Friday, February 24, 2006


Unionism in the 21st century

You did well, sir! "Unionism is a fraud and a deception. The people who have been most defrauded and deceived are the political minority on this island who have been deluded into believing that unionism offers the only salvation to their tribe."

The above words are from historian Brian Feeney who offered a critique of unionism and its role in the 21st century on the BBC's Hearts and Minds programme last night. It was an interesting show and I taped it in order to evaluate it thoroughly. In the studio to challenge him were Dermot Nesbitt of the UUP and Sammy Wilson of the DUP. Seeing as I posted here on the previous programme which analysed nationalism, I thought I would likewise scrutinise some of the main points associated with Mr Feeney's analysis of unionism. Feeney states:

"Inevitably, time moves on. Now unionism has no future, only a past. Unionism has delivered its adherents nothing. On every measurement scale, the north of Ireland is bottom."

Harsh words but completely true. At least the actions of Irish Republicans in the early 20th century have been somewhat justified by the success of the Irish Republic, however Ireland's north has been a failure since day one. A sad indicication of a negative political ideology.

"The Republic of Ireland is a modern, skills-based, technological economy producing for example most Intel chips for Europe near Leixlip and all Dell computers for Europe, the Middle-East and Africa at Limerick. Ireland attracts about 10% of all US investment in Europe. In 2004 alone, there was 10 billion dollars of new US investment in the Republic, whereas the British taxpayer funds two-thirds of the North's salaries."

Puts things into perspective doesn't it and it perhaps explains why the British Secretary of State Peter Hain has declared the north 'unsustainable' in the long term and why he has recommended an all-Ireland economy.

"You never hear anyone, even a unionist, talking about the future of unionism. No unionist can tell you where he wants to be in 10 years. The closest you will get to an answer is that they want to be in the same place as they are now. All change is viewed as debit, loss, negative. Yet change happens despite unionists."

Feeney is spot-on. Unionists are not at all future-focused. There are no goals, no objectives, no long-term targets. They continue to grasp and clutch tightly everything they currently possess, however they are squeezing too tightly and putting too much pressure upon themselves.

"With legally guaranteed equality for nationalists, in a rights-based society, the very purpose of unionism no longer exists. The law now protects unionist's rights in a way which makes a tribal reservation for them unnecessary."

A fantastic point by Mr Feeney and it begs the question - if unionism has moved beyond its original purpose, what future does it have? Remember that unionism was not built upon a desire to see Ireland divided, on the contrary many unionists, like Ulster Unionist leader Edward Carson, opposed such a division. So is modern-day unionism going to spawn itself into some sort of pro-partitionist ideology or will it stay true to its heritage?

"The north of Ireland no longer belongs to unionists. It's a bi-national state, with Irish officials intimately engaged in every nook and cranny of the place. Unionism represents the past, privilege, inequality, social and economic backwardness. There can no longer be any selfish, economic or strategic interest in anyone being a unionist."

Mr Feeney concludes with the noteworthy points made above. There is nothing to encourage anyone these days to embrace unionism. Partition has failed and failed miserably. A divided Ireland sees us in a society where we all lose out, particularly those north of the border.

Overall it was an excellent piece by Mr Feeney and in the studio debate I thought Mr Feeney conducted himself superbly and I thought he made eejits out of Nesbitt and Wilson respectively. It was almost a role reversal of the nationalist programme where the SDLP's Mark Durkan and Sinn Féin's Mitchell McLaughlin ended up rubbishing the foolish claims put forward by Denis Kennedy of the Cadogan Group. I figured I ought to rate the performance of the panellists:

Dermot Nesbitt - Poor old Dermot. I'll outline his opening gambit to presenter Noel Thompson on Mr Feeney:

"Well you introduced Brian as a historian. I have to say you are living in the past. You are genuinely a historian, Brian. You won't even look to the future."

Good man, Dermot! Start with an ad hominem attack, that will help your case! Dermot then went and made a bizarre speech about the EU and the SNP in Scotland but it didn't seem to have a point. Mr Thompson then asked him where he wished to be in ten years and he stated he wanted a "United Kingdom at ease with itself" (wouldn't that involve being free of NI?). He then went on about Gaelic and how he supported the Irish rugby team, but again he didn't seem to have a point. Just what was he talking about?

Dermot Nesbitt then laughably accused nationalism of being stuck in the past and blasted the 1930's attitude of wanting to break down borders. Perhaps Mr Nesbitt could give his thoughts on the unionist celebration of the Battle of the Boyne, an event that occurred in 1690!

Sammy Wilson - I thought Dermot Nesbitt was bad but then Sammy Wilson came along and made him look half decent. Let's start with Sammy's opening gambit to Noel Thompson on Mr Feeney, shall we:

"You introduced Brian as a commentator, Dermot has dealt with the historical side of the description..I've got to say, the kind of bigoted, partisan rant that we had hardly does him credit as an objective commentator and it's certainly not a picture of Northern Ireland that I think many people listening to this programme would recognise."

Oh dear. Poor Sammy got a bit confused. As presenter Noel Thompson had to point out to him, Brian Feeney wasn't actually brought in to be an objective commentator as he was offering a critique on unionism from a nationalist standpoint! Did you get a load of Wilson slagging off Feeney by calling him a bigot? Leaving aside the ridiculous situation of a man who works for Ian Paisley branding someone a bigot, here we see another unionist criticising the person rather than the argument itself. Of course there was nothing bigoted in Mr Feeney's piece at all and it just goes to show how desperate Wilson was that he had to resort to the 'B' card. To top it off, Wilson went on to laughably state that the North had a better education system than the rest of Europe!

Brian Feeney - He did very well and made a good point when he outlined that any change made to the status quo in the North came about because unionists were compelled to change. We're all aware of the Civil Rights Campaign and as Feeney told presenter Noel Thompson:

"At any stage between 1974 and 1998, unionists could have had a power-sharing arrangement with the SDLP - they refused to do that. They refused to countenance that. The same applies to any council. Now they're compelled that if there's going to be any kind of renewal of executive, they must have partnership. The next stage is they will be compelled to have partnership in local councils. So whatever movement is made they are compelled to make. There is no goodwill. They insist on no change."

I should point out that none of the above information was countered, queried or disputed by either of the unionist panellists. Feeney went on to point out how the unionists had resorted to attacking him rather than his argument and he made a total mockery of Wilson's silly claims that the North had the best education system in Europe which was truly a joy to behold. Feeney pointed out the flaws of the education and how it was failing those within unionist working class communities:

"We heard from Sammy that it's the best education system in Europe. Absolute rubbish. And in fact the problem is that unionists refuse to change the education system because the unionist working class is the worst affected. In somewhere like unionist west Belfast, it isn't the case of 1% passing the eleven plus, in some cases it's a case of one individual. Now that's outrageous yet they cling to that system which fails their own people.

Sammy kept his mouth shut after that and Mr Nesbitt didn't touch on it either!

My ratings on the debate:

Dermot Nesbitt - Outclassed and incoherent.

Sammy Wilson - Embarrassing. Shouldn't have been there.

Brian Feeney - Outstanding. He was articulate and made two panellists look very poor.

Overall, a good show. If you missed it I'd recommend you catch the rerun which can be viewed on the BBC's site here and you can make your own mind up.

I'm not clear on what the future holds for unionism I must admit but from what I've heard from Dermot Nesbitt and Sammy Wilson, they're not too clear on it either!


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