Unionist tension

Posted By: February 07, 2021

Denzil McDaniel.  Impartial Reporter

February 6, 2021


History has a habit of repeating itself in this corner of the world; so in the context of a century of partition, the cycle of violence or the threat of violence comes around at regular intervals.


Whether that be republicans of the physical force tradition attempting to force change or loyalists and unionists attempting to prevent change from happening, it spills over in succeeding generations. And has the potential to continue to do so until the two traditions come to an agreement on how to share this island.


Nobody should be surprised that anger in the loyalist community over the Northern Ireland Protocol in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement provoked David Campbell of the Loyalist Communities Council to warn that some may “fight physically to maintain our freedoms within the UK.”


Away back to the foundations of this state, the notion of fighting the British to remain British was a key element in creating partition and in the later part of the 20th century throughout pogroms in Catholic areas through loyalist worker strikes, right up to recent flag protests, an element of loyalism has flexed its muscle. Loyalism is not, though, in the powerful position it was in the 1970s; although that shouldn’t diminish the concerns over militant loyalism.


As ever, mainstream Unionist parties condemn any violence, but in their own way their frustration as to how to fight the Protocol has produced a tension within wider political Unionism. To be clear, the nuts and bolts of the Protocol creating difficulties for goods coming into Northern Ireland is not the main issue; pull back the curtain and the real reason for opposition to the Protocol is the constitutional one. That is, the Irish Sea border literally creates an east-west divide.


As well as the symbolic divide with Britain, the double whammy for Unionists is that it effectively creates the conditions whereby Northern Ireland will become more closely aligned economically with the Republic of Ireland.


As opposed to conditions throughout the century of Northern Ireland, the difference this time is that the dynamics have changed in a number of ways. Brexit has had the effect of crystalizing many issues, but the United Kingdom is breaking up anyway. Scotland is heading for the exit at some point, and English Nationalism in control at Westminster shows little sensitivity to Northern Ireland.


The Republic of Ireland, while far from being utopia, has moved socially forward in terms of equal marriage, divorce, abortion; indeed, many ethnic minority groups are assimilating into a “new Ireland.” Many younger Protestants see it as an attraction.


Inside Northern Ireland, the demographics are changing. Unionism is no longer in an overall majority.


It would be a mistake, though, for those opponents of Unionism to see internal tensions and difficulties of that community as an opportunity to take advantage. Simply winning a Border poll for reunification could result in creating a Unionist community which is resentful of its minority position.


Many Protestants are now thinking what was unthinkable in our recent past, of seriously considered changed constitutional arrangements. This debate within Unionism often goes under the radar, often when people with views that do not conform to the norm are raised they are ridiculed.


This can mean a disconnect between political Unionism and civic Unionism. Recent polls show a further fragmentation of Unionism, with some moving to the right and the TUV, others shifting to the middle group of, for example, Alliance, and many others opting out and not voting at all.


However, it has to be said that most Unionists still treasure their British identity. Engaging them must take into account how their culture and way of life can be respected. And the conversation needs to also be centered around  how health, education and the economy, among other parts of society can be organized in a society for the benefit of all groups.