Unionism’s reluctance to learn could kill it

Posted By: March 11, 2017

Patrick Murphy.Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, March 11, 2017

Unionism is facing more than an electoral crisis. Its real challenge now is to define what it stands for. Until it does so, it has no conceptual basis for handling a changing political agenda, which is increasingly influenced by events beyond its control and, sometimes, beyond its understanding.

Its first step must be to distinguish between what is urgent (more votes) and what is important (analyzing why it exists). History shows that it will probably fail to recognize the difference.

Organized political Unionism effectively dates from the 1801 Act of Union, which replaced the Irish Parliament with rule from Westminster. (Yes, modern Unionism was founded on direct rule).

It was a political mechanism for the economic exploitation of Ireland as Britain’s nearest colony. But as the Empire shrank, Unionism shifted from meaning the union of all 32 counties to the nine Ulster counties and ultimately to the six where they held a parliamentary majority until last Thursday.

Now, as the United Kingdom becomes less united, it is not clear with whom Unionists wish to be constitutionally joined. As its geographical base contracted, Irish Unionism evolved into Ulster unionism, which somehow became anti-Irish.

That, said the Good Friday Agreement, made them British, which sadly left unionists cut off from their Gaelic heritage, both Irish and Scottish. For example, some Unionist landlords were organizing hurling before the GAA was founded, but these days most Unionists shun hurling. (Mind you, so do many in the GAA.)

Having initially opposed Home Rule, they later fought for it in 1921 and then abused their power in Stormont until 50 years ago, when the civil rights movement forced Unionists to face a changing world.

At that point Unionism needed to re-think its rationale, develop a social and economic strategy and re-define (or even define) what it stood for. Instead, it was split by Paisley’s sectarian ranting, which sowed the seeds of Unionism’s downfall.

His fortress mentality prevented change away from an ill-defined ideological purity. The change meant treachery (except for Paisley himself) and Unionism became a prisoner of its own right wing, a fossilized belief in a changing world. It knew it was against change, but it was unsure of what it was for.

It was rescued by the IRA campaign, which gave it new life or, more accurately, an excuse to remain in the same old life. But after 20 years of peace, it has failed to evolve into what could have been a progressive political movement, aware of its Irishness and conscious of the UK’s fragmenting nature.

It could have captured the area of social and economic policy left vacant by Nationalism’s equal pre-occupation with flags. For example, it had the chance to tackle child poverty in west Belfast, the highest in the UK. It just had to recognize that Irish Nationalism has a long history of wrapping the green flag around those in poverty and telling them to think of Ireland. Instead, Paisleyism wrapped the Union Flag around the Protestant working class and told them to be afraid of the Pope.

While the collapse of the Catholic Church has left Nationalism able to adopt a more liberal approach on issues such as gay rights, Unionism’s electoral links with fundamental Protestantism has left it socially conservative.

That has given Nationalism the moral high ground on issues such as same-sex marriage. (Interestingly, the moral high ground for many Nationalists now lies in secularism, not religion. Nationalism today is just the same Catholic nationalism of O’Connell and de Valera – but without the Church.)

Unionism might also have recognized that modern Irish Nationalism is just another form of Unionism. Unionists want political union with London. Nationalists “will not be dragged away” from a political union with Berlin. Unionists might like to take the lead in analyzing the validity of both types of union.

So Unionism, particularly the DUP, needs to start learning – not political theory, but biology and geology as explained by Charles Darwin. He taught that species either adapt or die.

Sadly, many in the DUP do not believe in evolution. That’s a bit like not believing in gravity. It will not matter much until you walk off the edge of a cliff. Not believing in evolution did not matter until last week, when Unionism fell off that same cliff.

If it does not adapt, based on an analysis of why it exists, it will die from a perfectly curable disease known as willful ignorance. Its headstone inscription will presumably read: “Here lies Unionism, killed by a reluctance to learn.”

Well, that tends to happen when you practice academic selection.