Wednesday, April 05, 2006


Unionism and its lack of direction

The flag used during the RisingPaul over at N. Irish Magyar drew my attention to this interesting article by Dr John Coulter who argues that unionists should participate in the 1916 Rising celebrations. Now normally I would support such a view but I take issue with a number of things Coulter writes, mainly as I disagree with the reasons he puts forward for unionist involvement.

Over on Paul's blog it's fair to say I deviated from the actual article itself (I focused on how I felt Coulter's attitude summed up the lack of direction that pervades modern unionism), but I figured I ought to take a more in-depth look at some of the things Coulter has written about. I have done so below...

"Unionism needs to stop being selective in honouring Protestant icons who played a major political role in the types of government on this island. It is only within the past generation, that unionism decided to de-sectarianise St Paddy's Day and stop writing it off as a 'republican holiday.'

"Orangemen have marched on 17 March to honour their patron saint, and across the North this year Unionist Party branches held Irish events to honour this part of their heritage. So why not recognise Protestantism's icons connected with the Rising rather than simply dismissing them as traitors?"

When I read this I can't help feeling that Coulter is guilty of the very thing he condemns. It is indeed good that St Patrick's Day has been 'de-sectarianised' because St Patrick's legacy is in bringing Christianity to Ireland and both Catholics and Protestants are Christians. However, Coulter goes on to argue that unionists should commemorate the Rising because of the participation of Protestants. What does it matter who was Protestant and who was Catholic? Coulter himself seems to want to 'sectarianise' the Easter rebellion.

"Was it not Edward Carson himself who started the treason by bringing in weapons and bullets from Germany to arm the Ulster Volunteers? Was it not Carson and James Craig who condemned Southern unionists to their fate at partition?

"If ever there was The Great Betrayal in unionism's cultural history it was the Carsonite policy of not supporting Southern unionism."

This is an important point and one I would agree with.

"How come its now perfectly acceptable for unionists to honour the Ballycarry teenager William Nelson, a Presbyterian who was hanged by the English for his role in the 1798 rebellion by the United Irishmen?

"Yet nowadays unionism ignores Protestants such as the Ballymena Academy educated Sir Roger Casement of the Irish Volunteers, and Broughshane's Captain Jack White who drilled the Irish Citizens Army – both key characters of the Rising."

Hmm. This is what I touched upon earlier. Those men didn't feel their Protestantism was relevant to the Rising so why should Coulter, or any of us for that matter? I think unionism has focused on Protestantism for long enough. Does it not have anything to offer Catholics?

"Are unionists this Easter also going to rub out the memories of other leading Northern Protestants who had major connections with the Rising, such as the journalists Sean Lester from Carrickergus and Ernest Blythe of Lisburn – both of whom were active in the Irish Republican Brotherhood? And what about Bulmer Hobson, another Protestant nationalist of that era?

"Unionists also seem to conveniently forget the Catholics who fought for King Billy at the Boyne as well as the thousands of Presbyterians who fought with Protestant revolutionary Wolfe Tone in 1798.

"Unionism will not even recognise the existence of Protestants like Casement and White in April 1916, yet they will march proudly each 1 July to commemorate the thousands of Catholics who died on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916."

To be honest I'd much prefer to see unionists get past the religious aspect of things and simply acknowledge the significant contributions that Irish people have made to Ireland, Britain and the rest of the world.

"If unionism continues to refuse to recognise its Protestant heritage, it will soon rapidly deteriorate into nothing more than a two-county movement in Antrim and Down."

I think the opposite. I think if unionism continues to focus on its Protestant heritage whilst ignoring other cultures and creeds it will become ever smaller until eventually it fades away into oblivion, much like the Home Rulers they once so vociferously opposed.

"What Protestants need is a strong dose of Revolutionary Unionism – an ideology which forces them to consider their all-island heritage and culture. And don't dismiss Revolutionary Unionism because of the so-called numbers game."

There is a need for revolutionary unionism alright but it doesn't involve looking back to the past but looking ahead to the future and figuring out what kind of society they think they can exist in happily and successfully. Thinking ahead - that would be revolutionary for unionism!

"Unionists snub the 90th anniversary of the Rising at their peril. The centenary in 2016 could well see a united Ireland under the banner of the European Union."

I wouldn't go that far but they will be in a bad state if they continue to go down the path they are going down right now.

"How many more Protestant icons will unionism have destroyed by then? The hard fact is that in heritage and cultural terms, unionists are their own worst enemies."

Unionists are their worst enemies in heritage and cultural terms but that's because their view of culture and heritage is too narrow and linear. Coulter doesn't realise that he is actually advocating more of the same. He's not offering a new direction - he's offering merely a new path, one which involves utilising Protestant icons that are currently associated with Irish republicanism.

As I explained on Paul's site, that merely highlights how desperate unionism has become. They need to steer clear of focusing on icons, symbols and so forth. They need to engage with Catholics. They need to engage with the other side.

Coulter offers unionists a new path but he keeps them on the same doomed course they are going down at present. It is a course that will lead unionists to a dead-end, into a future that is bleak, uncertain and filled with more of the same negativity and rejectionism.

In my opinion, unionists need to accept the fact that they are lost now. They are led by an old fool who is leading them down the road to ruin. However all hope is not yet lost. Unionists need to realise they can go a different direction. They need to find a smarter leader who understands that a new route must be taken, a united path, one which will lead to a reconciliation with nationalists and which will provide happiness and success for future generations.

I agree with Coulter that unionists should participate in the 1916 commemorations. Not on religious grounds but on the grounds that it was an event that was significant for Irish history. Unionists need only look at British Ambassador to Ireland, Stuart Eldon, who it was announced will attend the celebrations in Dublin marking the Rising. Unionists in both the UUP and the DUP reacted with fury at the news but the British are merely acknowledging that it was a major event for both Irish and British history, one which would set about a shift in British attitudes towards nations in its Empire. The failure of unionists to accept or understand this is telling.

You know, it has often been said that the 1916 Rising saw the first shots of the War of Independence which would officially begin in 1919. I think that's a fair comment but the key thing to note here is that while the Irish war with Britain ended with the Treaty in 1921, that war is still very much alive for the unionists.

The Irish state and its British counterpart have gone down new paths and new roads yet unionism is still on the same old road, the same old path, that it travelled down at the time the Rising took place. Maintaining the Union, holding on to 6 counties etc. The route is still the same. Sure there have been a few stops along the way, a few roadblocks so to speak, but they press on. Wandering down that same old route. Alone. Still wandering...

Wandering down the road to ruin.


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