The Positive Force of Civic Unionism

COMMENT: Union 2021 – Civic unionism has secured union argues AARON EDWARDS

Predictions are inherently unreliable. Few people thought the Cold War would end as quickly as it did, or that the ‘troubles’ would finally witness a transformation from long war to long peace.

However, it is probably safe to assume that the union will still hold the same importance in the hearts and minds of Ulster Protestants in 2021 that it did when the Northern Ireland state was formed a century earlier.

Then the union was on reasonably firm foundations. Senior members of the British establishment warmed to the idea of a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

As Alex Kane suggested in his essay, unionist resilience has always been the glue binding the union together. It is unlikely its adhesiveness will wither, having survived the onslaught of the Provisional IRA’s terrorist campaign and continuing dissident republican violence.

The prospect of a future Sinn Fein First Minister is, of course, another test for unionist resilience. Yet unionists must ask themselves what kind of democracy they want to see take root in Northern Ireland. Do they want a pluralist, secular and civic one, or a narrow-minded, ethnic-based vision for the future?

The choice is indeed a stark one.

As an Ulsterman who now lives and works in England, I am constantly reminded of the positive force of civic unionism. And how it has helped build, shape and safeguard this great nation of ours.

It never ceases to amaze me just how many other Ulster men and women have become an integral part of the fabric of British society, especially when they have crossed the Irish Sea.

And although the ‘brain drain’ is looked upon as something negative in Northern Ireland, it nonetheless gives unionism a steadfast anchor to the mainland.

As George Orwell once wrote ‘Christianity and international socialism are as weak as straw’ in comparison with ‘patriotism, national loyalty’. It could be argued that civic unionism has been instrumental in helping to shape a pluralist form of British identity for generations.

In this respect it ought to be possible nowadays to value the union in a manner that is both positive and outward-looking. A good friend of mine once wrote that his idea of a civic form of unionism was of “a group of people coming together in a community compromised of responsible men and women,” who are “working without fear; who are working in comradeship; who are working for common ends; who are working to develop their full stature and realise their full potential; who are working to ensure that every citizen has adequate time, scope and opportunity for pleasure and social enjoyment”.

There is much to cherish in this egalitarian vision for the union.

And even though the leftist trappings of this brand of progressive unionism are apparent – and may prove somewhat inimical towards unionist unity – they do leave the door open for greater co-operation across the communal divide.

While the prospects for such left-of-centre co-operation would certainly be welcome respite from the narrow sectarianism underpinning Northern Irish political culture, it can only be realised with hard work and determination.

History is instructive here.

It reveals how previous noble attempts to organise politically across sectarian lines tragically floundered on the rocks of narrow-minded ‘little Ulsterism’. The Progressive Unionists in the 1930s and the Northern Ireland Labour Party in the 1950s and 1960s were destroyed by beleaguered and self-interested politicians who did not have a civic unionist bone in their bodies.

With this in mind a genuinely pluralist vision for the union would enable those from across unionism’s left-right spectrum to work in comradeship to preserve their British identity.

For now the union is safe.

Over the next decade one can expect both peaceful and violent challenges to this position.

Republicans will undoubtedly increase the political and military pressure on unionists in time for their own centenary commemorations in 2016.

Nevertheless, they will again be strategically defeated if the positive force of civic unionism can marshal greater intellectual and practical support for the union.


This article originally appeared in the Belfast Newsletter as part of their Union 2021 series on 17 September 2010.



About aaronedwards2012

Historian, Writer, Academic. Views all my own.
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