If unionism was a person it would be in therapy over a united Ireland
Unionism needs to come to terms with the demographic reality and talk about it
The Irish Government is being advised to moderate its nationalistic language because it is upsetting unionists. And there are plenty of indications they are annoyed.
On Monday the DUP leader Arlene Foster accused the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, of not understanding unionist culture. Two weeks ago, on the anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, Peter Robinson said never to Irish unity, Arlene Foster said she would leave, and David Trimble said there is a possibility of loyalist violence.
It underpins the position of those who believe the Irish Government and others should be understanding of the unionist position and to be attuned to their fears
Others, however, are highlighting that the demographics are pointing to a majority of nationalists in the North in the foreseeable future. They are saying that unionism needs to take account of that reality and begin to mark out its demands within the parameters of an as-yet-undefined new Ireland. If these contradictory views were to be expressed in psychological language, then the differences could be compared to that which exists between Rogers and Glasser, between person-centred counselling and reality therapy.
If you are a follower of Rogers, you believe in the client coming to form an appropriate understanding of themselves and their world. The therapist’s job is to listen intently and feed back the content and the emotion of what the client is expressing. From that clarification, it is hoped that the person will move on to a greater understanding of themselves. Clearly, it underpins the position of those who believe the Irish Government and others should be understanding of the unionist position and to be attuned to their fears. It is suggesting that unionism should not be pushed beyond its comfort zone. As a therapy, it demands enormous patience and is probably less effective in extreme cases.
Glasser and reality therapy focuses on the here-and-now actions of the client and the ability to choose a better future. It has a much stronger social component and emphasises choice and change, believing that people too easily let themselves become products of their past influences and have no need to be held hostage to those influences. This is more akin to those who believe that it is important that unionism be encouraged to talk about the future. Maybe stronger than that: that they have a responsibility to talk about it so that all of us can break out of our common past. Some critics claim that it is overly confrontational and that it scares off some fearful and delicate clients.
But in deciding between the best therapeutic options for the client it is important to weigh up the facts. And for that we need to revert to the politics. A border poll is already built into the Belfast Agreement. That poll can only be implemented under somewhat obscure requirements, but Sinn Féin have called for the poll to be enacted. They base their argument on the results of the last two elections, where the gap between unionist and nationalist had narrowed to near-equal. On the results of the last published census figures, the population shift could be moving to a nationalist majority within one to two decades. Given those trends, Sinn Féin and others will continue to press for that poll to be implemented.
These changing demographics will be compounded by Brexit. Any negative changes in the travel or tariff mechanisms that have been the norm in the last 20 years along the Irish Border or in the Irish Sea will increase tensions and drive communities even further into their respective corners.
Confronting fears and defining a better future will encourage and demand that more of their own community engage in the same process
Quite a number of unionists voted to remain in Europe, and, while that does not equate with a desire for Irish unity, it reveals an unease of being constricted within the hegemony of Britain. And yet there is little sign that those unionists have engaged in the Brexit debate in a manner befitting people at ease within their own environs.
What they whisper in private they will not speak in public. Farmers and businesses are said to be anxious for the future, but their public contribution to the debate has been minimal. Those who do speak tell of the fear within their community; fear of the sway of the DUP, of the crassness of the most fundamental groups, of not receiving their next grant or being cold-shouldered in company where they were once comfortable. That atmosphere would form part of what Glasser would call the social component.
The river of change is flowing in a certain direction and while it can be dammed up for a time, its directional flow is already set. But it would be sad if the change was solely subject to a head count. While it was necessary to build a border poll into the agreement, it will be dangerous should it be the sole determinant of the future of this island. It will result in antagonisms that might last for generations.
But it doesn’t need to be like that. There is a psychological and political remedy. It can begin with even a trickle of unionist civic leaders talking about the future and the need for all the inhabitants of this island to find a constitutional accommodation. Confronting fears and defining a better future will encourage and demand that more of their own community engage in the same process. That concentration on the future will create its own momentum and will have a healing dynamic. Breaking free of the past, no longer hostage to its restrictions, is where the healing begins. Unionism, at its best, is pragmatic and dynamic and it has many gifted and insightful people who are more than capable of starting the talking.
Denis Bradley is a journalist and former vice-chairman of the police board for the Police Service of Northern Ireland