A lot of time and many words have been devoted to the ‘divided community’ of Northern Ireland and the rift which exists here between Republicans and loyalists, yet for all their bickering they do at least have one fundamental feature in common: they are both based on Republicanism, to a large extent.
The dominating faction of mainstream loyalism is an ideology which finds its root in a historic link with Scotland, but largely defines itself by the individual communities in which each version of the ideology can be found. These are much like the accents of each county: totally different, but with a syllable of resemblance here and there. Such is the basis of painted street signs and a bunting of flags hanging from every lamppost, even in as remote areas as Silent Valley, Co. Down. Lest Fenian sheep take notions, perhaps.
Despite the assertions of the many that religion is at the core, the defining aspect, that which is at the heart of the issue, of conflict in Northern Ireland is class, though the legitimate grievances which stem from disenfranchisement are misdirected as sectarian hatred. This is a similar sentiment to that which leads working class English voters to support UKIP. The extent of this, however, is that even a Protestant who lives in Jordanstown, a de facto suburb of Belfast, may not feel comfortable walking through a loyalist housing estate in Monkstown because of the obvious ‘otherness’ of not belonging to that community.
Over the course of the last century, Republicanism has undergone many reformations and has adapted to changing political circumstance (the Brendan Behan line about the first item on the agenda of any meeting being ‘the split,’ seems relevant here) whereas unionism has remained the same since 1912, when the Ulster Volunteers were formed in opposition to the constitutional nationalist campaign for Home Rule.
Liberal unionist voices, who base their philosophy on the economic strength derived from union with Britain, as well as the ‘golden link’ of the crown, have slowly been squeezed out of the movement. The most striking details of the last Assembly election and its aftermath, was the resemblance Mike Nesbitt bore to his predecessor, by thirty years or more, Terence O’Neill, who urged for cooperation with nationalists and whose message was over-shadowed by the paranoid ravings of demagoguery which stirred up the fear of radical republicanism which lurked within every tabernacle.
The sort of unionism which dominates today is really a sort of North Antrim nationalism, locked within a narrow north-eastern corner of Ireland by a siege mentality which has been well-worn by the century past but only grown more resolute.
One should not make the mistake that this is representative of unionists in Northern Ireland, as such is far from the case. The constituencies which can now be relied upon to return Democratic Unionist candidates have always had a progressive tendency within them, going back to the days of the Northern Irish Labour Party: however, this was always over-shadowed by the Gospel of Fear According to Paisley. This is also the case for Sinn Féin strongholds such as Belfast West and Newry and Armagh which were largely governed by Labour concerns before they wrapped the Green Flag round them.
Support for the Union among Protestants under 40 sits comfortably at 82%, yet in everything outside of the constitutional question (known in most other countries as ‘politics’) there is a clear generational rift as the same group mentioned hold far more progressive views than mainstream unionism, particularly in regard to social issues such as equal marriage and abortion. The devastating result of this is that, far from expressing anger at the representation deficit which exists within their communities, younger Protestants simply resign themselves from the farcical affair of Northern Irish politics and do not vote. This could possibly go some way to describing why Protestant school leavers are more likely than Catholics to attend British universities.
Methodist minister Rev. Harold Good recently announced his intention to enlist the bonfire-builders of Eleventh Night, who construct towering displays of both sectarianism and rather impressive engineering, for Habitat for Humanity: to utilise their obvious skills towards something constructive and positive. Bear in mind that fifty years ago these people would likely have found work in the shipyards. In contrast, look at how the elected representatives of the Democratic Unionist Party choose to exercise their leadership. MP for East Londonderry, Gregory Campbell on Facebook wrote, ‘We never forsake the blue skies of freedom for the grey mists of the Irish Republic.’ Not only is this an ecological anomaly, as anyone who has been to Derry will be able to attest that its weather is just as wet and blowy as its neighbouring Donegal, but one only has to take a walk through Derry to see the boarded up buildings in the town centre and dilapidated people slumped in its shop doorways of a Monday morning to realise that perhaps there may be more prescient issues to discuss than which flag is flying overhead.
The DUP opt for style of politics which is all too common today, and very much similar to the brand of fire-and-brimstone campaigning one finds in the United States of America. The all too familiar sight of the half-hearted Roderick Spode (to reference the P.G. Wodehouse character) lapels affixed with flag pins to let no doubt be known he loves his country (just enough to pay £3.50 for it), hates those who don’t (unless they cut his grass, or live next door), and generally thinks all the right things about whatever it is that he does think about. David Cameron cut his jib in that style, as well, as it is a style of political campaign which is particularly agreeable for the lacklustre career politician, whose personality was painted on by his handler.
For political campaigns, this is a proven effective strategy, yet all too often we lose sight of the most important aspect of election cycles: the months in between them. The DUP have done a fantastic job at maintaining their own careers and lining their own wallets, but what good has their continuation of ‘not an inch, no surrender’ done for the average grey-faced 20-something outside Belfast City Hall in the middle of a weekday protesting that the Union Flag does not fly there every day, but only on special occasions as is the case for most government buildings.
The shortcoming is not only of unionist politicians: republicans and nationalists who profess varying shades of left-wing political opinion, and to be representatives of the working class, should be held to account over their failure to take loyalist communities, many a few doors down, into their considerations. If the DUP strategy is to make their constituents fearful of ‘Gerry Adams’ Sinn Féin,’ republicans should be asked, and ask themselves, why they haven’t done more to diminish that fallacy. Continuous demands for a border poll, and talk of a United Ireland as ‘inevitable,’ have no real value if one does not also address the concerns such things raise; there is also the fact that this is indicative of the historic trend among certain Republicans to demand Irish independence from Britain, but are rather sketchy on the details about what they’ll do once they’ve got it.
Much of the discourse in Northern Ireland is taken up by the twinned concerns of ‘peace and reconciliation.’ There has been lot of rather hyperbolic writing over the fragility of peace in Northern Ireland, particularly in the wake of the UK decision to leave the European Union, yet such a view merely scratches the surface of the true situation. Peace is secure as no one outside a low-thinking handful wish to end it, yet in the nineteen years since the Good Friday Agreement reconciliation has been minimal: particularly at the institutional level. Rather than continuing with the current trend of discussing ‘the past’ and the ‘shared future’ as mutually opposing entities, there should be much more recognition of the ‘shared past’ and the four centuries of parity which by far outweigh the last 90 years of division; from the United Irishmen to the Women’s Coalition, there are far more examples of both communities in conversation with each other than there are of the same people at arms with each other.