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Unionism(s) and Brexit – where do we go from here?

Earlier this year I was asked to comment on the difficulties facing unionism in light of the 2016 EU referendum and all that has flowed from that, including renewed energy and focus on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland. Given that Irish nationalists are keen to maintain momentum, they need to know where unionist thinking currently resides.

The first setting where these topics were explored was as part of a panel on possible Irish unification, held in County Westmeath. These initiatives, often asking those from unionist backgrounds to share their thinking, have been largely led, at least publicly, by Irish nationalists and republicans. That in itself is a sign of where confidence sits at the moment. At the event, Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald, pointed out that the UK being eased out of Europe has caused some unionists to re-examine their political loyalties and in some cases, soften their thinking around Irish unification. This claim has neither been verified nor dismissed, but there are examples of polling data and electoral results which indicate that the ‘middle ground’, whatever we take that to be, in Northern Ireland is growing.

Simultaneously, since 2016, there is the impression of a determined and vibrant movement towards securing Irish unity. That movement is no longer confined to Sinn Fein. In 2017, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, appointed Senator Mark Daly to produce a research report on what Irish unity would look like. Earlier this year, a follow-up report examined the concerns of unionists (or unionist men – I’m assured he is working to find and represent the views of unionist women). One of the (anonymous) unionist political submissions gives some insight into current thinking:

“Unionists do not have fear about a United Ireland. Unionist fear is a United Ireland.”

What does that mean for unionism?

It has become increasingly difficult to ascertain who has the authority to speak for unionism and on what principles they act. In my doctoral research, I noted that one of the things which sets unionism apart from Irish nationalism is that it sustains and polices an internal division of labour which is hierarchical and which helps us understand class schisms within the unionist constituency.

The unionist division of labour can be broadly understood as follows: establishment unionism (represented in general by the UUP and DUP) are political actors, capable of offering political analysis, winning votes, securing seats and being taken seriously as the legitimate voice of unionist people. Loyalists (represented by paramilitary organisations, some of the band constituency and the PUP – Progressive Unionist Party- and UPRG) occupy the role of violent actors within this hierarchy. They engage in riots, protests, armed action and crucially, they supply votes. They lack the legitimacy of establishment unionism precisely because they are confined to these roles. As a crude indicator, loyalists tend to be drawn from working-class backgrounds whilst establishment unionists are more middle-class in their composition.  If we accept this hierarchy and loyalists can only offer supporting roles, and cannot offer legitimate political critique, then class politics within those communities becomes stymied.

We are now asking a people who have not yet recovered from decades of brutal violence which side they’d prefer to settle on. Are you British or Irish? Unionist or nationalist? Which of these identities will you live by? 

Loyalists did manage, via the Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party, to break out of these categories in the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, as unionist discontent with post-Agreement NI (and with it, the Good Friday Agreement itself) has accelerated, the parties who supported the peace deal (UUP and PUP) have lost support, and the DUP are now the dominant ethno-national actor within unionism. This dominance has not been tempered by the decision made by the Conservatives in June 2017, which undermined any claim to neutrality which the British government previously enjoyed. If rights and resources can be managed by the party with the most access at the heart of government, and the party with that access has historically demonstrated conservative views towards women, LGBT people, workers’ rights and immigration, what sort of society will we be left with?

To assess where unionism is now, we need to hear from and listen carefully to the dissenting voices within unionism. That function was provided, at various stages, by those loyalists who had spent time in prison for their role in armed conflict, often at the behest of senior unionist politicians. The general mood within loyalism is that they remain committed to peace, but that the peace deal of 1998 has not delivered the Northern Ireland it promised. More loyalists are asserting that if the deal had to be voted on today, they would vote against it.

This shows that unionism has failed to present the 1998 peace deal as a success to its people. The policies which followed the Agreement, which were designed to set up decision-making bodies and institutions, were interpreted by many unionists as concessions towards an undeserving ‘other’. The conclusion which has been reached by some unionists, such as Harry, mentioned above, is that the spirit of cooperation of the early 1990s was misplaced and has not paid off.

In relation to the UK’s membership of the European Union, I would argue that there is some connection between unionist discontent with their place in a post-Agreement Northern Ireland and broad support for Brexit. Both in terms of the approach to political negotiation and the vision of Britain which underpin dominant, pro-Brexit mentalities.

When the question of national or political identity is foregrounded, we see other identities de-prioritised. 

This is a qualified statement, as many unionists, particularly from the business sector and from some aspects of civic society, have argued strongly for continued EU membership. Those who haven’t, it appears, are cohering around a cross-class, shared sense of British national identity or interest which sets them apart from both Ireland and the other EU member states. There is unity in rejecting the idea of power-sharing at Stormont, although no one has offered a serious alternative. Similarly, there is unity in pressing for a no-deal EU exit, again with little thought given to the material and social outworkings of that.

The harking back to ‘simpler times’ when Britain was a global empire, albeit one which was built on slavery and colonial violence, can unite both those in the mainland who wish to be free from the EU, and some strands of unionism who express a cultural form of Britishness which is unrecognisable to most British people. Further, the attitude towards the Brexit negotiations mirrors some of the discourse around inter-party political talks in Northern Ireland. There is little recognition of our inter-dependence with one another. Instead, there is a determination to ‘win’, whatever that means at this point.

Such a strategy is safe for those who will be insulated from the obvious harms of not securing a good deal. In economic terms, we are all so deeply connected that we cannot extract ourselves. That is a feature of global capitalism, not just of EU membership. There has been little mention of this from unionist political leaders, nor any concern expressed for the lived experiences of those who may suffer from the immediate economic shock of leaving Europe. Part of the Brexit story is advancing a determined, if narrow-minded, nationalism, and in Northern Ireland we have been training for this for decades.

Where is unionism at?

The Belfast or Good Friday Agreement is known for its helpful, constructive ambiguity, which permitted nationalists to see it as a holding pattern prior to Irish unity, and unionists to see it as the triple-locking of British sovereignty in NI. The EU was a useful backdrop to British-Irish cooperation, along with other external factors, such as close American attention and the pre-austerity promise of inward investment. Peace as prosperity didn’t serve those who needed it. We are now asking a people who have not yet recovered from decades of brutal violence which side they’d prefer to settle on. Are you British or Irish? Unionist or nationalist? Which of these identities will you live by?

When the question of national or political identity is foregrounded, we see other identities de-prioritised. Within unionism, the questions of class and gender are under-explored. What do working-class unionist women think about Irish unification? Has anybody asked them? What problems are those women facing as a result of the collapse of Stormont and the implementation of Welfare Reform? What policies would support their full flourishing and citizenship? The Ulster Covenant refers to the “material well-being of Ulster”, arguing that Ulster’s place within the United Kingdom will mean economic prosperity. One hundred and seven years on, are unionists of all classes well-served by the constitutional link with Great Britain?

Colin Coulter expressed this neatly in his 2014 article, “Under Which Constitutional Arrangement Would you Prefer to be Unemployed?”. In the article he notes how Sinn Fein have managed to maintain, in some quarters, their standing as revolutionary agents, whilst administering neoliberal politics in NI. He closes by noting:

“Twenty years after the optimism generated by the original paramilitary cease-fires, Northern Ireland remains mired in a political culture that increasingly seems capable only of asking ordinary people to name the constitutional arrangement under which they would like to be unemployed, underemployed, underpaid, forced to into zero hours contracts or split shifts, denied adequate child care, deprived full reproductive rights, and so on.”

The above realities, brought into sharp relief by the reality of the climate crisis, mean that the disputes over national identities and who gets to ‘belong’ to the nation, are distractions from the life-threatening problems facing many in NI and across the UK. There are many reasons to critique the EU from a leftist perspective, and to insist upon the UK meeting its international obligations to support those fleeing conflict and violence. This has to be done with the awareness that class matters, gender matters and that we are all dependent on one another.

If progressive unionism is to offer a vision of a just society which can accommodate those multiple realities, it cannot limit its analysis to the endless unpicking of a violent ethnic conflict, or asserting symbolic claims upon the state (particularly if that state is unravelling). It has to generate solutions which recognise that the UK is a post-imperial, post-industrial society, struggling to adapt to and mitigate a deep ecological reckoning. Without renewed and creative political thought, and without the de-Lundified space for that to happen, unionism will continue to lose influence and relevance as its voters look elsewhere for leadership.


This article was written by Sophie Longo.