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What Future Unionism?
David Rose
At 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.
If 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.
Revisionist 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 Fein.
In 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 Both the '32 county socialist republic' and 'legitimate armed struggle' have been replaced by a modern civil rights agenda, resulting in an avalanche of votes and international good will.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.
At 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.
In 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.
Unionists 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?
Having 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.
Enshrining 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, the
(i) Right to express loyalty to the Head of State and/or the Peoples.
By doing this Unionists would be laying the foundation of broad-based Unionism, capable of garnering sufficient support for the struggle against single identity nationalism.
Just 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.
If 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      



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