Posted By: April 19, 2014

Patrick Murphy. Irish News ( Belfast). Saturday,April 19, 2014.

WHAT used to be the theory of evolution is now scientific fact - living things which
do not adapt to environmental change tend to die out. So how, you ask, has Unionism
survived? (You can be so insensitive at times.)

Since 1609 unionism has remained largely unchanged through colony, kingdom, home
rule, direct rule and devolved government. While it may not be thriving, it is far
from extinct, as it casually observes nationalism's political gymnastics from the
comfort of the same political armchair it has occupied for four centuries.
'Rubbish', you say. If you are a Unionist, you presumably mean that Unionism has
changed, as evidenced by its involvement in power sharing (which is not actually
working). If you are a Nationalist, you are probably suggesting that Unionism is
effectively dead, crushed by the beauty of Nationalism's latest half-twist, double
somersault on the parallel bars. (If you are neither, you obviously have better
things to do with your life.)

So how has Unionism survived? Will it copy Nationalism's backward flips or just plod
on resolutely, unchanged and unchanging, for another four centuries? It is hard to
know where to find a definition of Unionism. There are no Unionist works of
philosophy, no fount of literature, no deep well of social and economic theory. It
appears to be simply a belief by one group of settlers here that their country of
origin should rule at least part of Ireland.

No other settlers in Ireland, from Anglo-Normans to Nigerians have persisted with
this view. Underage hurling matches across Ireland have children whose parents
arrived recently from Africa or Eastern Europe.

Peter Robinson attended a Gaelic football match once and was feted as a visionary.
That inflexibility may explain Unionism's survival. (Explanation tends to be
unpopular, because it forces us to face the truth. Description and comment allow us
to varnish it.)

So today's theory is that Unionism is alive and well, because it has recognised that
instead of adapting to a changing environment, you can create a space in which
change can be prevented. That space became the state of Northern Ireland, a sort of
political Amish community where time stood still. The state's existence justified
unionism - and unionism justified the state. The argument that unionism has a
cultural dimension is a recent invention. (One Ulster Scots word of the day this
week was 'shap', meaning 'shop'. That is not a language, it is just a Belfast
accent. Its Oot An Aboot magazine carries an advert from Foras na Gaeilge, which is
withdrawing funding from the Irish language magazine, An tUltach. Intransigence may
get you a bad press, but it works.)

With nationalists now accepting the legitimacy of the Northern State, modern
sectarian tensions focus mainly on possible modifications to unionism's artificial
environment. Thus our politics are merely an argument about wallpaper. Unionism,
however, is not always sure about the difference between wallpaper and real life, so
its various strands tend to resist change in everything, from educational
administration to immigration. Through the prism of permanency that is Northern
Ireland, Unionism is loyal to a long-gone Britain, which has an empire, steam
trains, Christianity and manufacturing. It fails to recognise the possibility of
Scottish independence, the reality of one million people receiving food parcels and
the former head of Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist command "inspecting" Muslim

But Irish Presbyterianism, the moral backbone of Unionism, has a wonderfully radical
tradition. It had several radical trends in the 18th century, including
enlightenment, republicanism, revolution and what historian, David Hempton, calls
"high-minded Dissenting cantankerousness". (They could be someone's four stages of
life. The last one appears the most enjoyable.)

But radicalism was undermined by the Act of Union's abolition of a parliament in
which they had not been represented and the sectarian divisions caused by the
fundamentalism of Henry Cooke and the new Catholic Nationalism of Daniel O'Connell.

Unionism then evolved into conservatism, which opposed the introduction of the
British welfare state here and which today supports welfare cuts and retains the
concept of an educational elite in our schools. Unionism has failed its own people,
especially in education - but then those who have not been taught to think are
easier to lead.

Unless it invokes the 18th century spirit of democracy and enlightenment to develop
modern social and economic policies beyond flags, Unionism will remain frozen in
time, as it settles back in its armchair for another four centuries.

While that may well preserve the abstract concept of Unionism, it will do no favours
for the ordinary Unionist people - and if Unionism is not about people, what exactly
is it for?