the dawn of the 21st century British Unionism appears to be in terminal
decline. The Conservative Party no longer commands mass support outside
the English Home Counties, having long ago been eclipsed by Nationalist
parties in Wales and Scotland. And in Northern Ireland, though still commanding
majority support, Unionism seems ill equipped to meet the challenge posed
by the rising tide of Nationalism. Like Public Schools, the House of Lords
and Monarchy itself, Unionism appears dated and irrelevant in the modern
world. Most disturbing of all, Unionists throughout the UK have failed to
articulate a fresh approach. Be it the Tories carping about Europe or Ulster
Unionists clinging to their imagined golden age, Unionism's only vision
comes from the past.
the Unionist ideal dies its leaders will bear a heavy burden of responsibility.
By failing to recognize the changing nature of the UK they have allowed
Unionism to stagnate to a point where many see it as a protest movement,
devoted to the preservation of institutions and morality conceived in the19th
century. To avoid terminal decay Unionists must be prepared for a painful
period of revision.
Unionism by its very nature will offend. If it is to provide a political
platform relevant in the modern world the cause of Unionism's decay, no
matter how painful, must be identified and discarded. Sacred cows can simultaneously
be the original source of legitimacy and eventual cause of decline. Being
inviolate the philosophy they represent cannot evolve, and inevitably it
loses relevance which, alongside the symbolism, fades into the past. New
thinking can have the opposite effect. For proof look no further than Sinn
a generation Sinn Fein has moved their supporters from a narrow 19th century
nationalist agenda to a broad based republican platform, and in doing so
have proved how powerful political revision can be. Both the '32 county
socialist republic' and 'legitimate armed struggle' have been replaced by
a modern civil rights agenda, resulting in an avalanche of votes and international
good will. I say good luck to them. All political parties present their
interpretation of history, the most convincing win elections. My concern
is how well Unionism will respond.
present the Unionist establishment resembles a rump. Traumatised by rapid
decline they compensate by fighting each other. The Tories play King Canute
over Europe, and mainstream Unionism in Northern Ireland, unable to imagine
life without the IRA, tears itself apart. In their hearts they know the
game is up for 19th century political philosophies, only stubborn pride
and self-interest prevents them admitting it. Progressive Unionist thinkers
throughout the UK must reverse this trend and begin the task of revision.
Failure to act will aid the collapse of Unionism.
some quarters revisionism is well established. The present peace process
in Northern Ireland is built on political arrangements advocated by a generation
of Loyalists, incarcerated for resisting violent nationalism. As far back
as the 1970's when the Unionist and Nationalist establishments clung to
outdated dogma, Loyalists were advocating dialogue, agreement and flexibility
as the road to peace. Today agreement has been reached and though dialogue
is not yet universal, it is common. And to their credit mainstream politicians
heeded Loyalist wisdom and adopted a more flexible approach. Unionism throughout
the UK should fearlessly follow suit.
must ask themselves some tough questions. In the 21st century, what does
Unionism stand for? Can Unionism accommodate British republicanism? Is it
logical for British Unionists to be the most vocal opponents of European
Unionism? Why does Unionism flourish in the USA and flounder in the UK?
And most important of all, how can Unionism broaden its image and appeal?
spent two days writing this I'm not letting you away without giving my two
pennies worth. As I see it British Unionism needs to reinvent itself as
a movement based on principled opposition to nationalist politics. Painfully
for the Thatcherite Right and traditional Ulster Unionists this will require
them to acknowledge and reject their own Home Counties and Ulster Protestant
nationalisms. If they did, de-nationalised Unionism could adopt a set of
democratic principles designed to protect identity through collective co-operation.
the finest elements of the US Constitution, Treaty of Rome and United Nations
Charter a set of Unionist Principles should include commitments to support:
(a) Peaceful democratic politics.
(b) International Institutions.
(c) International legislation on human rights.
(d) Minority inclusion.
(e) Individual and collective responsibilities.
(f) Universal access to education.
(g) Religious freedom.
(h) Legislated separation of Church and State, and most controversially,
(i) Right to express loyalty to the Head of State and/or the Peoples.
doing this Unionists would be laying the foundation of broad-based Unionism,
capable of garnering sufficient support for the struggle against single
imagine how good positive Unionism would be. As Nationalists call on people
to separate, Unionists would draw them together. When Nationalists demand
their rights, Unionists would talk of collective responsibility. And where
Nationalists preach absolute solidarity to an imposed identity, Unionists
would advocate freedom of expression. But most important of all by modeling
its principles on established unionist entities like the European Union,
USA and United Nations; the UK would no longer rely on divisive British
nationalism for legitimacy.
Unionism ever finds the courage to revise itself, it is entirely possible
that Unionist principles might prove attractive to Irish Republicans. With
Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter protected and loyalty to royalty an option,
Republicans might seize the moment and undo the damage done in 1920 when
nationalism divided the peoples of these Islands, despite having no UK mandate
to do so.
David Rose is a History Teacher and Chairperson of the North Down Branch,
Progressive Unionist Party