The setbacks that unionism suffered in the recent Westminster elections (e.g. the failure of all three unionist party leaders to win a seat, and the continued decline in the unionist share of the vote) have given rise to increasingly open calls for ‘unionist unity’. Such calls are hardly new, of course – the Hatfield House talks that cost the UUP/Tory non-merger its Castle-Catholic members, and the Rodney Connor embarrassment, were recent attempts to forge some sort of ‘unionist front'.
The May 6 Massacre, however, has given rise to calls for unity even from the TUV – a sure sign of worry on the orange side of Northern Ireland’s divided political landscape.
Surely unionism considers Northern Ireland to be ‘part of the UK’, and thus subject to the ebb and flow of UK politics? Why should any party in Northern Ireland feel the need to call itself ‘unionist’? Surely a ‘British’ person in Northern Ireland would vote for his or her preferred political creed, and thus play a part in the political life of their country? Are ‘British’ people in Northern Ireland not socialists, liberals, greens or fascists just as in Britain? Do these creeds not oppose – even detest – each other?
The very fact that unionism exists is proof that Northern Ireland is not ‘British’. If unionists think that the UK is the best future for Northern Ireland, then there must be an ideological reason for this – either because it offers a superior social welfare system (but it doesn’t) or because it offers a better framework for entrepreneurship (but it doesn’t), or for some other objective reason. The complete absence of any ideological foundation for unionism – other than anti-Irish bigotry – is what allows unionists of all classes, ages and socio-economic backgrounds to come together.
If unionists were consistent to their ‘British’ beliefs there would be, at least, a ‘Unionist Social Democratic’ party, and a ‘Unionist Christian Democratic’ party. In fact, there is none of the first, and three of the second! But in truth, if unionists were consistent there would be no ‘unionist’ in the title of any of their parties – there would be parties based on economics, environmentalism or class. However, there aren’t. And the call for ‘unionist unity’ shows that unionists are actually thinking in the opposite direction!
A ‘unionist unity’ party can only be a counter-party to non-unionism (or anti-unionism). It cannot be an answer to socialism, capitalism, pollution or rural deprivation. Its only purpose is to thwart the desires of those who aspire to an Irish national identity – and yet the only time when such an identity could actually threaten the constitutional position of Northern Ireland is in a border poll. So the existence of unionism in normal, everyday politics is a nonsense – worse, it represents a narrow negative reactionary attitude, the precise antithesis of the ‘Britishness’ that unionism claims to belong to.
And while unionist parties (in the plural) are antithetical to ‘Britishness’, a single unified unionist party simply proves beyond any doubt that unionists are motivated only by negativity. Trades unionists, greens, middle-class property-owners, company directors, farmers and all the rest have no natural political commonality – if they combine in one single ‘unionist’ party – in the absence of any imminent border poll – they are simply proving the religious basis of unionism.
And, of course, as unionists would claim, religion is not what makes them unionists. How, then, can they explain the broad-based, but almost exclusively Protestant, nature of their proposed unionist unity project?
Any unionist who calls for, or supports, ‘unionist unity’ is no civic unionist, but rather a tribal, probably sectarian, unionist. Yet so many are flocking to the banner of unity …
Unionism can only become ‘British’ by losing its obsession with ‘the union’ – and by, for all extents and purposes, short of a border poll, ceasing to call themselves ‘unionist’. The continued fetish with the British flag, with attaching the adjective ‘unionist’ to anything that isn’t Teflon-coated, and the denial of valid political divisions, all prove time and time again that ‘unionism’ is merely a form of ethno-religious nationalism. As such it is limited to the adherents of a shrinking tribe, and will be overtaken by ‘the other’ tribe, the one that is growing faster and already has more adherents amongst the young.
Unionism can unite to its heart’s content – but as long as it remains a tribal-religious movement it is vulnerable to demographic (and not just democratic) defeat. ‘Unity’ simply hastens the day of its ultimate defeat.