Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Only irrational GAWA would support the Republic

Losing the World Cup Play-Off to a disputed penalty goal was a gut-wrenching experience for Northern Ireland fans. The faithful supporters who returned from Basel earlier this week might have expected to come home to a country commiserating with its team and reflecting on its achievements, through regional TV, radio and newspapers.

Instead they were faced with provocative demands to back the Republic in its play-off match against Denmark and accusations of sectarianism, based on information that was at least a generation out of date.

The Green and White Army weren’t surprised. They’re used to facing ill-disguised hostility, ignorance and a lack of empathy from sections of the media, including public service broadcasters, whose remit is supposed to be Northern Ireland alone.

The supporters’ hurt feelings are understandable, but do some of their critics have a point? For instance, should Northern Ireland fans show more generosity and cheer on the country country to their south?

The question not only completely misunderstands the nature of football rivalry; it willfully ignores recent history between the two teams and the current situation as regards player eligibility.

Under highly controversial FIFA rules, the Republic of Ireland is entitled to pick footballers from across the island, and for a number of years its governing body, the FAI, has aggressively recruited young players who are already in the Northern Ireland youth setup.

The consequences are easy to understand and add up to a very simple equation. If the Republic team performs more successfully than Northern Ireland, the share of media attention it commands will increase (particularly north of the border) and players and spectators will head south.

When journalists. politicians and other commentators pompously demand that the Green and White Army supports its neighbours in a World Cup play-off, they’re asking fans to do something that’s blatantly detrimental to their team. More than that - no-one who genuinely has Northern Ireland’s interests at the forefront of their mind could possibly back the Republic in such a critical game.

They might have other motives for making that decision, but the welfare of the IFA’s team is not one of them.

Why should supporters act irrationally, against their own interests, just because people who want to prove their own worthiness, and in whose lives football is usually just a minor background noise, say they should? Is it any wonder the GAWA reacts to this chatter with utter disdain?  

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Is the UUP dying?

The UUP last generated energy and excitement when it formed an electoral pact with the Conservatives. Can its new leader find another 'big idea' to inspire an electoral revival, or is the party slowly dying? 

A couple of weekends ago, the UUP held its annual conference. For a party that now struggles to command media attention, it was a particularly important event, because the BBC covered its leader’s speech live and aired a party political broadcast the previous evening.

It's just six months since Robin Swann took over from Mike Nesbitt and then immediately faced a general election, which saw the UUP lose its two Westminster seats. At the conference in Armagh, the Ulster Unionists’ new leader had an opportunity to explain his brand of unionism and most of the coverage focussed on two policies and two buzzwords contained in Mr Swann’s speech.

The UUP opposed the idea that an Irish Language Act is needed in Northern Ireland and it supported changing the way an Executive is formed at Stormont, arguing that ministers should make up a voluntary rather than a mandatory coalition. Swann also described his party as ‘radical moderates’ and claimed they articulate something called ‘new unionism’, though commentators soon pointed out that he didn’t explain what either of these terms meant.

There is nothing particularly wrong with any of these positions and phrases, but they’re not enough to define the party’s purpose or inspire its recovery in elections. Voluntary coalition is a laudable aim, but it’s been discussed for years, and institutional reform is unlikely to excite potential voters.

Likewise, an Irish Language Act is potentially divisive and could change Northern Ireland very profoundly, but opposing it is not a political programme. And while ‘radical moderates’ and ‘new unionism’ are catchy phrases, they’re unoriginal and could mean almost anything.

It would be desperately harsh at this stage to judge Robin Swann for not delivering a ‘big idea’ that finally makes Ulster Unionism relevant to the electorate again. His two predecessors, Mike Nesbitt and Tom Elliott, struggled for a combined total of seven years to explain what the UUP is all about, how it differs from the DUP and why the public should support it.

The Ulster Unionists last generated energy and excitement outside their own party when they formed an electoral pact with the Conservatives, under Sir Reg Empey's leadership.   

‘UCUNF’ was attacked and mocked by its opponents and critics, precisely because it had potential to change politics in Northern Ireland. The abuse it took from the DUP was particularly vehement, because that party was worried that the Ulster Unionists had finally found a way to challenge its dominance.

It didn’t help that UCUNF was mismanaged from the start. The UUP was unwieldy, undisciplined and contained influential members who were determined to sabotage the pact.

A prominent saboteur was the party’s MP, Sylvia Hermon, the plummy North Down ‘Lady’ who swanned around church halls and fetes in her constituency like she’d been raised in the Shires, but told anyone who would listen, "I am not a Tory”. Ironically, many of her voters were convinced that she was a Conservative by instinct, and wouldn’t hear differently, according to those who campaigned against her.   

While she stayed away from the UUP conference in 2009, ostentatiously walking her dog on Ballyholme beach instead, Michael McGimpsey delivered a speech lauding historical Labour figures, while the Conservatives’ William Hague waited to address the party.

That tension came from representatives who considered themselves ‘centre-left’. But for other UUP figures, David Cameron’s Conservatives were not nearly right wing enough. David McNarry, who later joined UKIP, told an audience of Orange Order members that the Tories were ‘wide-boy liberalistas’.

Some Ulster Unionists actively opposed UCUNF, some of their hearts just weren’t in it and yet more saw the deal as little more than a convenient gimmick to get votes. There were constant disagreements between the party and Conservative activists in Northern Ireland, who were often treated like an inconvenient nuisance, rather than genuine political partners.

UCUNF performed strongly in the 2009 European Parliamentary election, but after a series of controversies and rows about candidate selection, it didn’t win any seats in the 2010 General Election. In comparison to some subsequent campaigns the result was not as bad as it was portrayed - the pact claimed more than fifteen per cent of the vote, without standing in Fermanagh South Tyrone - but no MPs meant that, without a doubt, it had failed.

The UUP didn’t ditch the Conservative deal officially, perhaps because Jim Nicholson MEP had been elected on a joint ticket, and preferred to let it fizzle out. Initially, the Tories seemed keener to keep UCUNF alive, but, when it became clear that the Ulster Unionists wanted to keep their options open without making any further commitments, the decision was taken to relaunch the Northern Ireland Conservatives instead. A letter from the Tory chairman, Lord Feldman, demanded that the UUP disband to join the repackaged NI Conservatives and that signalled the end of the pact.

After a rather bitter break-up, it was understandable that most activists, from either party, remembered UCUNF with little fondness. None of which means that it had no merit or that it had been a bad strategy.

This was one of the few initiatives from unionists that had a chance of binding Northern Ireland more closely to the political life of the rest of the nation. At its best, it was inspired by bold thinking and big ideas about the future of the United Kingdom. At its worst, it was disfigured by party political bickering and petty rivalries.

That moment has passed, and unfortunately I don’t think, as my friend Ben Lowry speculated on a recent BBC Talkback programme, that the relationship between the UUP and the Conservatives can be repaired. The Tories now have a much more tangible need for support at Westminster from ten DUP MPs, whose votes are required if the government is to deliver Brexit, set a budget and prevent Jeremy Corbyn from becoming Prime Minister.

The Ulster Unionists could only ever hope to become distant junior partners in a broader Conservative & unionist coalition.

With that option closed down, at least for the foreseeable future, it’s hard to see what the UUP’s next ‘big idea’ might be. Mike Nesbitt came closest to redefining the party when he tried to forge a broad, cross-community alliance against DUP / Sinn Fein government, by forming an official opposition to the Executive and making overtures to the SDLP.

His efforts were undermined by a cool response from Colum Eastwood, the nationalist party’s attempts to use Brexit to provoke a border poll and his own refusal to rule out future pacts with the DUP. Now, there is no Northern Ireland Executive, never mind an official opposition, and if the current, endless talks do result in a deal, it’s unclear whether the Ulster Unionists will nominate a minister at Stormont.            

Perhaps Robin Swann, or another leader, will enable the UUP to finally rediscover its sense of purpose and mastermind a renaissance. Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservatives have shown that inspired leadership, and changes in the political landscape, can make the most unlikely revivals possible.

Equally, the Ulster Unionists may never again rekindle the initial hope and excitement created by UCUNF - the Conservatives and Unionists.  That stillborn revolution may yet be one of the tragic later chapters in the story of a dying political party.     

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Westminster needs better arguments rather than new parties

It’s become common to assert that Brexit has changed the contours of British politics forever.
That remains to be seen. After the UK leaves the EU, older loyalties and divisions may re-emerge, as allegiances and rivalries that developed since the referendum become irrelevant.
That hasn’t prevented some fairly animated discussion about the potential for new parties to reflect a ‘realignment’ of politics after Brexit.
Since Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left faction took charge of the Labour, there have been suggestions that its pragmatic ‘Blairite’ wing would be happier outside the party. They may or may not have enough in common with disgruntled Conservative ‘remainers’ to share a common political home.
This fabled ‘centrist’ group is joined by a ‘Radicals’ party, imagined by FT journalist, Jeremy Cliffe. He went to the trouble of drawing up a short manifesto, that combines pro-EU, pro-migrant social policies, with proposals for aggressive decentralisation and a free-market economy, driven by ‘disruptive technology’ (a buzzword for innovations that upset the status quo in industry).
At Conservative Home, Paul Goodman described the document - with its suggestions for ‘city states’, houses built on green belts and a network of high speed railways - as a prospectus “for younger voters”. Ironically, the plan for devolved ‘city states’ echoes nothing so much as the fantasies of so-called ‘neo-reactionaries’; US bloggers who have been accused of far-right sympathies.
At the website Unherd, Chris Deerin finds that Cliffe’s ideas are attractive to an “orphaned centrist”. Goodman is more wary and argues that the manifesto is not centrist at all, but in many respects lies well to the right of the Conservatives and is anathema to the “one nation” wing of that party.
At a very basic level, the coherence of the state would hardly be increased by dispersing more and more power to regions, cities or other devolved units.
David Cameron’s government talked a lot about ‘localism’ as it theorised about the ‘Big Society’. In principle, handing decision-making back to communities is a healthy instinct. The problem with many forms of devolution is that regions or cities rarely accept the sense of responsibility that should accompany their newly acquired powers. They wish to take credit for successful policies but continue to blame all their difficulties on central government.
A scheme to decentralise power and change the constitution drastically would likely lead to a more divided country with weaker allegiances to the national parliament.     
Is there any need for new parties?
Deerin’s article contains a graphic from The Times, which suggests a more realistic realignment of UK politics.
The model is skewed, because it preceded the EU referendum, but it proposes four new parties, ranging from The Solidarity Party, standing on the left for a large public sector and high taxes, through to The Freedom Party, which would equate to some of the patriotic populist movements in mainland Europe.
At least the four options outlined in this graphic describe accurately some of the prevailing thought among current politicians, though they still don’t comprise a compelling case for four entirely new political parties.
Although the direction of modern Labour has been portrayed as something new and exciting, the reality is almost the polar opposite. Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Seumas Milne and their like are bargain basement communist revolutionaries of the type that developed out of anti-establishment feeling in the 1960s and 70s.
The basis of their ideology has been tried, tested and disproved repeatedly, most recently in Venezuela. It’s a bizarre development that these escapees from Citizen Smith have been presented with a belated opportunity to champion solutions for modern, globalised, 21st century Britain, that have never worked, anywhere, ever.      
Once the dizzy hype and boisterous terrace chants around Jeremy Corbyn die down, surely the public will start to see clearly again an ageing Marxist of the most dangerous and misguided type. And even if moderates cannot regain control of Labour, then the Liberal Democrats are led by a man who describes himself as centre-left and has already appealed for solidarity between his party and Blairite MPs.
Conservative factions
The Conservatives are going through a spell of infighting, after a poor election result, with factions forming around different views on a final Brexit deal. These divisions are not necessarily permanent and neither will they inevitably bring down the government.
Theresa May has struggled to inspire the Tories with optimism or a sense of purpose, but the theories she has outlined sound a lot like rhetoric you might expect from the “socially just, economically conservative” party that The Times dubbed The Nationals.    
The Prime Minister’s big failure so far is that she hasn’t presented Conservative ideas in a way that made them sufficiently appealing to the British public. During the general election, she chose to rely too heavily on scaring voters about the prospect of a government led by Jeremy Corbyn, whose ability to lead an energetic campaign she seriously underestimated.
Yet the type of philosophy the UK needs from its leaders remains broadly the same.
They should value the positive aspects of our society that are worth preserving - like stability, prosperity and democratic liberties. They should recognise that these goods have developed because of our institutions and culture, and they should be careful that any reforms don’t damage benefits that we already enjoy.
The Tory party is an imperfect vehicle for these ideas, but it is the only mainstream party where they are articulated at all.
May’s instincts appear to be right - she has accepted the British people’s verdict on Brexit, she’s in favour of a market economy (with certain qualifications) and she prefers policies that ease divisions in society - even if her leadership and the policy detail aren’t always convincing.
Free market ideology and traditional conservatism have mingled successfully enough within the Conservatives throughout the party’s history and, if they create a certain amount of tension, it isn’t enough to justify a split. “In the battle with socialism”, Sir Roger Scruton wrote in a recent book, “the classical liberal and the conservative stand side by side”.
That leaves Brexit and the rancour it appears to be creating in the current cabinet.
Frankly, some of the protagonists could do with calming down. The UK will leave the European Union, but there is little merit in making this process harder, faster or more acrimonious than it needs to be. It’s necessary to prepare for the consequences if a deal is not possible, but the argument that agreement cannot be reached or shouldn’t be reached is rash and premature.
It would be highly irresponsible if Conservatives on either side of the Brexit debate were to jeopardise the government over their differences of opinion, as they currently stand. Particularly if their motives were really to do with ambitions and rivalries within the party.   
For activists, commentators and political enthusiasts, dreaming up new alliances, manifestoes and parties is thoroughly entertaining. For the country, rather than tearing up the system as it is currently comprised, it would be far more constructive if the existing parties were simply to perform better and articulate more compelling policies.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Irish Language Act threatens a cultural carve-up

In the recent past, there was a common idea among academics who thought and wrote about unionists, that there were broadly two types of unionism in Northern Ireland. ‘Cultural unionism’ concentrated on defending a way of life regarded as specific to Protestants in Ulster and it was most closely associated with the DUP, while ‘liberal’ or ‘British unionism’ was focussed on the UK as a whole and influenced some quarters of the UUP.

People’s attitudes and motivations can rarely be put into categories so neatly, but there was some truth to the distinction. A common Ulster Unionist jibe asserted that the DUP was an “Ulster nationalist” party with little time for UK politics or modern British society, and scarcely deserved to be called ‘unionist’ at all.

From the perspective of late 2017, it’s a lot more difficult to sustain that claim.

Whatever the merits or otherwise of Brexit, the DUP threw itself into a nationwide campaign and argued the case for the whole UK to leave the EU. Then, after the last general election, its MPs found themselves holding the ‘balance of power’ at Westminster. The party brokered a deal to support the government in key votes and established a meaningful relationship with the Conservatives.

This new emphasis on UK politics happened partly by accident - because Sinn Fein had collapsed the power-sharing executive at Stormont and left Democratic Unionists without their local political platform - but it also reflected how unionism has realigned, as voters and activists deserted the UUP.

Unfortunately, there are some ominous signs that, in order to get the Assembly up and running again, the DUP might be tempted to return to its old habits and accept a sectarian carve-up on the Irish language.   

Although the party has sent out conflicting signals, some of its representatives encourage the idea that it may back legislation to formally support Irish, if the Ulster Scots ‘language’ is included in an act as well. It’s a dangerous notion, that could change Northern Ireland considerably, on the flimsy pretext of securing equivalent money for a culture that interests a tiny majority of enthusiasts.

An Irish Language Act could mean almost anything, but campaigners most frequently cite legislation in Wales, where a much larger community speaks the native tongue and English and Welsh are legally on an “equal footing”. Sinn Fein wants the act to centre on its own paper, compiled by former culture minister Caral Ni Chuilin, which proposes ‘affirmative action’ to boost the number of Gaelic speakers in the public sector.      

Even less wide-ranging legislation could deepen divisions in our society and encourage ongoing efforts to ‘mark out’ areas with Irish street signs and other indicators of cultural ownership. Add Ulster Scots to this equation and public money may as well be used to fund a kerb-painting scheme to show exactly who lays claims to which parts of the province.

This kind of thinking reflects very accurately how power-sharing has operated in Northern Ireland since 2007. Government here has often come down to divvying up taxpayers’ money to one or other of our perceived ‘communities’, and the biggest parties’ role is to fight for their share of the spoils.

The Irish language is certainly a unique and irreplaceable part of the heritage of the British Isles. It deserves support and protection, just like many other aspects of our culture. However, Sinn Fein barely attempts to disguise the fact that it wants legislation in order to promote the “Irish national identity” because Northern Ireland “is not British”, as Michelle O’Neill claimed at the Conservative Party Conference.      

A language act, or even a wider culture act, will focus on things that divide people in Northern Ireland, rather than things that bring us together. It will take money that could be spent on services for everyone and spend it on a tiny minority whose idea of culture is making a big deal about national identity, often with transparently political motives.

If the DUP is really starting to think about politics differently, and if it aspires to keep the support of the broadest section of unionism, it should leave this legislation well alone.

This article was published first in the News Letter.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

EU's Brexit position on Ireland is contradictory

Last month the government published its Brexit position paper on ‘Northern Ireland and Ireland’ (by which it meant the Irish Republic). It was hardly a scintillating document, but at least it tried to imagine how a ‘seamless and frictionless’ border might work in practice.

In response, the EU Commission issued a set of truculent and unhelpful ‘Guiding principles for the dialogue on Ireland / Northern Ireland’. Like the British paper, it filled a great deal of space referencing the Good Friday Agreement and emphasised the importance of the peace process, but it pointedly refused to ‘put forward solutions for the Irish border’. ‘The onus to propose solutions’, it said, lies squarely with the UK.

What the commission didn’t say directly, but its negotiator Michel Barnier acknowledged in a press conference, was that the UK did propose solutions, which the EU rejected out of hand. The British paper made it clear that the government sees no need for a so-called ‘hard border’ from its perspective, and that attitude makes a lot of sense.

If the UK hopes to trade freely across the world after Brexit, there are persuasive arguments for dismantling barriers to commerce as comprehensively as possible. That’s before we consider the political sensitivities around placing customs posts and other checkpoints at the Irish border.

Whatever Mr Barnier might claim, the government is responsible only for arrangements on its side of the border. If the EU insists that elaborate infrastructure is needed in the Republic of Ireland, to protect the customs union or the single market, then that is its responsibility. Brexit supporters will point to another example of the type of bureaucratic inflexibility that justified the ‘leave’ campaign in the first place.

Of course, the two sides are engaged in a negotiation and the two papers on Ireland can’t be untangled easily from the broader strategies that both the UK and the EU 27 are pursuing.

Britain’s document was a rather clever attempt to pin responsibility for any hard border on Brussels as early as it could. If there are customs checks and physical barriers, it will be thanks to the EU rather than the UK, is the implied message. The commission’s ‘guiding principles’ try to refute that suggestion, but a lack of counter-proposals mean that its argument is less convincing.

There are probably other factors influencing the stroppy tone of Brussels’ document too.

Its negotiators are desperate to force the UK to accept a substantial bill, as part of the process of leaving the EU. Depending upon whose interpretation you accept, this is either a settling up of accounts to which Britain was previously committed, or a punitive and unreasonable bribe.        

In an attempt to strengthen their position, EU negotiators have insisted that they will not discuss a possible post-Brexit trade deal until the UK promises to pay. And although the Northern Ireland peace process is supposed to stand above this haggling over cash, most of the issues around the border are connected intimately with customs and commerce. Brussels is not prepared to resolve the more practical problems presented by Ireland, until the talks move on to a trade deal, but it doesn’t wish to say this outright.

The EU’s vague references to a “unique solution” for the island are calculated to sound like the “special status” within the European Union that nationalists have been demanding for Northern Ireland. Usually, this status is described as a way of keeping the province inside the single market and the customs union, by completing border checks on routes between Northern Ireland and Britain, rather than Northern Ireland and the Republic.

If the EU is alluding to that type of arrangement, which is flagrantly unacceptable to unionists, it could be chiefly a manoeuvre, designed to persuade Britain to accept preconditions around trade negotiations. It may also be a way of expressing solidarity with the Dublin government, which has responded to Brexit by reopening the ‘national question’ rather than addressing practical threats confronting the Republic’s economy.

If the “unique solution” is actually a genuine bid to pick apart the UK’s mandate to leave the EU and keep Northern Ireland within the single market, it’s a spectacularly ill-conceived and irresponsible strategy. A power-grab that might put trade barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, in order to prioritise a closer relationship with the Republic, would obliterate the constitutional settlement formalised through the Belfast Agreement.

Certainly, Guy Verhofstadt, the EU Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, encouraged the idea that Northern Ireland could stay in the customs union and the single market after Brexit, during his visit to Belfast this week. He even suggested that voters in the province could elect MEPs through the Republic of Ireland’s electoral system. Unless he is particularly badly informed about the peace process, he must know that this type of intervention is insensitive at best and at worst looks like an attempt to stoke separatism in the UK.

Next month, the EU 27 will meet in Brussels to decide whether there has been sufficient progress during the first tranche of negotiations to open talks on future trading arrangements. Perhaps, if the two sides come closer to agreeing about money, then their discussions on Ireland will start to flow more freely. For the time being, the EU has taken the contradictory position that the border is an issue for ‘phase 1’, yet it refuses to discuss any of the critical matters around trade or customs that are affected by ‘phase 2’.

It’s reasonable to urge the UK to be ‘flexible and imaginative’ about the Irish border, but the UK doesn’t have a responsibility to accommodate endless inflexibility and lack of imagination from the EU.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Conservatism: Ideas in Profile - review

In Roger Scruton’s view, “conservatism is what its name says it is: the attempt to conserve the community that we have…. in all matters that ensure our community’s long-term survival”. In a new book about the topic, the philosopher explores how modern conservative ideas have developed and describes a rich tradition that should help Tories examine the current state of their party critically, as well as inspiring unionists who wish to preserve Northern Ireland’s place within the United KIngdom.

Sir Roger Scruton is one of the Right’s leading contemporary thinkers and he has a rare gift for explaining complicated concepts in clear, elegant language. That talent is particularly useful in Conservatism, which is part of the ‘Ideas in Profile’ series that aims to provide ‘small introductions to big topics’.

From the ‘pre-history’ of conservative thought and its origins in the philosophy of Aristotle, the author traces a modern way of thinking that develops and qualifies theories outlined by Hobbes, Locke and Hume, which underpin the modern, democratic state. Modern conservatism emerged as a means of checking the individualism that characterised classical liberal ideas and identified a vital extra component - ‘responsibility’ - that binds together functioning societies.

Scruton says that liberals believe the state should protect personal freedoms, socialists think it ought to command the economy and redistribute wealth, while conservatives add that it should enforce responsibilities that allow communities to flourish and enable people to enjoy their liberties. Conservatism sees intrinsic virtue in institutions and traditions, which accrue over time a store of combined wisdom that would be impossible for governments or individuals to replicate by other methods.

And rather than focus exclusively on political and economic themes, Scruton examines cultural and literary ideas, because they are what “unite human beings in mutual attachment”. He describes the impact that writers like Coleridge, Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot had on the development of conservative thought, as well as movements that sought to preserve important traditions, like the Gothic Revival and the National Trust. 

In his closing chapter, Scruton looks at the state of conservative thought now. In the United Kingdom, he maintains that conservatives are a beleaguered and maligned group, particularly in academia. He detects hostility to conservatism in, “a world where free speech and free opinion are comprehensively threatened, where laughter is dangerous and where the fundamental assumptions of secular government are no longer shared by all those who enjoy its benefits”.

Yet, for that reason, conservative thought can make a vital contribution to modern politics. "In the battle with socialism", Scruton says, and he implies that the struggle is also now with a virulent form of Islam that is hostile to democratic values, "the classical liberal and the conservative stand side by side". 

In contrast to socialism and liberalism, it can be difficult to define the core tenets of conservatism precisely because conservatives are often suspicious of ideologies and dogma. Scruton’s service to conservatism is that he takes it seriously as a tradition of thought and a philosophy. His book will be helpful to anyone who wants to form clearer ideas about conserving the worthwhile things we enjoy as a society.

In Northern Ireland unionist parties value the benefits that flow from maintaining the UK - stability, prosperity and democratic liberties - more highly than the theoretical assets of a united Ireland. Irrespective of the different views on economics it encompasses, the core priorities of unionism are conservative in nature.            

To clarify their aims, and pursue them more coherently, unionists, like conservatives everywhere, would do well to start with Scruton’s new book and then read everything else that he has written.

A version of this article was printed first in the News Letter, 15 September 2017.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Unionism's reasons to be cheerful

We don’t yet know how Brexit will affect Northern Ireland exactly, but the referendum result certainly revived the nationalist trope that Irish unity is ‘inevitable’.

The Republic’s national parliament recently published plans for a forum “to achieve the peaceful reunification of Ireland”, Sinn Fein blithely assure unionists that the “British identity” will be protected in a thirty-two county state and newspaper columnists rush to tell readers that the fourth green field will soon “bloom again”. One particularly excitable author, Kevin Meagher, a former special adviser to Shaun Woodward, (remind me again why unionists didn’t trust that former secretary of state), even called his book “A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable”.
In response, unionists have challenged nationalism’s “self-regarding, single certainty” in a series of astute articles.

At the dissenter blog, a leading academic took apart the question of a “United Ireland, inevitability and Brexit” in a comprehensive essay. The economist, Dr Esmond Birnie, frisked nationalists’ economic arguments thoroughly at Think Scotland. And the website This Union published a review that tried gamely (but in vain) to find any persuasive evidence in Mr Meagher’s book that backed up his claims.

The arguments that a united Ireland is not inevitable are clear and varied. They range from the philosophical point that the path of history is not pre-determined, to more practical considerations around the economy and proof of continued public support for Northern Ireland’s membership of the United Kingdom.

Nationalists have been excited by the idea that Brexit may shift public opinion in favour of Irish unity and that has strengthened their predisposition to assume that a thirty-two county state is ‘inevitable’. They’ve received encouragement from disgruntled ‘remainers’, like the Alliance Party, who are willing to support a special status for Northern Ireland within the EU, which prioritises closer links with the Republic at the risk of distancing the province constitutionally from the rest of the UK.  

Yet opinion polling shows that there has not been a significant increase in support for a united Ireland in the aftermath of the EU referendum. In addition, the largest Northern Irish unionist party recovered from an underwhelming Assembly election result earlier in the year to deliver a decisive victory at the 2017 general election and the DUP now holds the balance of power in the UK parliament, with all the opportunities and dangers that that entails.

If Brexit has added ‘uncertainty’ to Northern Ireland’s politics, it’s not necessarily uncertainty that will benefit nationalism and disadvantage unionism.

Opportunities and threats for unionism

For thoughtful unionists, it’s easy to poke fun at people who believe in the ‘destiny’ of their perceived nation to achieve ‘independence’ or unite with another state. Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism is often quoted to add intellectual weight when we remind nationalists that one cannot predict the course of human history. It’s also a useful retort to the gloom-mongers within unionism who sometimes seem resigned to the breakup of the UK.                  

Still, if it is not inevitable that nationalists will prise apart our state successfully, neither can it be taken for granted that the Union will survive in perpetuity. Economic circumstances can change and, in any case, voters have other motivations besides the economy.

It’s important for unionists, in Northern Ireland and beyond, to think always about how the Union can be strengthened and, at the very least, to ensure that they do it no harm. I’m thinking in particular of the DUP and the Conservative government, with which it is now working in partnership.

Democratic Unionists will certainly be tempted to use their position to secure short-term benefits for Northern Ireland and demonstrate an influence on social issues to potential voters back home. The party has a grave responsibility to balance its electoral interests with a broader commitment to preserve the Union and protect the UK.

It might seem obvious to say so, but unionists have an advantage over nationalists in Northern Ireland, because the constitutional arrangements they wish to maintain are already in place. Unionism values the benefits that flow from maintaining the United Kingdom - stability, prosperity and democratic liberties - more highly than the theoretical assets of a united Ireland.

In his new book about the subject, Roger Scruton says that conservatism is “what its name says it is: the attempt to conserve the community that we have”. Though he adds “not in every particular, since, as Edmund Burke  put it, ‘we must reform in order to conserve’”. And that is an important point for the DUP, whose conservatism can sometimes look like an instinctive, visceral aversion to the modern world.

Know what you want and when you’re winning

If unionism in Northern Ireland were to articulate its priorities, what would they be?

While different types of unionist emphasise different goals and tactics, most would at least profess to wish to 1) protect the Union and Northern Ireland’s place within it 2) improve the social and material wellbeing of people in the province and 3) amplify Northern Ireland’s voice in the political affairs of the United Kingdom.

Sometimes the debate between parties on the pro-Union side obscures the fact that they share these broad aims, rhetorically at least, even if they disagree on how success should be measured.  Remember how the DUP attacked their Ulster Unionist rivals repeatedly when the UUP formed an electoral pact with the Conservatives.

Now that the Democratic Unionists are closely linked to the Tories, some figures within the party admit that they were worried by UCUNF precisely because they recognised its potential to resonate with voters. That potential was a consequence of the pact’s promise to deliver a voice for Northern Ireland in national politics.   

The DUP is much less susceptible than the UUP to attacks on its association with the Conservatives by critics from the unionist side, but it has an influence on the Westminster government that did not materialise for the Ulster Unionists. It also has the capacity to provoke enormous anger and resentment toward Northern Ireland, if it is portrayed as oblivious to the welfare of people in England, Scotland and Wales, or is seen to oppose changing attitudes that have generally been accepted across British society.  

The party could get snarled up with resisting same-sex marriage and defending “bonfire unionism” or it could put Northern Ireland at the centre of national debates that will define the future of the UK state.

While you can agree or disagree with the themes of its arguments, the DUP undeniably took part in the EU referendum at a level that was not purely parochial. Now that the Irish border is a major aspect of negotiations between the government and the European Commission, its most urgent priority should be to kill dead the idea that new trade barriers with the rest of Britain are less potentially damaging than customs posts at Newry or Londonderry.  

And rather than viewing its relationship with the Conservatives mainly as a means to bring extra money to Northern Ireland’s public sector, the DUP should be looking at its potential to rebalance our economy and make it viable. Otherwise the Tory deal could actually damage the Union (and Northern Ireland) in the longer term.

There are significant reasons for unionists to feel positive and secure at the current time. If Brexit has added an element of uncertainty, it is nothing to the potential social and economic chaos that would follow any substantive move toward a united Ireland. And if Ulster unionism’s current political representatives are sincere about wishing to have a constructive role in the political life of the nation, then there’s rarely been a better opportunity.