Baroness Kate Hoey – the Northern Ireland-born former Labour MP for Vauxhall – caused a bit of a stir across nationalism recently when she wrote, “There are very justified concerns that many professional vocations have become dominated by those of a nationalist persuasion, and this positioning of activists is then used to exert influence on those in power.”
She makes a valid point and I’m aware her concerns are broadly shared across unionism and loyalism. Over the past few years, particularly since the Brexit referendum, there has been a marked rise in political activity and campaigning by civic nationalists, happy to put their names in the public domain, list their professional backgrounds and promote the case for a united Ireland. Indeed, at a recent meeting I heard a unionist describe it as “nationalist elites now at the wheel of the Irish unity train”. I thought about his response, and replied, “Then nationalism is very lucky if that is the case.”
In a follow-up article Hoey made what I think was the crucial point: “In Northern Ireland, the reality is that there is no equivalent network of unionist activists using access and credentials obtained via positions in the professional class to advance the cause of unionism. And therein lies the imbalance . . . Unionists don’t do this, or if they did, they no longer do.”
If the union was to survive, unionism was going to have to make the pro-union cause more attractive for small-n nationalism and small-u unionism
After the Anglo-Irish Agreement a number of groups did emerge: the Cadogan Group (mostly academics) and the Campaign for Equal Citizenship (mostly political integrationists) being the most prominent. By the end of the 1980s, the Conservative Party and Social Democratic Party (a breakaway group from the Labour Party) had established structures and constituency associations in Northern Ireland and the major debate within unionism was between devolutionists and integrationists. Interestingly, an Ulster Independence Committee was also established in 1988 by a group of unionists, seeking to end sectarianism through unity on a common Ulster identity; while the Ulster Clubs organisation, formed in 1985, had, as one of its aims, maintaining the union for so long as it was in Northern Ireland’s interests.
The common theme of all the “new” thinking taking place within unionism after 1985 was a recognition that the old ways of doing business – protests, demands and pointless threats – weren’t delivering. They weren’t making the union stronger and weren’t particularly influencing the policy of successive British governments, let alone the policy of Irish or US governments. If the union was to survive then unionism – political, electoral and civic – was going to have to make the pro-union cause more attractive for small-n nationalism and small-u unionism, as well as finding a way of wrapping the pro-union message in an easier-to-sell package.
But most of that “new” thinking came to nothing. I’ve long been of the view that party-political unionism doesn’t really pay much attention to ideas coming from the professional classes within civic unionism. There is a tendency to do things as they’ve always been done and then respond to each new predictable setback – or betrayal, as they’re mostly described – with the usual moaning.
Maybe it’s the failure to listen that deters civic unionists from putting their heads above the parapet and forming what Hoey describes as the “equivalent networks” of activists. And since many ideas from within civic unionism are often dismissed as examples of “surrender, rollover” unionism by other unionists/loyalists, why would the proponents, mostly new to politics, bother to enter the fray and take the flak from the very people they’re trying to help?
The attack-dog stuff within and across unionism/loyalism is offputting, particularly for those taking their first steps and hoping for civilised, thought-through debate
Hoey – and others – have also raised the issue of the lack of young voices in unionism and loyalism. Again, she has a point. But she doesn’t follow through and examine the possibility that it isn’t just a lack of voices, but also the lack of a coherent, united message for selling the union. Another thing that puts off new voices is the reaction on social media.
Scale of bile
The pile-on from elements of nationalism is expected: although the sheer scale of the bile directed at them is extraordinary. The attack-dog stuff within and across unionism/loyalism is also offputting, particularly for those taking their first steps and hoping for civilised, thought-through debate. The plain fact of the matter – and it applies to both groups and individuals – is that unionism indulges in a level of in-fighting and open aggression which nationalism doesn’t.
Hoey is right to urge unionists and loyalists to become active in a way that civic nationalism has become. But there is nothing to be gained by seeming to suggest that too many nationalists in academia/law/journalism/commentary/civic society/media et al are using their background and position to promote their political beliefs when, to be honest, that’s exactly what unionists need to be doing.
So, the key question is why their pro-union counterparts aren’t organising and raising their own voices. Indeed, there now seems to be a new mantra in some parts of unionism about them having become second-class citizens. If, as some claim, young non-Catholics are going to university in England and not coming back, then find out what’s making them leave. And, while they’re at it, maybe consider the possibility that it is unionist isolationism, insularity and insecurity which is doing far more damage than nationalist “elites” penning letters to the Taoiseach and organising unity conferences.
I’ve spent what seems like decades urging unionism/loyalism/Orange elements to get better at working collectively to promote the union, rather than continuing to fracture, fight each other and see who’s the “real” unionist in the arena. It’s that tendency for delusion and self-destruction, probably more than anything else, which is responsible for civic unionists and new, younger voices keeping their heads down and their opinions to themselves.
Alex Kane is a commentator based in Belfast. He was formerly director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party