Thursday, May 25, 2006


Thursday Thoughts: Unionism dying

A long time ago... I think unionism is in its death throes.

If you watched on Monday the reaction from the DUP to the failed attempt to elect a First and Deputy First Minister to the North's Assembly, you would have found yourself shaking your head at how low unionism has sunk.

As I sat there observing the shrewd and astute Peter Robinson standing beside the snarling, incoherent Ian Paisley, it dawned on me that this long-term bigot and his party are pretty much all unionism has to show for itself now.

After all, as Paisley himself pointed out, the Ulster Unionists have effectively sold their soul by entering into an alliance with the Progressive Unionist Party, the political wing of the UVF, a paramilitary who have NOT decommissioned, who have NOT upheld a ceasefire and who have NOT shown a willingness to end their campaign of violence. It's now reached the farcical stage where Ian Paisley is now claiming he can't go into government with the UUP either because of their links to terrorists.

As if that wasn't bad enough, unionism has also been rocked by the revelations that have emerged in relation to the Orange Order who according to former members such as Rev Kennaway and David Trimble, were protecting loyalist terrorists and turning a blind eye to sectarian murders. Trimble went so far as to claim the Orange Order conspired to damage the peace process. Infighting, ignorance and intransigence characterises modern-day unionism and is heading unionism on the road to oblivion. But should we mourn the loss of the unionist ideology?

No, we should not. The reality is that unionism is not an ideology that has a glorious foundation. In fact, here in the 21st century, unionism's only function is to continue Partition - which was something unionist hero Edward Carson himself opposed. Unionism's original purpose was not borne out of ethnic aspirations or self-determination, it was borne out of religious bigotry and the attempt at political dominance. In other words, the continuation of the Protestant Ascendancy. Home Rule was bad because it was "Rome Rule".

If one goes back to the days of the Plantations, there was always a fear from the settlers that the native population would rise up in response to having their land seized from them and given to English and Scottish planters. This was to eventually occur in 1641 when many Protestants were brutally massacred by Catholics. The response by the Protestant settlers was to keep the natives in check and the Protestant Ascendancy soon became dominant.

In the latter half of the 18th century, it is fascinating to see how the Protestants, secure in their power, began to take an interest in Gaelic antiquity through groups like the Patriots and how they began to develop and strengthen the idea of a distinct Irish national consciousness. I wrote back in February about the 1782 Dungannon Convention which saw Ulster Volunteers in Dungannon, the majority Protestant, trying to ensure that Ireland was granted legislative independence which eventually occurred, abeit briefly, through 'Grattan's parliament'. By 1782 there were 40,000 enlisted in the Volunteers and half of them were from Ulster. It's worth remembering though that Catholics didn't have the right to vote or take a seat in parliament at this point in time.

Following the United Irish rebellion however, orchestrated mainly by Presbyterians who were themselves discriminated against, we then see a shift as Protestants begin to embrace the idea of Union whereas Catholics continue the idea of a distinct Irish national consciousness. We then see the Irish people again demanding legislative independence and asking for Home Rule yet this time it is mainly the Protestant people who thwart these efforts. Why? Because they see the benefit of remaining in the Union and being able to ensure that Catholics, who were the majority in Ireland, didn't come to dominate political matters. Thus, unionism is born and efforts are made to ensure that the 'Papists' don't get their own parliament in Dublin.

It's worth pointing out too that unionists threatened Partition BEFORE Irish people demanded to leave the UK, which began to seriously occur after the 1916 Rising. Thus, we must counter revisionist efforts to portray unionism as an attempt to remain in the UK. The fact is Home Rule would have left Ireland within the UK and posed no threat to Britishness in Ireland. Furthermore, prior to the Union itself, it was the Protestants who could be regarded in the strictest sense of the word as 'nationalists' since they were at the forefront in developing the Irish national identity. I would thus argue that the polarization in the north of nationalists and unionists is a foolish pursuit in light of the historical facts.

There is no glory attached to unionism. It is built on efforts to promote dominance of one religion over another. In this day and age, such sectarian attitudes are unnecessary. The Irish Republic today has people of many faiths and colours and there is no prospect of unionist people being discriminated against in a United Ireland, regardless of their religion.

Modern-day unionists know this. That is why we are seeing unionism imploding dramatically. The siege mentality has lasted a remarkably long time but the world at large has had an external influence upon the unionist mindset. Ireland's south has evolved and become financially strong and multicultural, Britain too has become multicultural and has distanced itself from the north of Ireland.

As a result of this, we now witness unionists desperately trying to grab hold of something to give the unionist ideology meaning. Unfortunately for them, due to the IRA removing themselves from the political equation last year, this trump card of unionism has been lost and the cards that unionism is dealing with at this point in time are not doing any good whatsoever.

Ireland will be united and it will be united in the near future. Unionists need to ask themselves if there is any logical reason why this should be something to fear. There is no room for religious or political discrimination in this day and age. Numerous nationalities have made the Irish Republic their home and have experienced few difficulties. In the future we will witness Polish-Irish, Romanian-Irish and Nigerian-Irish families living in the Republic so why couldn't the same be true of British-Irish people living in a United Irish Republic?

Is there a good reason for modern-day Protestants to maintain the division of the Irish nation that their ancestors worked so hard to promote and nurture?

Protestants have believed in an Irish national consciousness, Presbyterians have believed in an Irish Republic that caters to all faiths and Catholics have believed that they have a right to have a voice.

A United Irish republic is the culmination of all these wishes. Unionism's ultimate aim was for a sectarian state that ensured a Protestant ascendancy. That was not a laudable aim. The aim of those Protestants who believed in an Irish national identity was laudable, the aim of the Presbyterians who believed in an Irish Republic was laudable. The modern day Irish Republic is built upon these very principles. All of us now here in Ireland, Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter, can come together in a United Ireland and respect the noble and laudable aspects of our past.

Unionism is dying. I urge today's Protestants to finish it off.


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