Michael O'Hare closing the Future of Unionism conference.
Since 2016, the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith, West London, has been the venue of for a series of events on the legacy of the Troubles, organised by Michael O'Hare, whose 12-year-old sister Majella was shot dead by a soldier in 1976.
The third in the series took place last Friday on The Future of Unionism, which proved to be the theme of a notably lively discussion, moderated by journalist Susan McKay.
Former Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt set the tone with a strikingly candid warning in his opening contribution:
My fear for unionism is that it doesn’t notice the changing environment. There’s a great business guru called Charles Handy who writes about a particular type of frog. The characteristic of this frog is that if you put it in a pan of cold water, and really, really slowly bring that water to boil, the frog dies because it doesn’t notice the change in its environment.
Among the key changes that Nesbitt identified were Northern Ireland's shifting demographics.
I apologize for using religion as a proxy for constitutional preference but sometimes needs must. In Northern Ireland’s primary schools today there are about 55,00 Protestants and 87,000 Catholics and that’s a trend we have back to the millennium. The numbers for maintaining the traditional unionist base are dying away and unionism is not reacting to that in a way that understands that if you want to maintain the union, you have to make the maximum number of people who live in Northern Ireland as comfortable as possible.
If Nesbitt's advice for his fellow unionists was stark, it was not a counsel of despair. While unionism's demographic majority had eroded, there had been signs in recent years that it was being replaced by a pragmatic political majority.
There were a lot of nationalists, I call them notional nationalists, in that if you said to them would you like to see a united Ireland someday they’d say yes, but are they prepared to lift their finger to work for one, no. They’re too busy making money, they’re too busy getting their children well-educated and all the rest to be that bothered about the fact that they’re living in a part of the island that’s part of the United Kingdom.
Sam McBride, the political editor of the Belfast Newsletter, offered a similarly nuanced take on the 2017 Stormont Assembly election, which for the first time in history, failed to deliver an absolute unionist majority.
That is very significant, but its not quite as significant as some people, perhaps, from the outside looking in, might think. It doesn’t mean that Northern Ireland is about to vote to leave the union. We know that polls are particularly fallible in this day and age but there’s significant evidence that there’s a group of people who don’t want to vote for unionist parties, but they would certainly identify in a more fundamental sense as being pro-union.
There is a split there between constitutional unionists, which to me is anybody who in a border poll would vote for the union, and people who culturally feel that unionism is something much more, that it has a particular history that brings in the likes of the Orange Order and aspects of Protestantism, social conservatism, all sorts of other issues which are not central to the principle of the union, but which have become so enshrined in politics that to them those two things are indistinguishable.
That divide was illustrated by the event's other two speakers. Basil McCrea, the former leader of the pro-union NI21 party, said that he wouldn't describe himself as a unionist.
Unionist was a thing that the press and the media tried to put on you, because they insist upon you being in one camp or the other. The whole ethos of NI21 was that we were focused on Northern Ireland that we were trying to seek people that from whatever background could actually work together. If you want to know what I am, I’m a liberal.
Linda Ervine, Irish language activist and sister of the late Progressive Unionist Party leader, said that the social conservatism of the unionist parties left many voters unrepresented.
That’s not who I am as a Protestant, and that’s not how a lot of people within my community feel. They don’t want to deny people same-sex marriage. They don’t want to deny people abortion rights. An awful lot of them don’t want to deny people a language act either.
She went on to call for a more pluralist vision of the union:
There’s a confusion in Northern Ireland, because in Scotland you can enjoy your Scottish culture, in England you can do the same, in Wales you can enjoy your Welsh culture, but in Northern Ireland as somebody from the unionist community I’m told that Irish culture, Irish language has got nothing to do with me. So I’m in favour of what I see as a union of different peoples and different cultures.
Several speakers identified Brexit as a key area where policy supported by cultural unionism threatened the position of constitutional unionism. Mike Nesbitt, who supported Remain as UUP leader during the Brexit referendum, suggested that it could push the 'notional nationalists' he described into more active support for a united Ireland.
Part of their comfort was that their identity was protected and it’s a multiple identity and being European was part of that. It may be more complex than this, but they feel that English nationalism came in over their heads and denied their European-ness, and that went against the spirit of the Belfast agreement.
Sam McBride agreed that Brexit had destabilised 'what had been a very stable constitutional position.'
There were record numbers of people endorsing the union in Northern Ireland, not out of enthusiasm perhaps, in many cases particularly among Catholics, but they were comfortable and they might have been culturally Irish but constitutionally happy for the union to remain. Now that is all up in the air.
He added, however, that an orderly Brexit might undercut the potential for a realignment.
We’re in a period of intense uncertainty. There was incredible angst in the days after the Brexit vote, not just in the Northern Ireland but across the rest of the UK. People hadn’t expected it. Even the Leave campaign hadn’t expected it. At this point, people who are fearing the worst, are fearing that it is going to be almost barbed wire at the border. That’s very unlikely in practical terms, so if it turns out to be much less damaging, and more open than they expect it to be, it may be that we see things swing back.
Intriguingly, McBride suggested that there was more awareness of the risks of Brexit within the DUP than was apparent from their strong Leave position during the referendum, but the party's strong tradition of euroscepticism had won out.
Beneath the bonnet in the DUP, there was a lot more debate about this. There were people who didn’t want the party to take that clear line, very senior people around Arlene Foster. I think the truth is that even if the DUP leader herself had wanted to take a Remain line as the Ulster Unionists had done, that wouldn’t have been possible, because of the history of the DUP.
The lack of a DUP speaker to expound the party's Brexit position and respond to the more liberal unionist analyses of other panelists was the one notable lacuna in an informative evening. Dr Ivan Gibbons made it clear that this was despite strenuous efforts on the part of the Irish Cultural Centre.
In their absence, Susan McKay asked Sam McBride to predict whether a political deal was likely at Stormont in the near future. the answer was a monosyllable not unfamiliar to long-standing observers of the DUP. The immediate future of unionism it seems, is direct rule from Westminster by any other name.