Alliance : time to get off the fence ? 

Some weeks ago I noted with interest the outcome of the University of Liverpool survey into the makeup of the Alliance Party membership base and their views on constitutional matters, finding that a larger number of members believe that Irish unity should occur in the future. 

The title of this piece refers to an old cliché, which I’ve heard since 1994, that the party are a bunch of fence-sitters. More recently I’ve been hearing “constitutional change is coming and Alliance will have to make a choice”, “time is running out for neutrality on a new Ireland”, or “there’s a big conversation and Alliance will have to play its part” and so on. These are just different ways of saying the same thing. 

I’m well used to this criticism, implying as it does that there is one issue in this place that really matters, alongside the patronising dismissal of Alliance’s insistence on eschewing constitutional issues as if it were an uncooperative child going through a phase that it will eventually be forced to snap out of. But does the outcome of this survey show that the time has, indeed, come ? Is it now time to get off the fence ?

I am neither qualified, nor authorised, to speak on behalf of the party in any sense, not least as my contribution at this stage amounts to little more than paying the annual sub. But as someone who joined nearly 30 years ago I would like to offer some personal perspectives on this topic.

When I first joined, the party’s constitution and policy handbook retained oblique references to retaining the UK union, framed in tactical language, and dating back to its founding in 1970. During the 1990s, following some internal debate, it was determined that these references to a constitutional preference were outdated and were dropped as part of a rewrite of the constitution.

The jibe that Alliance is “unionist” for whatever reason does grate; not because it offends sensibilities, but because it is inaccurate. I don’t think you can be described as either unionist or nationalist if your constitutional view is limited to a tactical perspective. But more significantly, it ignores the political and personal risks Alliance representatives have taken throughout the party’s history to secure things that unionism ideologically opposes.

Alliance has always had a very healthy and supportive view of North-South co-operation which goes beyond tokenism. It supported the Council of Ireland aspect of Sunningdale in 1974 and the Anglo Irish Agreement in 1985. It attended the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation convened by the Reynolds and Bruton governments, which the unionists boycotted. It vigorously defended the need for an all island dimension in the talks that led to the Agreement in 1998. One of its leaders went on to become a Fine Gael MEP and, in recent years, Enda Kenny, Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin have given keynote speeches at Alliance annual conferences. Historically, Alliance has been far more cross-border and all-island in its approach than nationalism has been. 

For that reason, I see this trend in the views of party members on Irish unity not as a course correction or a u-turn, but as an evolution, entirely in keeping with the party’s long-held, transparent view that close co-operation and friendship with the rest of Ireland is an essential component of solving the long term problems in Northern Ireland. 

This has become more true as Ireland has matured as a nation state in recent years. Ireland’s political leaders have taken risks to reform outdated social mores. It punches above its weight, participating in major international economic and security debates and working as a team player in Europe and at the UN. It has friends around the world and its opinion and counsel is valued and trusted. Ireland’s deepening dedication to European values and integration, to international partnership and diplomacy, and to transparent and properly run government at home chimes with Alliance’s values. Ireland is not perfect – no country is – but its progress over the past few decades has been remarkable, especially when contrasted with the political and social decline of the UK. 

There is no question that people are curious about the idea of Irish unity, whether or not they might come from backgrounds that are traditionally nationalist. But I cannot join those who take the view that there is a renewed momentum or an inevitability that we need to be prepared for. I don’t think there is, and I believe that Alliance should keep its distance from those who insist otherwise. I will explain why. 

It remains the case that Northern Ireland is a society riven by tribalism, sectarianism, and the suspicion and political deadlock that comes with those things. These imperatives inhibit and impede local politics, reducing it to a broken mess of clientelism and posturing where political leaders engage with the public by issuing performative declarations rather than fostering a serious policy debate. While this is nothing new, we all need to be clear that this is a problem which is nowhere near being solved.

An example of this phenomenon at work is the obsession at Stormont with non-binding motions where politicians spend hours clutching pearls over how bad things are, posturing about how they think things should be, and demanding change, all while avoiding proposing the policies or compromises that could deliver the outcomes they desire. There have been a stack of these motions of this kind since Stormont returned. Almost all of them are waved through without a vote. After all, who is going to vote against a motion that declares we need better healthcare, or better childcare ? 

Constitutional politics, which the major parties claim to lead on, is conducted in exactly the same way. Recently, DUP leader Gavin Robinson said that “our focus is undiminished on making sure our place in the UK is as strong as it can be”. But unionism has never done anything to make NI’s position in the UK stronger. Robinson’s party campaigned for brexit, voted for hard brexit and took no action to prevent the course of events that led to the Irish Sea border and Unionism losing one-fifth of its electoral support. 

Tribal politics disincentivises policymaking and compromise, and encourages this sort of performative posturing which creates this disconnect between rhetoric and action. In the case of Unionism, it was simply more important to it to send (unreciprocated) love letters to the forces of British isolationism, nationalism and hard right Euroscepticism than it was to avoid an Irish Sea border. This is but the latest example in a long line of tactical decisions – the flag protests; Drumcree; the UWC strike; and many others where it rejected the compromise and ended up worse off. Unionism behaves this way because within tribalism it finds it more important to take a bellicose stand than to be successful.

Kicking unionism for its naked tribalism is easy, but I think nationalism is fundamentally the same. It’s easy to be fooled by the fact that nationalism has successfully adopted outreach as a tactic to try to make itself look more constructive. This is a smokescreen. As with unionism, it claims to want a particular constitutional outcome. But equally, and as with unionism, it has other priorities and doesn’t care if those mitigate against its stated constitutional goal. 

In the same way that Unionism rails against all the things that are good about the UK (such as the BBC, Europe, marriage equality, reproductive rights), in political terms Sinn Fein have opposed all of the things that have made the modern Irish state the success that it is. Until recently, it opposed Irish membership of the EU. It wanted Ireland to “burn the bondholders” during the 2008 financial crisis, which would surely have ended with Ireland destroying the scaffolding in Europe and the US upon which its economic and diplomatic success rests. Right now, it appears to want to damage Ireland’s friendship with the US by publicly opposing its foreign policy agenda in the middle east and by dallying with central American left wing governments (and dictatorships). Its opposition to NATO membership and the noises it is making about reducing immigration risk damaging valuable relationships in Eastern Europe where Ireland would otherwise find natural allies. 

Just as unionism blames the British government for selling it out, nationalism blames the Irish government for a lack of progress in securing Irish unity. It shirks responsibility for building support for it, for making serious proposals about how it should be pursued or what it might look like after it is delivered. Sinn Fein pursues with zeal its other objective – the innate need to protect, defend, commemorate and justify the record and members of the Provisional IRA.

Where unionism – foolishly – tells itself that nationalists and centre ground undecideds will ultimately vote to keep the union to preserve the block grant, nationalism equally foolishly tells itself that the end of British rule is inevitable and that demographics will ultimately finish it off. Both creeds believe the future belongs to them, which is why neither feel the need to take any risks to make sure it is in the bag. 

The only real difference in the two camps is that unionism is incumbent. Since nationalists need to keep themselves busy while they’re waiting for the big day of inevitability a quorum of astroturf “civic nationalist” campaign groups have appeared which claim to be working to prepare for it.

“Civic nationalism” is little more than a euphemism for a collection of northern-dominated republican cadres, all of them singing from the same hymn sheet. Starting from the ridiculous and self-serving proposition that the constitutional question somehow needs to be decoupled from domestic politics, they filibuster the debate into a series of meaningless dead-end talking shops, steering it away from difficult topics (reconciliation; the past; financial challenges; etc) while at the same time repackaging republican dogma to fit respectable mainstream discourse. The traditional republican association with protest and street politics is substituted with meetings, business breakfasts and organised petitions which fixate not on ideas, but on the identity, social status and professional backgrounds of those involved.“Tiocfaidh ar lá/our day will come” becomes “Irish unity is coming and we must prepare for it”. “Ireland unfree will never be at peace” becomes “reconciliation cannot be a precondition to Irish unity”. “The Free Staters abandoned us in 69” becomes “the Taoiseach must defend the rights of northern nationalists”. They don’t need to say out loud which party their audience should vote for, because the implication is crystal clear. 

I feel it is important to understand what is happening here. We are not witnessing a campaign to reunify Ireland; instead we are seeing a branding exercise. This is a movement working not for change, but more simply to help a particular political party and polity increase its appeal while shielding it from the need to challenge its own divisive rhetoric and positioning on the past. It is doing this by eliding extremist doctrine with mainstream opinion and co-opting a few token representatives from “the other lot” to make the enterprise seem credible.

In case it is not clear, I think the idea that constitutional change should not be led by political parties is utter rubbish. Ireland’s own independence story started with an electoral mandate. The independence referendum in Scotland was secured when a mandate was sought and won to hold it. Decoupling the mandate from the poll is what happened with brexit, a referendum which allowed those who did not secure a mandate to govern to overrule those who did. 

Ultimately – and watch out for those who try to deny this – the only way a border poll is going to be held in Ireland is when pro-border poll parties secure some kind of majority. The fact that winning this mandate does not appear to be on the agenda of any of the major nationalist parties is the clearest signal to me that these parties are not serious about pursing Irish unity.

So what has all this got to do with Alliance ? And why am I so concerned with how nationalism pursues its case ?

Fundamentally, my issue is with people demanding that Alliance should “get off the fence” is that they want it to change its unique selling point – namely that of providing a cross-community political space where serious day to day matters can be dealt with without having to waste time on insoluble tribal imperatives and cliches. I don’t believe it is possible to do this and sustain a conversation about constitutional matters at the same time. Nationalism’s tactical approach to the matter only underscores for me that we are far from finding a way to have a genuine conversation on constitutional change.

For that reason, I believe it is a serious mistake for Alliance’s representatives to participate in any aspect of this phoney debate. There are those who argue that there is no harm in talking to people, and they are right. But the problem is that this isn’t a real conversation; it’s a stage managed imitation of one, where the parameters of the debate are set by a self-appointed, self-selecting group who seem to be trying to serve the interests of one particular ideology. These organisations will no more unite Ireland than students sitting down on a road will end the use of fossil fuels. They’re trying to get Alliance to water down its own principles to make it easier to defeat later.

Instead the message to nationalism should be quite simple : get your own house in order before you make demands of others.  If you want to unite Ireland, drop the phoney astroturf politics. Get off the fence yourself, stop making excuses and create a prospectus for a united Ireland – then build a political platform that can secure a referendum and win it. If you believe Alliance’s idea of eschewing the constitutional debate is wrong, then challenge Alliance on this and defeat it at the polls.

If nationalism is unwilling to do any of these things, then exactly what is it for ?


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