Northern Ireland, no one bothered to tell the unionist people that they won. Instead, the colourless leaders of unionism have spoken only concessions and perceived concessions.
Quietly however, unionist leaders do acknowledge their victory. Speaking to the London Times in 2011, First Minister Peter Robinson was upbeat about Northern Ireland’s future in the UK:
“I think the more stable our structure, the more peaceful Northern Ireland is, the more it works as part of the UK, then the more people will think, ‘Why on earth would we change?’”
Robinson, of course, is correct. And recent opinion polls suggest the majority of Northern Ireland residents, both Catholics and Protestants, favour the province remaining within the UK. So what is the disruption about?
Well, from the unionist perspective, an unfortunate consequence of the current new inclusive Northern Ireland is that is has to be new and inclusive. The unionists may have won, but for some the perception is that they lost.
Sinn Féin, while not aggressively pushing Irish unity – it’s a political non-starter – has instead pushed the agenda of shared space and parity of esteem. Something which means the greening of the orange state and the de-politicising of shared spaces.
Irritatingly, the unionists just don’t get how wimpish this campaign is, nor how what was once a radical, Marxist, armed revolutionary movement is only too happy to acknowledge the Britishness of its fellow Irish citizens while its leaders meet the queen, administer British rule and vote to fly the union flag over Belfast City Hall on designated days.
In fact the magnitude of the unionist victory is not only unchallenged by these Sinn Féin tactics, rather it is underscored. Unionists should be delighted that republicans have so little ambition that they can achieve only small and compromised symbolic victories like the flag-lowering.
The real danger then to unionism’s triumph comes not from republicanism, not even dissident republicanism, but from themselves. In this crisis, with loyalist protesters and rioters holding much of the province to ransom, unionists are again metaphorically and literally rallying around the flag. This is not just mistaken, it is silly and dangerous too.
Yet perhaps, just perhaps, the newly established Unionist Forum will find the courage to admit that unionism has won.
Perhaps then it can articulate a new confident vision of unionism, one which dispenses with the ideology of not an inch and makes room for the hybrid Irish and British and unionist citizen. If it can do this then the victory really will be complete.
On the other hand though, “No surrender!” does have a ring to it.
* Richard Irvine is a part-time lecturer in history at Queen’s University Belfast