Speech shows Arlene in nationalism denial

Posted By: May 24, 2018

Newton Emerson. Irish News. Belfast. Thursday, May 23, 2018

Arlene Foster says that her unionism is inclusive and welcoming, unlike nationalism which is â narrow and exclusive.
It did not take long to spot the flaw in Arlene Foster’s argument, delivered in a speech in London on Monday.

“Nationalism is by its nature narrow and exclusive,” she said. “Being a Unionist is the opposite. Unionism stands for pluralism and multiculturism. We are inclusive and welcome all.”

The problem with this claim, as people immediately pointed out, is that unionism is just a form of British nationalism – and one whose practice has itself been relentlessly narrow and exclusive.

So what the DUP leader was really saying was ‘my nationalism is better than your nationalism’ – a level of debate left over from the 19th century.

Today, declaring your nation to be superior to another is considered so offensive it can generate complaints to the police.

Foster has no excuse for this blunder. In 2002, David Trimble tried making the same case for the union by denouncing the Republic as a “pathetic, sectarian, mono-ethnic, mono-cultural state.”

Foster might recall how well that went down, as an opponent of Trimble’s within the UUP at the time.

The task for any leader in Northern Ireland is to find new concepts of nationalism that break us out of this sterile standoff. In the 20th century, some tried.

The starting point must be a definition of terms. Is nationalism still ultimately about sovereignty, the classic nationalist cause – about “power and who should wield it” as the historian A.T.Q. Stewart defined “the Ulster problem”?

If so, the Good Friday Agreement supposedly provides the answer. We have full British sovereignty pending full Irish sovereignty, with a shared wielding of power inside Northern Ireland.

Does the DUP accept this as a settlement of the classic nationalist dispute?

Alternatively, in an age of identity and ‘culture war’ politics – a brand of up-to-date thinking to which the DUP firmly subscribes – can competing nationalisms be satisfied with cultural accommodation?

Foster apparently alluded to this with her reference to multiculturalism, then contradicted herself by insulting Irish nationalism.

It was absurd for her to raise this point at all without addressing the painfully obvious issues of an Irish language act and same-sex marriage.

The kindest explanation is that she was softening up her base for a Stormont deal.

John Hume tried taking the argument to a higher plane by speaking of “post-nationalism,” at least until Sinn Féin crucified him for it.

Hume’s vision was explicitly European – the only attempt to make EU membership central to the peace process, contrived claims about Brexit notwithstanding.

Foster told her London audience that unionism “transcends nationalism.”

Imagine a parallel universe where she name-checked Hume after this remark.

Brexit might seem to be the end of Hume’s idea, but parallel universe Foster could see it as salvation.

There will inevitably be differences between Northern Ireland and Britain once the UK leaves the EU.

The DUP will want to play this down, but perhaps it should play it up, claiming joint ownership of ‘special status’ for a post-nationalist space, with room for Britishness, Irishness and European rights and citizenship for all.

Instead, bizarrely, Foster said: “Citizenship and rights are essentially unionist issues.”

In this universe, there will be no Hume-style thinking from the DUP.

However, there is a distinctly DUP vision that could help.

As many have also noted, the DUP’s British nationalism could be better described as Ulster nationalism.

This has become entangled with the Northern Ireland identity, which nationalists view as a trap to normalize British sovereignty.

But that was not how Ian Paisley viewed it. His unapologetic Ulster nationalism stemmed from cultural Irishness.

“I am proud to be an Ulsterman, but I am also proud of my Irish roots,” he told Bertie Ahern on his first meeting with a Taoiseach in 2007.

He made similar quotes throughout his life, right up to his last interview in 2014, when he said: “I would never deny I was an Irishman.”

Of course, these are exactly the sort of remarks that caused Paisley’s party to shove him off into an isolated retirement.

Yet the DUP could synthesize them by going right back to unionist basics – to Sir Edward Carson, who did not want partition at all, but hoped it could work if Northern Ireland became a model for the whole of Ireland, in which an expansive Britishness accommodated everyone’s undeniable Irishness.

Plainly, he was to be disappointed. The tragedy of modern unionism is to have driven past Carson’s statue at Stormont every day for 20 years while ignoring his most important admonition.