Can ‘cradle to the grave Unionism’ live with being a little less British?

“My grandfather was a Unionist; my father was a Unionist. I was born a Unionist and I will die a Unionist”. In similar mode, DUP MP Carla Lockhart speaking at the 2023 Party Conference referred to having grown up in a ‘Paisley-ite family’ and still wearing the term ‘with pride.’

Passionate assertions like this are indicative of ‘cradle to the grave protestant Unionism’; encrusted by conflict and a sense of betrayal. Electoral fodder with gravitational pull for political ambition, it has always had an important influence on any Unionist agenda and decision-making.

Grounded more in structural grandeur and product than process, it continues to inform a not entirely inaccurate stereotype where politics, religion, culture, urban myth and identity merge to nurture a comfort zone of labels, symbols and rituals; in effect, if not intended, to preserve an inherited sense of post partition ‘UlsterBritishness’, communal narrative and power base from which to pursue uniformity.

If only everybody could be like us.

It is present within all the Unionist parties. The UUP retains a sufficient proportion to make progressive change problematic.

Electorally, the DUP, conditioned to not allowing broader thinking to get in the way of expediency, has managed to persuade this constituency to turn out consistently in elections to build dominance within Unionism.

In spite of its willingness to diverge from the rest of the United Kingdom when it suits, it evokes the spirit of 1912-21 to re-ignite a latent fear that Northern Ireland could cease to be a particular version of British; that it could become isolated constitutionally.’

It begs the question; why did the DUP supported Brexit so robustly?

As the Withdrawal Agreement evolved alongside the Trade and Customs Agreement, was it deserted by any sense of political geography and what the implications could be for the Good Friday Agreement; in particular the principle of consent and economic divergence?

Was it, as Robin Baillie, a UUP Stormont MP who later joined the Alliance party, commented in 1973:

…acting like children; believing that Mother Britain will always be there to pull us out, to furnish us with a new game to play and new set of rules to tear up.

Is this where the DUP is about to anchor its core voters in 2023 with the UK, wishing to keep relations with the EU and the United States positive, willing to mitigate any collateral damage to Northern Ireland but not remove it completely?

Furnishing a new game but this time with the DUP consigned to the reserve benches.

Will the financial package on offer from the Government, a Windsor Framework which is not going to disappear even when camouflaged to detract from what is already in place and the return of devolution be enough for the DUP to persuade ‘what remains a strong element of Unionism’ to accept and feel ‘a little less Ulster-British?’

Recent surveys indicate support for a return to Stormont within Unionism but there could yet prove to be more than one devil in the detail of a Brexit process which in Northern Ireland has further to travel.

All of this has potential to enflame concerns and volatile sense of ‘Britishness diminished’, hitherto carelessly ignored by Europe, Washington, Dublin and Westminster, whilst the jury remains out on the Stormont brake which bears all the hallmarks of not being what it says on the package.

With Northern Ireland becoming more secular, many within politically affiliated Unionism retain a tendency to advocate for elements of self-defining Britishness alongside denominational and a more judgemental than compassionate conservatism; desirous of shaping an increasingly diverse community and Northern Ireland in its image.

As noted by writers raised as Irish republican or nationalist who describe republicanism in particular as ‘cult like’, this is a trait not exclusive to Unionism.

Failing to realise the limitations of its preferences, the latter promotes an imagined community of shared life; in essence selectivist rather than universal and inclined, whilst speaking of consensus, to privatise or veto government even when this leads to stalemate.

Weakness is present in failing to interrogate its flaws; in questioning what it looks like through the eyes of those who think more inclusively.

There is a failure to understand that you do not have to dominate to ensure a better future.

Old values and attitudes survive; embedded in a world unto itself with its own codes, honours system, internalised contacts and influences.

Historically, this has produced a blind loyalty to a past where Unionism has often called it wrong strategically and ethically from a position of what it read as unchallenged permanency.

As a result, when encouraged to see light at the end of the tunnel into which is has placed itself, it either dims the light or lengthens the tunnel.

Anything that is formative is rendered dormant as attempted change provokes sporadic rebellion and self-directs into deeper complexity and resistance.

Within the parties, division is managed as a broad church but continuity does not guarantee progress; merely disgruntled acquiescence until the next time.

Compromise does not sit well.

Various Unionist leaders who, when they have tried to turn the ship around, have found that it continues to go in the same direction.

In the case of the UUP it has produced, since 2010, a ‘churn rate ‘of leaders.

It has caused the DUP on many occasions to march its followers to the top of the hill only to march them down again.

The inhibiting effect of this is apparent in U-turns and damaging indecision.

This has been the pattern of Unionist politics.

Recall Peter Robinson’s speeches at the Killyhelvin Hotel and the Titanic Quarter and the UUP/UCUNF initiative, pacts which are little more than a consensual organisation of prejudices and ‘Vote Mike, Get Colin’; to say nothing of Unionism’s love- hate relationship with the Good Friday Agreement, modified and otherwise.

During the last election for the NI Assembly, unionism was less than unequivocal regarding acceptance of a Sinn Féin First Minister.

No one wanted to be the ‘cat in the Unionist cradle.

It presents as a litany of missed opportunities; abandoned, undermined and mesmerised by over investment in a contentious past and fail-safe leadership.

It sustains a binary and obdurate fault-line through Unionism which in spite of wanting to appear otherwise, lacks cultural and political competences and exhibits settler-colonial characteristics.

Within the rutted boundaries of politics which are running out of road it struggles to embrace modernity as a different future and changing Northern Ireland emerges.

It seems to lack tools for reflection.

There is no time like the present to address this deficiency.

Will the DUP as the main party of Unionism now act against type or continue to play ‘Russian roulette’ with the Union from which it is building distance, socially and culturally?

With growing evidence of disaffection and changing voting patterns amongst those who identify as pro-Union, there is only one realistic choice.

It must however go beyond cynical and preservation calculation to move forward and catch up with the inclusive preferences of a growing proportion of those who want to remain in the UK but on a different premise from the past.

The DUP has been making much of the principle of consent. It would do well to consider how the current majority consent for the constitutional status quo can be sustained. ‘Scorched-earth’ Unionism is not the answer. It deepens the toxicity that is increasingly attached to political unionism.

Ideology cannot exist in isolation and is supported or otherwise in the context of well-being, stability, alongside economic and social delivery.

To embrace this, the DUP may need to persuade ‘its cohort of protestant cradle Unionism’ to feel a little less of its imagined Britishness, end the posturing and deliver the agreement which well-placed sources say was in place some time ago.

It offers opportunity to address incrementally any difficulties which may arise in the future from the Windsor Framework and more importantly for the future, shed insecurity for positive leadership.

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