Unionists 'wrong' to think unity inevitable

 

The Northern Ireland Secretary, Dr John Reid, has told unionists they are wrong to fear that Irish unity is somehow inevitable.

And he says the Belfast Agreement will have failed, should Northern Ireland become "a cold place for Protestants".

In a keynote speech to the Institute of Irish Studies in Liverpool last night, Dr Reid launched what officials say will be a concerted effort by the British government to address the problem of loyalist and unionist disaffection with the political process in Northern Ireland.

Noting the decline in unionist confidence as Catholic confidence increased - "today Catholics are part of 'the establishment' as never before" - Dr Reid said: "There is ample evidence that this decline has taken place. The fragmentation of unionist politics and the feuding within loyalism are different symptoms of the same problem. This is a community which feels itself isolated with its foundations eroded, victims of violence who are witnesses to a stream of 'concessions' to the other side."

It was a community which felt its traditions, culture and way of life "under threat from an alliance between the large and vibrant Catholic minority within its boundaries, its larger neighbour to the South, and a spineless, ungrateful or even perfidious parent across the Irish Sea. A community which feels that some elements of nationalism are intent on humiliating it under the legitimate guise of seeking parity of esteem".

And it was a community, said Dr Reid, with fears to be played upon, "the greatest of which is the myth that there is an historical inevitability dictating the political and constitutional future of Northern Ireland".

In short, unionists worried about the future and "whether they will be able to feel at home for much longer in the land that they love".

So, Dr Reid declared, "an integral and essential part of this great project on which we are embarked must be to provide reassurance to all our citizens. As we acknowledge and recognise the sense of Irish identity among nationalists, we must also affirm our recognition of the British identity of unionists. Northern Ireland must not become a cold place for Protestants, or we will have failed".

British and unionist politicians had perhaps not made enough of that section of the Belfast Agreement affirming the birthright of all people in Northern Ireland to identify themselves as Irish or British now and in the future. Unionists had still to be convinced their culture was really understood, let alone respected, in the Republic: "In Edna Longley's words, 'it sometimes seems as if Protestants have to die for Ireland before being allowed to live here'."

Declaring himself "intensely proud to be British", Dr Reid also defined the challenge to Ulster unionism, saying that the key to winning the devolution debate in Scotland had been to persuade others that remaining in Britain was in their best interests, and that, whatever their identity, they could feel at home in the wider British family.

"What was absolutely clear was that undue emphasis on the symbols of Britishness was at best unnecessary, and at worst damaging to the ability of many of my fellow Scots to feel at home in the United Kingdom. If it was not entirely clear what would persuade people to remain within the UK, it was absolutely clear what would drive them to leave," he said.

What Northern Ireland needed from politicians was "a common vision of a new, inclusive society" underpinned by a common conviction that it could "flourish through diversity", and for the communities to "become persuaders of each other, not of some barren political ideology and constitutional fixation, but persuaders of reassurance, respect and belonging".