'Interpreting Unionism' by Norman Porter
[Key_Events] [KEY_ISSUES] [Conflict_Background]
List of chapter sub-headings
If external challenges from the British and Irish governments and from the impact of European trends comprise one set of constraints on unionist designs, challenges from within Northern Ireland comprise another. There are doubtless many ways of characterising the implications of the latter. But whichever way is chosen there is arguably a core issue which all must address and which unionists cannot duck: the requirement that the Northern Ireland whose integrity unionists insist must be respected becomes one in which all citizens may have a meaningful stake and find some sense of belonging. In other words, the ultimate challenge to unionists here, underlying all particular challenges to doing this or that, is to envisage and to co-operate in creating an inclusive Northern Ireland which accommodates, as far as possible, the concerns of unionists, nationalists and others. Now as soon as the challenge is articulated in such terms, it has to be admitted from the outset that, even with the best will in the world, unionism is limited in its ability to satisfy all that it might be thought to imply. Two examples bear this out.
One relates to the nature of the concessions that may be made to nationalist concerns. If these concerns are defined in irredentist categories they are impossible for unionists to meet. The campaign of violence conducted by the IRA from 1969 to 1994 did not make them any more possible to meet, and the resumption of violence since February 1996 has not either. This is because what is being asked for is beyond giving: that unionists stop being unionists and admit that they were muddled nationalists after all. Being prepared to facilitate nationalist concerns must mean something less than signing up for a united Ireland. Another limitation relates to the restricted powers unionists have at their disposal. It is unquestionably true, for instance, that the concerns of many people in Northern Ireland are linked to structures of social and economic deprivation. High rates of unemployment, inadequate educational provision, poor housing conditions, meagre welfare benefits and so on are unfortunate facts of life for many living in certain working-class and rural areas, both unionist and nationalist. There is not, however, a great deal that unionists can do directly to alleviate these kinds of socio-economic concerns. Like everyone else in Northern Ireland, they too are subject to policies emanating from Westminster over which they have minimal control. This does not mean that policies highlighting acute socioeconomic concerns cannot be developed and prioritised, and that pressure cannot be applied to government ministers, agencies and officials in the Northern Ireland Office. But it does mean that impossible demands should not be made of unionism.
If certain demands are unreasonably made, others are not. There still remain effective challenges to unionists to help an inclusive Northern Ireland. Not all nationalist concerns are irredentist in character, and not all social, economic or cultural concerns presuppose powers that unionists do not possess. In recent times, concerns that prima facie fall within the brief of unionism have been gathered under the concept of 'Parity of esteem'. Picking up on this concept, which is what I propose to do, enables us to focus on what the talk of an inclusive Northern Ireland principally entails. It also permits us to identify crucial shifts that have occurred in Northern Irish society since the days of the Stormont administration or are occurring at present, and which implicitly or explicitly challenge assumptions that unionism has often been content to leave unexamined. One aspect of the challenges incorporated under the concept of parity of esteem is that unionism is in danger of being sidelined by social changes taking place independently of its areas of influence. I try to expand on this phenomenon by highlighting practices in Northern Irish civil society in which unionists play at best a marginal role, most often by choice. The challenge to unionism in this instance is to halt a gradual decline of its relevance. There is an ironical rub here, even if it is wise not to make too much of it just yet: the Northern Ireland to which unionists are deeply committed is arguably becoming one in which unionism's influence is being slowly eroded.
In considering the challenge to unionism implied by the concept of parity of esteem, it is germane to make three preliminary points which serve to underline the concept's strength. First, the very fact that this concept has entered the vocabulary of political debate in Northern Ireland is an indictment of previous unionist bad practices. For, whatever else use of the concept may involve, its present invocation suggests that a lack of evenhandedness has characterised the North's social and political life, that those from minority traditions or social groups have been shabbily treated in a unionist-dominated Northern Ireland, and that rectification now has to be made to ensure that formerly discriminated against individuals, groups and traditions are accorded the respect or esteem that is their due. At the very least, a typical resort to the concept carries the inference that under the Stormont regime Northern Ireland represented a social, political and cultural environment uncongenial to nationalists; and that however much the worst excesses have been remedied under direct rule, there is yet more work to be done.
Second, and unsurprisingly, then, the concept has been welcomed within nationalist discourse, even if there is a tendency among Sinn Féin representatives to replace it with a concept of 'equality of treatment' and a belated attempt by unionists to appropriate it in defence of their own cultural practices. I do not want at this stage to consider either the adequacy of the precise formulation of the concept to convey the meanings intended by it, or the plausibility of its positive use by unionists. I want to note, rather, that its employment by nationalists as a peg on which to hang their calls for further reform dovetails with the Irish government's requirements that nationalists receive a fair deal in Northern Ireland and that room be found for an Irish dimension. As we have seen, these are emphases with which the British government is sympathetic, as indeed is the us administration. This convergence of Northern nationalist, Irish, British and us interests is very powerful evidence of the seriousness of the challenge to unionists captured by the concept of parity of esteem: it is no longer tolerable to have a Northern Ireland created solely in unionism's self-image.
Third, it should also be pointed out that it is not only nationalists who have latched on to the concept in order to press for improvements in the quality of social and political life in the North. It has been approvingly cited by political parties, social institutions and community groups whose raisons d'être are not inherently nationalist. In short, the concept has proved amenable to wide-ranging uses, and is often called upon in attempts to destabilise customary practices of discrimination and domination. And that is why unionists cannot convincingly deflect the challenge the concept poses as a purely nationalist ploy to subvert the integrity of Northern Ireland. The fact that the concept has acquired non-nationalist connotations means that the challenge to unionism's designs for Northern Ireland appears in another form which, even if not so well organised and powerfully backed, warrants attention.
Taken together these preliminary points suggest that the concept of parity of esteem provides a focal point for expressing inescapable challenges to many unionists' views of Northern Ireland. But exactly what do these challenges amount to? I think they amount to three things.
The first challenge is to end discriminatory practices against individuals. This is the sense in which the concept of parity of esteem translates most uncontroversially into the language of rights. Each individual regardless of his or her race, religion, culture or gender has a right to be treated with a respect equal to that due to every other individual. An application of this sense appears in fair employment and equal opportunity legislation recently implemented in Northern Ireland. It also lies behind the request supported by most local political parties for the introduction of a bill of rights. There are, however, two rather more controversial extensions of this 'individual-rights-based' construal of parity of esteem. First, there is the call for affirmative action in favour of those belonging to groups that were systematically disadvantaged by earlier bad practices - say, Catholics and women. The beneficiaries of such action, it should be noted, are individuals who are deemed worthy of special treatment by virtue of their membership of a disadvantaged group, whether or not such membership figures in their own self-definitions. Second, there is the idea that doing justice to individuals or respecting their rights requires the state to take interventionist action in the marketplace to correct injustices done to certain individuals through no fault of their own. This derivation of redistributive policies from respect for individual rights is an idea that is prominent in much contemporary liberal political theory. These controversial extensions of a rights-based notion of parity of esteem may complicate the challenge to leave behind discriminatory practices, but its overriding concern remains unaltered: to secure the rights of individuals as individuals.
In the second challenge, the emphasis shifts from individuals to cultural groups, traditions and social movements. Here the guiding motivation is 'to curb the real or potential all-pervasive power of the dominant culture from which various minorities feel excluded. And this motivation energises a conception of 'cultural parity of esteem' which insists on adequate scope being given to the expression of minority voices. The challenge, then, is to create sufficient spaces in civil society for a plurality of cultural forms to flourish, for their adherents to articulate their own thoughts and to pursue their own ways of life. Or at least that is the general challenge. But given the peculiar circumstances of Northern Ireland, a concern with cultural parity of esteem issues a particular challenge too: of being prepared to encourage understanding of, and accord equal respect to, the two main traditions in the-North, whether we describe these as unionist and nationalist or as Protestant and Catholic. Such a challenge is responded to in schools in Northern Ireland in the Education for Mutual Understanding programmes. Facing up to the implications of this challenge is integral to the rationale of the government-sponsored Community Relations Council and its offshoot the Cultural Traditions Group, and to the activities of ecumenical and reconciliation groups within the churches.
Not surprisingly, the challenge to accord parity of esteem to Northern Ireland's two major traditions admits of controversial interpretations. Take, for example, a situation that may obtain when the notion of cultural parity of esteem is depicted in the language of rights: just as individuals have a right to equal respect so too have cultural groups and traditions. Given such a depiction, when a tradition - or more exactly a group claiming to represent a tradition - chooses to exercise its right to cultural expression, it is simultaneously demanding that others respect that right. But it may happen that that demand is not acceded to because the cultural expression in question is perceived as offensive by those from another tradition, especially when it is imposed in a manner they cannot avoid encountering. In such a situation it is possible for both contending parties to invoke a concept of parity of esteem in defence of their respective positions, and to call upon conflicting claims to rights. On one side, the argument might be that cultural parity of esteem means tolerating traditional expressions different from one's own, and that all citizens have a general duty to respect others' right to such expressions. On the other side, the counter might come that cultural parity of esteem does not involve riding roughshod over the traditional attachments of a minority by asserting a dominant cultural form in areas where it is not welcome, and that minorities have a right not to have their lives interfered with in ways they find deeply offensive. Controversies over the routing of Orange marches bring into play both sets of arguments and provide a, poignant illustration of the difficulties involved in confronting the: challenge posed by an idea of cultural parity of esteem. For our purposes here, though, the relevant question is whether unionism is prepared to concede that those arguments developed by its political opponents have any credibility whatever.
Confronted by the apparently intractable nature of the conflict between rival traditions, there is a temptation to give the idea of cultural parity of esteem a 'neutral' twist, at least whenever possible. Seemingly, such a temptation proved overwhelmingly attractive to the Queen's University Senate when it decided in 1994 to stop playing the British national anthem at graduation ceremonies. In the interests of parity of esteem, it was considered prudent to cease privileging symbols of the majority traditions The subsequent furore this decision provoked among unionists indicates that ostensibly neutral responses to the challenge posed by the idea of cultural parity of esteem are not guaranteed a smoother reception than others. But the mere fact that a university institution was willing to meet the challenge in a fashion destined to arouse unionist ire is very revealing. It shows the discomfort unionists experience when faced with interpretations of parity of esteem that call into question their preconceptions. Beyond that, it also reinforces a general point I made earlier: cardinal assumptions of unionism are being disturbed not just by some 'pan-nationalist front', but by broader forces and movements within Northern Irish society. The challenge to unionism's adaptability and credibility runs deep and wide.
Unionism's difficulties are compounded by challenges engendered by a third sense of the concept of parity of esteem which is appropriately dubbed 'political'. This sense is intimated in a recommendation of the Qpsahl Commission's report which conceived of parity of esteem 'between the two communities' entailing 'legal recognition of Irish nationalism' without denying the 'Britishness' of unionists. Given acceptance of such a conception, the report envisaged achieving what it termed 'absolute parity of esteem' in the government of Northern Ireland - a situation in which, as a matter of principle, 'each community has an equal voice in making and executing the laws or a veto on their execution, and equally shares administrative authority'. At a minimum, such 'absolute parity of esteem' anticipates power-sharing arrangements within Northern Ireland to which significant legislative and executive capacities are devolved. But as the recommendation of a 'legal recognition of Irish nationalism' infers, much more is anticipated besides. Here there may be a foreshadowing of the conviction lying behind the anthem decision made by Queen's University Senate - that it is inappropriate in a divided society to privilege the symbols of one tradition. Accepting such a conviction as basically sound does not, of course, necessarily imply a commitment to the kind of neutral alternative pursued by Queen's. Recognising the validity of both nationalism and unionism suggests, rather, the presence of public institutions reflecting the Irishness and the Britishness of Northern Ireland, an extension of North-South ties, and perhaps a role of some sort for Dublin as well as for Westminster. As we have seen, these are suggestions already favoured by the Irish government, tacitly supported by the British, and echoing the desires of many Northern nationalists. But again it is worth re- marking that they are suggestions for the future of Northern Ireland that are attractive not only to nationalists. Support for them also comes from an independent body such as the Opsahl Commission as a result of its canvassing of citizens' opinions within Northern Ireland.
Each of the above suggestions prompted by a political rendering of the concept of parity of esteem constitutes a separate challenge to unionists. But each in its own way also contributes to the overall challenge such a rendering forces upon unionist attention: to imagine a political future in Northern Ireland where matters of power and public identity are wrested from exclusively unionist control and expression and shared with nationalists. This is a challenge issued not just by external forces or nationalist 'fifth columnists', but by actors within Northern Ireland who are not working from a nationalist script.
It is, however, relatively easy for unionists to caricature or to turn a blind eye to a non-nationalist challenge precisely because it neither makes much of an impression on unionism's electoral fortunes nor receives powerful external support. Indeed, with so much intergovernmental and international attention being de- voted to mediation between the 'two traditions' and to reconciliation of the 'two communities', there is a (perhaps unwitting) tendency to marginalise even further those whose agendas are neither strictly unionist nor strictly nationalist. Accordingly, the danger is that the significance of non-nationalist concerns about parity of esteem will simply be trivialised.
This danger is hard to avert if it is assumed that all that counts politically is conducted at formal levels of government, state institutions and political parties. It is on the basis of such an assumption that many unionists think they can ignore criticisms from non-nationalist sources. But the assumption is questionable, and a non-nationalist challenge may prove more formidable than is initially supposed.
At first blush it seems odd to regard as formidable a challenge that is barely perceptible to many unionists. Its oddness diminishes, however, once we recognise that its real sting lies not so much in a direct confrontation of unionist sensitivities - as, say, in the Queen's University example - as in its indirect whittling away of unionist influence in various areas of civil society. As I have suggested, moves to end practices of discrimination and domination, to create spaces for cultural plurality, and to initiate in the manner of the Opsahl Commission new forums for discussion of Northern Ireland's future, raise important issues connected to the concept of parity of esteem. But that does not exhaust their significance. In addition, such moves reveal the emergence of forms of action and debate that transcend the confines of typical unionist forms. They attest to the growing importance of what may be termed 'a politics of civil society' that is separate from those formal levels of politics with which unionism is used to dealing. It is because unionism is not accustomed to engage seriously in a politics of civil society - as evidenced, for instance, in its begrudging attitude and paltry contributions to the Opsahl Commission - that it may be oblivious of the real strength of the non-nationalist challenge and thus ill equipped to meet it. And the essence of this challenge consists in the unsettling possibility that the character of Northern Irish society is increasingly being shaped independently of unionism; that various matters of social and political import within Northern Ireland are being pursued without regard to unionist opinion.
It could be objected that I am making something out of nothing here, since unionists can afford to be perfectly relaxed about a developing politics of civil society. That is to say, to the extent that unionists genuinely believe that Northern Ireland should be a fully pluralistic society, it is entirely acceptable to them that various modes of social, cultural and political expression flourish independently of their control. More forcefully, it could be said that there is something insidious about attempts to keep too strict a check on the activities of civil society, as the awful instances of political authoritarianism in the twentieth century amply demonstrate. Such an objection has a point if it is assumed that the alternative to a civil society independent of unionist influence is a civil society under unionist control. But this is not the only alternative, and it is not the one I have in mind. In spite of its apparent plausibility the objection falters on two counts, the second of which I think is decisive.
First, it is doubtful whether all unionists are so generously disposed to full-blooded pluralism as the objection supposes. Unionist practice during its years in power at Stormont gives us reason to doubt, as does the current practice of the DUP in particular. At least for those unionists whose vision of Northern Ireland includes that of a society bearing the religious and cultural stamp of Protestantism, the non-nationalist challenge is- sued through a politics of civil society remains a powerful threat.
Second, the sanguine attitude the objection implies to the prospect of a politics of civil society being conducted beyond the reach of unionism betrays a cavalier approach to unionism's on- going viability and a limited conception of politics. It is cavalier to suppose, for example, that unionism can thrive without loss even as it is marginalised from a raft of social and cultural issues that are being debated and acted upon within civil society. Being reduced to the role of spectator as sociocultural dramas are played out before its eyes hardly constitutes evidence of unionism's vibrancy. It suggests, rather, a tacit admission that various concerns of social life are beyond unionism's ken. And this sort of admission arguably hastens the arrival of unionism's sell-by date. At work here is also a very restrictive notion of unionist politics which pares down unionism to a single-issue, constitutional creed. The idea that such a minimalist creed equips unionism to tackle the range of social and political responsibilities required of a political movement, party or government is of course absurd. But so long as a notion of political minimalism is fostered, it means that when unionism is forced to handle wider sorts of responsibilities, as it always has been, it can only do so either in an ad hoc way or in a way that is overdetermined by its constitutional priorities. To declare, even if only implicitly, the politics of civil society to be out of bounds is to suffer from myopic vision or perhaps a failure of nerve. And it is a declaration that derives small comfort from an invocation of pluralism once we eschew the simplistic distinction of 'total autonomy' and 'total control' regarding the life of civil society. That is to say, to advocate that unionism should participate in the affairs of civil society is not to urge that it should endeavour to control those affairs; it is, rather, simply to say that in the absence of serious participation unionism consents to its own undermining and has few grounds for complaint if it is viewed by non-nationalists as a creed aspiring to obsolescence.
To summarise, the non-nationalist challenge to unionism transmitted
indirectly through a politics of civil society has a significance
that far exceeds the electoral strength of non-nationalist political
parties. Its general thrust is to query whether unionism has anything
to offer to aid the resolution of the manifold social, cultural
and political problems increasingly surfacing in the arena of
civil society. If taken seriously, this non-nationalist criticism,
considered in general terms, issues a formidable challenge on
two fronts: by casting doubt on the long-term possibilities of
a unionism that avoids meaningful engagement with large tracts
of social life in Northern Ireland; and by raising searching questions
about the range and depth of unionist politics, including its
guiding principles and strategies for non-constitutional political
activity and its understanding of the relationship between a politics
of the state and a politics of civil society. To allow such doubt
to linger, and to carry on as though these questions do not need
answering, is tantamount to confessing that unionism's political
imagination is severely withered. It is also to add an element
of credibility to the ironical prospect, gestured at earlier,
of a Northern Ireland whose integrity may, as unionists wish,
be respected, but whose character bears less and less resemblance
to typical unionist images. And this is to open up another can
The sheer array of challenges unionism faces from within its own
ranks as well as from outside and inside the borders of Northern
Ireland is daunting. It is a tall order to expect all these challenges
to receive equal attention. Needless to say, they do not. Certain
challenges are seen as vitally important and others as not. Opinions
differ within unionism, however, about which challenges cannot
be avoided and which can. I want to throw light on these differing
opinions by laying out three unionist responses that re- veal
sometimes conflicting estimations of where the real challenge
to unionism lies. Before doing so, I start with some general remarks.
Differences over how the challenges faced by unionism should be ranked, what the locus of a unionist identity should be, and the sort of conceptual articulation unionism should be given, distinguish the three responses and provide the focal points of my characterisation of them. What warrants initial clarification is what my characterisations presuppose. Accordingly, I lay out now the basic meanings and interconnections of the terms 'ranking', 'identity', and 'conceptual articulation' at work in my characterisations.
By claiming that different unionist responses rank the challenges to unionism differently, I may seem to be assuming that unionists generally recognise the challenges to be as I have described them, and that they have engaged in an explicit analytic exercise that permits them to delineate which challenges are more significant than others. But this is not so. The first assumption is not necessary, since to allow different rankings is also to allow different slants being put on the challenges up for ranking. The second assumption is not strictly required either. To clarify, the claim that ranking occurs does not necessarily entail that it does so explicitly, as it may go on whether or not particular unionists are reflectively aware of it. Ranking is implicit in unionist practice and is discernible when the direction of unionists' energies suggest certain challenges are treated with the utmost seriousness, others with moderate seriousness, and still others with no seriousness. Making explicit what is implicit - in this instance the ranking of challenges - is a requirement not of unionist practice but of unionist theory. But ranking in itself is not an invention of theory. This is not to say that practice can get by adequately without theory. On the contrary, the ranking embedded in practice is refined and, in cases, altered by theory, and the move to make the implicit explicit is properly seen as illuminating in two senses. First, it brings into clearer view the understanding of unionism tacitly invoked by the priorities expressed through unionist practice; and, second, it recognises that reasons need to be offered for such priorities, for taking unionism's principal tasks to be these rather than those, and so forth. Otherwise put, making explicit what is involved in ranking brings to the fore questions of identity and conceptual articulation, that is, of how unionists understand themselves and of which concepts best articulate their self-understandings.
The issue of identity is of the essence here. It is the touchstone of any coherent ranking process and establishes the contours of the type of conceptual articulation deemed appropriate for unionism. But the term 'identity' is notoriously slippery and it is not always clear what is meant by it. Although this is not the occasion to discuss its manifold meanings, it is important to indicate the main connotations associated with my use of the term. Three in particular stand out.
The first, and most rudimentary, has to do with what questions of identity are about. I take it that they are principally about 'who' we are either individually or collectively. Questions of identity are bound up with questions of self-understandings or self-interpretations. They refer to how we make sense of ourselves and to what matters to us. There are, of course, many ways in which we try to make sense of our lives in order to imbue them with significance, just as there are many things that matter to us. if taken in their fullness, questions of identity range across the whole gamut of human experience, from the intimate to the formal, and seem to raise an impossibly large number of issues. It is not, however, my intention to attempt the impossible by taking these questions in their fullness. A second connotation of my approach to the theme of identity makes plain its restricted focus. I am concerned only to explore what is involved in having a political identity. Even so, such a restricted focus admits of narrow and broad interpretations. As we shall see, for some unionists a political identity relates primarily to a legal status and a set of procedural rights and entitlements, whereas for others it also relates to a series of substantive cultural or religious commitments and attachments. Limiting the focus on identity to political issues, then, certainly has the advantage of making matters more man- ageable, but it does not foreclose the possibility of having to examine multifaceted dimensions of human experience.
A third connotation refers to the source of unionists' identity. There is a widespread tendency to think of identity mostly in psychological terms and thus to locate its source in the psyche, consciousness, perceptions or mindsets of individuals or groups. This tendency is evident even when the focus is on a political identity. We see it, for example, in familiar attempts to discover the source of unionism's identity in its renowned 'siege mentality'. It is also present in John Whyte's influential study Interpreting Northern Ireland, where the concept of identity is introduced as a key 'psychological aspect' of social and political life in the North. Whyte discusses its importance in relation to theories in social psychology that highlight how group identities emerge through competition with other groups and involve some claim to superiority. He goes on to surmise that 'those who are insecure in their identity are precisely the ones who will feel most strongly about the issue'. And he concludes that, as a crucial Psychological aspect, an emphasis on identity is useful as 'an explanation of the intensity of feeling engendered by the cleavages in Northern Ireland'.
Now there is no doubting in general that psychological components of identity formation are important. And there is little arguing in particular that feelings of insecurity, of superiority, of emotional intensity and, in sum, of being under siege are features of many unionists' identities. But there is ample disputing that these feelings take us to the heart of any unionist identity and, moreover, that questions of identity are reducible to psychological explanations. Take, for example, two problems encountered by accounts of a unionist identity that accord a central explanatory role to those feelings mentioned above. One is that they overlook the fact that such feelings are unevenly distributed among different expressions of unionist identity. As I shall argue later, they are highly concentrated in one expression, mildly present in another, and almost without trace in a third. Another problem is that even where they have most going for them - in that expression of unionist identity in which a siege mentality looms largest - these accounts tend to distort what is at stake. At their most uncharitable, they virtually give the impression that to bear a unionist identity is to suffer from a pathological condition. In their slightly more charitable vein, they add a psychological spin to the idea that unionism only can define itself in terms of what it is not, by depicting unionists' identity in negative psychological categories, such as insecurity and the like. In either case we have a distorted story, since what is missed or severely downplayed is the significance unionists attribute to those positive features of their world that they, rightly or wrongly, perceive to be threatened. And it is only when pitched against the backdrop of their 'world of significance' that unionists' negative psychological reactions become properly intelligible.
This latter point raises the bigger issue of whether psycho- logical descriptions, positive or negative, point us to the source of unionist (or any other) identities. I do not think they do. When trying to get clear about the constituent features of a political identity such as unionism there are good reasons to trace back to what I have called the world of significance that forms the indispensable background to psychological expressions of one sort or another. It is this that puts us in touch with what matters to unionists. Their world of significance consists of institutions and practices with which they identify, of memories, commitments and allegiances that define who they are as unionists. In short, the unionists' world of significance amounts to a political, if not also a social and cultural, way of life that is valued for the meanings and purposes it makes available. It is such a way of life that is the source of a unionist identity and that provides unionists with an orientation to politics. It is when they face disorientation through their way of life being disturbed, threatened with disturbance, or imagined to be so threatened, that elements of a siege mentality are conspicuous among certain unionists. But these are derivative elements and to treat them as though they are primary, as though they are the source of a unionist identity, is to misunderstand who unionists are and what they stand for.
The final question I want to address in order to clarify how I propose to characterise different unionist responses or positions concerns what I mean when I say that unionism warrants conceptual articulation. The need to tackle this question received a prompt from the requirement of unionist theory that it provide reasons why it ranks challenges to unionism the way it does. The question now can be approached in a more informed manner given the preceding remarks about identity. I claimed that the contours of an appropriate mode of articulating the concepts underlying unionist self-understandings are set by an under- standing of identity. And it is this claim I want to make good in a way that also links up with the philosophical emphases I raised in Chapter 1. There are four brief points I wish to stress.
First, by conceptual articulation I do not mean an explanatory theory written about unionism from an outsiders perspective. There are already more than enough such theories. I mean, rather, a theory or number of theories that start from unionists' own senses of identity and try to articulate in appropriate conceptual categories the political vision these senses of identity warrant. This is to envisage a theoretical enterprise that - as in the case of ranking challenges - endeavours to make explicit in conceptual form much that is implicit in practice. Otherwise expressed, it is one that begins with unionists own self-understandings and attempts to articulate what they imply.
Second, this enterprise is made easier to pursue once we think of unionism's identity as residing in a valued way of life rather than in psychological feelings. A way of life is open to conceptual articulation and rational debate in a manner that feelings often are not thought to be. It now becomes harder to avoid challenges to unionists' senses of identity by retreating to an inner sanctuary that is supposedly impervious to rational contestation. It will not suffice, for example, simply to greet challenges to unionism from Irish nationalists with the retort that I, as a unionist, 'feel British'. And it will not suffice precisely because unionists' identities are tied to a political way of life that is constituted by institutions, practices and relationships that exist in public space and, there- fore, are open to public scrutiny and debate. It should also be borne in mind that amenability to conceptual articulation and debate is incumbent on unionist identities since ways of life are not static and are interpreted differently, not least by unionists themselves.
Third, by virtue of its connection to basic issues of identity, a conceptual articulation of unionists' self-understandings is appropriately conceived of as an integral part of delineating their horizon(s) of meaning. In giving an account of what matters to unionists, a unionist theory is thus cast in a highly significant role, one that bears little resemblance to that played by supposedly and academic exercises. In trying to bring to theoretical light the nature and ramifications of unionists' commitments and attachments, it provides at its best a conceptual framework within which unionists can understand more clearly and deeply what they stand for. It also affords a set of conceptual tools with which unionists can engage others. Of course, not all unionist theories are equally successful, and I have already intimated that I think one is vastly superior to others. In making judgements about the various unionist theories on offer, the crucial questions are how well the horizon of meaning captured by a specific conceptual framework enables unionists to see what ultimately matters to them, and how adequately it equips them to deal with the serious challenges they face. It is because the tasks of theory, or conceptual articulation, are so important that these questions must be pressed relentlessly.
Having stressed the indispensability of theory, I should add, finally, a word of caution about its limits. There are two limits, one extrinsic and the other intrinsic, which together counsel against having inflated expectations of what conceptual articulation can achieve. An extrinsic limit pertains to the likely influence on conduct of good theoretical arguments. Take, for example, the difference that exposure of weaknesses in a unionist theory can be reasonably hoped to make to those who subscribe to it. There is, it is true, little way of calculating the difference that might be made in the long term. But in the short term it is prudent not to anticipate too much given what is at stake in many unionists' attachments to a particular theory. It is not just that some have substantial emotional investments in seeing things from a certain angle. It is also that giving up a specific theoretical view may also imply a need to abandon customary facets of a familiar way of life. Even if the argument is lost, or perhaps especially if it is, existential as well as psychological resistance may remain entrenched. To risk being disoriented - which is sometimes what is entailed in admitting theoretical defeat - is not, after all, an enticing prospect. Settling a theoretical argument, in short, rarely settles all that requires settling. An intrinsic limit consists in the inability of any theory, however comprehensive, to capture everything involved in a way of life or a horizon of meaning, to render explicit all the background practices that shape our id- entities. To imagine that theories can make our lives utterly transparent and unmysterious is probably to succumb to an Enlightenment-derived prejudice of which it is better to be sceptical.
Neither of these limitations, needless to say, is sufficient to justify dispensing with the service of theories. And unionism, which has muddled through with minimal conceptual reflection, needs their service more than most contemporary political positions.
The above understandings of ranking, identity and conceptual articulation
run through the rest of the book. It is against the backcloth
they afford that I turn now to note how different responses to
the challenges to unionism exhibit different ranking priorities
which derive from different construals of what a unionist identity
consists in, construals that in turn call for different conceptual
articulations of unionism. In subsequent chapters, I explore each
of these responses in more detail, paying particular attention
to their conceptual articulations.
One response is inclined to put more weight than others on challenges from within unionism. It also accords considerable importance to challenges from the British government, but thinks these are best met through a show of unionist unity. External challenges from the Irish government, much like challenges from Northern nationalists that openly refer to Northern Ireland as 'a failed political entity' or that appear more subtly under the name of 'parity of esteem', are not seen as intrinsically serious. That is to say, they neither derive from sources unionists recognise as authoritative nor entail content unionists regard as compelling. Their seriousness as challenges lies only in their propaganda value; in their ability to influence international opinion, especially American, and to sway on occasions the British government. And like challenges from the British government, these challenges are seen as being most effectively dealt with through concerted unionist opposition and unionist counter-persuasion of the British government of the rightness of its cause. Non-nationalist non-unionist challenges, if recognised at all, do not rate much mention.
This response is one that evidently disputes the interpretation I have given of the challenges to unionism, especially because I devalue the importance of unionist unity and appear to grant too much credence to nationalist-inspired challenges of one sort or another. Here I must seem to miss the point, since my interpretation does not sufficiently grasp that the current circumstances of unionism are defined above all else by uncertainty over the constitutional future of Northern Ireland. As a consequence, I underplay the threat to that future posed by the irredentist nationalism enshrined in the Irish constitution, the subversive influence at home and abroad of unionism's new bogeyman -'the pan-nationalist front' - the vacillations of Westminster, and in general the readiness of the British and Irish governments, with considerable encouragement from the United States administration, to pander to nationalist aspirations, placate republican terrorists, and squeeze unionists into compromising their principles. To understand that a threat to Northern Ireland's constitutional future appears in such multiple forms is also to understand that unionism occupies a beleaguered position susceptible to the betrayals of untrustworthy allies and the attacks of conniving enemies. These are understandings that my interpretation lacks, not least when it allows itself to be diverted by such distractions as non-nationalist challenges in the realm of civil society. Hence, it is no surprise that it fails to appreciate why the achievement of unionist unity is such a priority: in the absence of unity unionism is ill equipped to fend off such powerfully backed challenges to its defence of the integrity of Northern Ireland. Unionism's most urgent tasks, on this reading, must be to heal its own divisions and shore up its collective resources in order to defend itself against blatant and subtle attempts to undermine the justness of its cause. And crucial to successful defence here is convincing the British government to pursue its own unionist-oriented agenda independent of the machinations of Dublin or Washington.
It is tempting to say that if my interpretation of unionism's circumstances is wide of the mark in the manner just suggested, it is because it does not manifest many signs of a siege mentality. For a siege mentality is exactly what is on display in the ranking priorities favoured by this first unionist response. As I have argued, however, the locus of a unionist identity is not to be found in such a mentality. What the above response to the challenges to unionism points to, and what its siege mentality is symptomatic of, rather, is an identity that is appropriately described as 'Ulster' unionist. I do not use this descriptive term in any party Political sense, although those to whom it applies are more likely to be members of the DUP than of any other unionist party. The term refers simply to those unionists whose primary allegiance is to an 'Ulster' way of life that has been shaped by an intermix of Protestant and British institutions and values.
A familiar belief of those bearing an Ulster unionist identity is that its distinctive features are by and large peculiar to Northern Ireland. Its combination of Protestantism and Britishness has long since ceased to characterise political life in the rest of the United Kingdom, even if it lives on at the margins in areas of Scotland. It is unsurprising, then, that Ulster unionists regarded Stormont as 'their' parliament and that the preference of many is for a form of devolved government in which the unionist majority is able to play a dominant role once more, even if it is one that falls short of that enjoyed during the Stormont years. Given the constrained circumstances in which Unionists currently find themselves, however, other options may also be considered. Full integration with the rest of Britain, if ever offered, would have attractions, principally because of the constitutional peace of mind it would bring. At a pinch, some power-sharing arrangement with nationalists might be acceptable, but only on the proviso that Dublin is uninvolved in the affairs of Northern Ireland. Whatever the arrangement, public institutions would be expected to express a British political identity alone. And there should be no embarrassment in acknowledging that symbols of Britishness are simultaneously symbols of Protestantism. For Ulster unionists the two quite properly belong together, although they also concede the possibility of being Catholic and British in Northern Ireland.
It is the dual Protestant and British character of Northern Ireland that is perceived to be threatened by the Irish government and Northern nationalists and, through pan-nationalist influence, by the us administration and the British government. In all the fine talk about parity of esteem and respecting the two traditions, what is being proposed are concessions to Irish nationalists that, in effect, undermine the basis of an Ulster unionist identity. And the fear is that it will become so emaciated that there will be little resistance in the long run to its ultimate loss as Northern Ireland is absorbed into a united Ireland. That is why vigilance is required now, and it is also why unionism's siege mentality is alive and well. Those institutions, practices and values that uniquely embody Protestantism and Britishness are under assault.
What calls for conceptual articulation here are the various senses
in which Protestantism and Britishness are regarded as constitutive
of unionism proper. Here opinions differ among Ulster unionists,
not least between those whose attachments to Protestantism are
primarily religious and those whose attachments are mainly secular.
But despite differences, there is a shared view that a Northern
Ireland in which an Ulster unionist identity gains rightful expression
is one whose institutional life is shaped by a Protestant-British
ethos. Accordingly, it is appropriate to refer to the type of
conceptual articulation consistent with this identity as 'cultural
unionist'. It should also be pointed out that cultural unionism
involves specific political claims to the effect that the source
of liberalism and democracy lies in Protestant-Britishness. The
irony here is that it purports to offer a political deal to those
Catholics and nationalists who value liberal democracy that the
resources of Catholicism and nationalism cannot match. To the
chagrin of its critics, then, it presents itself not as a rationalisation
of bigotry and supremacy but as a theory of a free society. And
integral to this theory are specific concepts of liberty, loyalty
and legitimacy. It is with these concepts, as well as with the
general connections drawn between unionism and Protestant-Britishness,
that my discussion of cultural unionism is concerned.
A second unionist response prioritises the challenge from the British government. It does so not merely because this challenge is potentially the most serious of all but, more important, because it is with the politics of Westminster, rather than with the internal politics of Northern Ireland, that its main interest lies. Put another way, it acts on the assumption that the surest way to secure the integrity of Northern Ireland is to convince the British government that there is a convergence of British and unionist interests, inasmuch as maintaining the Union is in principle the priority of both. Other challenges pale into insignificance in comparison with this one; or, at least, they must be judged in its light. Thus unionist fragmentation may seem a big problem, as it did to the first unionist response, or it may seem a relatively minor matter, depending on the circumstances. Unionist unity may be crucial, for example, if it is clear that without it unionists are likely to be railroaded into accepting arrangements they find unpalatable; but it may on occasions be a hindrance if the cultural Protestantism of Ulster unionists serves to convince the British government that its interests and those of unionists do not coincide. In other words, tactical astuteness and flexibility guided by the primacy of the challenge of the British government dictate how seriously challenges from within unionism are to be taken.
What I call British unionists adopt a similar attitude to Ulster unionists when rating most of the challenges issued by the Irish government and Northern nationalists: they count only to the extent that they are heeded by the British government. It is unionism's task to ensure that the British government ceases to give them as much credence as it has tended to, at least since 1985. An exception here applies to one, and possibly two, of the senses in which the concept of parity of esteem is used. There should be about acknowledging nationalists' entitlements nothing grudging to equal civil rights and to having opportunities to express their cultural identity. There is objection only to the idea that cultural nationalism is entitled to political expression within the institutional life of Northern Ireland. As for non-nationalist challenges in civil society, these should not be considered a threat at all to a unionism that wholeheartedly embraces pluralism, though just how much unionist involvement in a politics of civil society is deemed necessary remains unclear.
From another unionist angle, then, it appears again that my interpretation of unionism's circumstances is less than satisfactory. Other than giving a quick nod at its potentially devastating impact, I end up not attributing much more significance to a challenge from the British government than I do to one from the Irish. And in seeming inordinately concerned about nationalist and non-nationalist challenges from within Northern Ireland, I give the impression that unionism needs to be more apologetic and concessionary than is either warranted or healthy. Put in slightly different terms, on this reading I go seriously astray on two fronts. First, I assume that in trying to make the face of unionism more agreeable to nationalists I increase the prospect of their acceptance of the integrity of Northern Ireland. But this is wishful thinking which succeeds only in weakening unionism and encouraging nationalists to believe that the arrival of a united Ireland is almost at hand. Second, in chiding unionism for its relative neglect of aspects of the internal politics of Northern Ireland, I misunderstand what really matters. This misunderstanding is communicated in various ways, including a sarcastic dismissal of the notion of 'masterful inactivity' at the beginning of the chapter, unduly harsh criticisms of Molyneaux's political tactics in Chapter 1. disdain at the lack of unionist interest in the Opsahl Commission and, it could be added for good measure, disagreement with mainstream unionism's decisions not to participate in all-party talks until preconditions are met or to attend the Irish-government-sponsored Forum for Peace and Reconciliation at Dublin Castle. What such negative appraisals of unionist attitudes and conduct fail to understand is that persuading Westminster to take seriously the idea of the Union is where unionist energy is most profitably directed. Appreciating that this is unionism's priority puts a quite different gloss on talk of masterful inactivity, Molyneaux's tactics and unionist indifference to nationalist and non-nationalist-inspired political initiatives. To suppose that energy would be better spent trying to convince nationalists or non-nationalists of the virtues of unionism risks sending the wrong signals to Dublin about the sort of involvement in the affairs of Northern Ireland unionists might be prepared to tolerate of it, making unionism needlessly vulnerable, and squandering resources playing a game where the prize is small beer compared to that on offer in the game at Westminster.
Given such reasoning, the ultimate culpability of my interpretation, of which the flaws described above give hint, lies in its failure to perceive what the ranking priorities of this second unionist response manifestly point to, namely that a unionist identity is primarily located in a 'British' political way of life. It is crucial to emphasise that this identity is political, not cultural, in kind and therefore drawn more narrowly than an Ulster unionist identity Those who define themselves in terms of it may differ widely in their religious and cultural attachments. They may equally be Protestant or Catholic. They may consider themselves Irish Northern Irish, English or whatever. The point is that unionism as a political identity is culture-blind. It is bound up with the life of citizenship made available by the institutions of the British state - a life that delivers a genuine pluralism unavailable in an Irish state whose institutions remain mired by the cultural particularity of Irish nationalism. So many of the challenges to unionism conspire to put this unionist political identity even further beyond the reach of unionists. That is why they must be opposed and efforts must be concentrated on showing the British government that unionists are entitled to enjoy the full benefits of an identity taken for granted elsewhere in the United Kingdom. And that is why the challenge from the British government is of supreme importance, since it is in the power of this government alone to give unionists what they want and what is rightfully theirs.
The arrangements that would give British unionists what they want are clearly those associated with Northern Ireland's full integration with the rest of Britain. In contrast to Ulster unionists, there is little lament here for the demise of Stormont, since such an experiment in devolved government is regarded as having been an unfortunate mistake from the start. If devolution of some kind is all that is ultimately available in Northern Ireland, however, British unionists prefer that it should involve as minimal a transfer of powers from Westminster as possible. An administrative local assembly would find greater favour, for instance, than a legislative assembly. It is accepted that any such assembly would have to be organised along power-sharing lines. What is not accepted is that any new structures of government in North- em Ireland should entail a dilution of its political Britishness. Thus, as with Ulster unionists, British unionists reject entirely any claim for political parity of esteem between unionists and nationalists, and refuse to entertain any diminution of British sovereignty in Northern Ireland through a role being found for the Irish government.
Conceptual articulation is required here to elucidate more fully
the sense of political Britishness being called upon. In particular,
we need to know more about the notion of the state said to be
embodied in the United Kingdom's institutions and practices but
not in the Irish Republic's. We also need to explore the concepts
typically invoked in support of this notion, such as citizenship,
pluralism, rights, freedom, and legitimacy. When we examine the
treatment accorded to these concepts by British unionists, it
be- comes clear that they fit within a theoretical scheme appropriately
described as 'liberal unionist'. And, we are told, the political
way of life articulated by liberal unionism affords unrivalled
benefits to all citizens in Northern Ireland, regardless of their
religious, cultural or ethnic affiliations.
A third response puts most emphasis on challenges to unionism arising from within Northern Ireland. The range of issues raised under the banner of parity of esteem as well as the questions asked of unionism through a politics of civil society are taken to introduce considerations of the most searching sort. These are considerations that penetrate to the core of what unionism has to offer. Other challenges do not carry the same intrinsic importance even if many of them appear in more powerfully endorsed packages. But this does not mean that they are not taken seriously at all. On the contrary, to prioritise internal Northern Irish challenges, or at least those gathered under the heading 'parity of esteem', is simultaneously to face up to the external challenges of the British and Irish governments. It is only internal unionist challenges that are given relatively short shrift. The price demanded by unionist unity, for instance, is too high to contemplate paying. Given the current state of unionism, it means effectively shutting out the crucial issues raised by nationalist and non- nationalist challenges. And this is to accept the unacceptable, namely that a politics of the tunnel vision is unionism's lot.
The way in which this third response ranks the challenge to unionism fits with my interpretation of unionism's circumstances. Little else should be expected, of course, since this response is the one I advocate. To extend its rationale a bit further, it assumes that the British and Irish governments would gleefully underwrite any settlement in Northern Ireland that was mutually acceptable to unionists and nationalists. Encouraging a process of reconciliation that brings together the major political actors in the North is precisely what the thrust of the external challenges to unionism amounts to. The glaringly obvious point that the British and Irish governments force upon unionist attention is that there is no possibility of permanent structures of government being introduced in Northern Ireland that do not accommodate (at least some) nationalist concerns. Other unionist responses contrive ways of having their attention diverted and so miss the obvious. They have their reasons for doing so, of course, but none is sufficiently compelling. There is ultimately no escaping the requirement to engage nationalists in order to secure a future for Northern Ireland with which everyone can live. And to recognise that this is so is to acknowledge that challenges to unionism from within Northern Ireland cannot be dodged.
Such a conclusion captures the inner logic of the external challenges to unionism. But that is not the main reason for adopting it. As I have intimated, challenges emanating from within Northern Ireland deserve to be prioritised because of their content. All of the questions prompted by the concept of parity of esteem are important, including those connected with its cultural and political senses which other unionist responses have most difficulty entertaining. The task of allowing these questions to occupy centre-stage cannot be shirked if it is accepted that all citizens in the North are entitled to have a say in how the character of their society is shaped. At stake here is the crucial matter of what sort of deal unionists are prepared to offer nationalists to convince them that Northern Ireland is a polity with which they may fully identify - a matter that involves the sort of accommodation unionists are willing to find for an Irish dimension. Challenges emerging from non-nationalist sources also have a vital role to play. These have the virtue of shifting the focus away from a politics of constitutional standoff by asking the probing question of why wider issues of democracy and justice in civil society should always play second fiddle to unionism's constitutional preoccupations. Or, put sharply, is there not something terribly awry with notions of unionism that are not defined as much by their commitment to create a democratic and just society in Northern Ireland as by their constitutional commitment to the United Kingdom? If any question commands serious deliberation it is this one.
A ranking procedure that privileges challenges from within Northern Ireland relates to a unionist identity bound up with what I want to call a 'Northern Irish' way of life. This identity is less obviously captured than other unionist identities, partly because it is more complex and partly because it is still in the process of making itself. It is a cultural identity but not in the exclusive sense of Ulster unionism, and it is a political identity but not in the narrow sense of British unionism. Its cultural meaning is rooted in an understanding of Northern Ireland as 'a place apart' that is defined by its ties to both the rest of Britain and the rest of Ireland, and also by the distinctive stock of experiences and meanings its inhabitants share, as a result of their peculiar history, which distinguish them from their counterparts elsewhere in Britain and Ireland. The political meaning of this 'Northern Irish' identity also appreciates Northern Ireland's apartness, but within the constitutional context of the United Kingdom. It is an identity shaped in part by those institutions of the British state that deliver benefits of citizenship and a pluralist society, and which cannot legitimately be surrendered against the democratic wishes of Northern Ireland's citizens. But it is also an identity that anticipates facilitation of the North's major cultural strands in public institutions, and the development of social and political institutions that are sustained by the actions of citizens and afford new forms of citizen identification.
The arrangements capable of expressing a Northern Irish identity are most likely to be found (1) in a form of power-sharing devolved government that enjoys a substantial transfer of legislative and executive powers from Westminster; (2) in an inter-relationship between the politics conducted at this level and the politics conducted in civil society; and (3) through an accommodation of Irishness, as well as Britishness, in the institutional life of Northern Ireland. On the third suggestion, two points bear emphasising. First, nationalism's hijacking of Irishness, not least through its attempts to identify it with Catholicism, should be repudiated by unionists. Second, there should be openness to certain claims of political parity of esteem, although openness should not be mistaken for compliance with every nationalist request. On the other suggestions a common rationale is at work: citizens in Northern Ireland are entitled to maximal control over their social and political affairs and require institutions that recognise their entitlement. This rationale stresses the indispensability of citizens' actions to the health of a polity. And from its perspective a notion such as 'masterful inactivity' must always appear as a political oxymoron.
Conceptual articulation is required here on several fronts. More needs to be said, for example, about the possibility of combining the various strands that constitute a Northern Irish unionist identity, and about the institutional arrangements they imply. The relationships between culture and politics and between the state and civil society that a way of life informed by this identity involves also demand clarification, as do the specific concepts of citizenship, freedom and legitimacy that underpin them. Given the central role accorded to the activity of citizens in this view, it is appropriate to describe the theory that derives from a Northern Irish identity as 'civic unionist'. It is this that provides the conceptual resources to project a future for Northern Ireland beyond a zero-sum game played out between so-called pan-nationalist and pan-unionist fronts, by suggesting that the only 'front' unionism should be interested in joining is a pan-democratic one. It is only when the interests of democracy are made primary that Northern Ireland will have a future worth having.
Before arguing in detail why the conceptual framework afforded
by civic unionism alone opens up a future worth having, I need
to show why the frameworks provided by cultural unionism and liberal
unionism do not. I deal with these in separate chapters, starting
with the theory of cultural unionism.
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within the University of Ulster.
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