>> 13 Feb 2004

The Friday Essay


Unionists are a strange breed in many ways, and perhaps few stranger than me! Whether we are pro-Agreement, anti-Agreement, pro-Integration, pro-devolution, the one thing which supposedly binds us together is a common desire to keep North Ireland within the Union with Great Britain. My question is: Why?

The clich├ęd response is to state that this is the best overall arrangement for all of the people living in Northern Ireland. In a way this is a patronising answer. Republicans, and a significant number of nationalists, beg to differ. If there was a poll tomorrow on the issue of remaining within the Union or leaving it, I do not doubt that a majority of the electorate would vote to remain in orbit with Great Britain. But many would not! How can we explain to them what is so special about the Union that keeps generations of Ulster people committed to preserving it?

There are many different answers to that and it invokes a passion that nationalism should try to understand, if not accept.

Remaining part of the powerhouse UK economy, the world’s fourth largest, is one good practical reason to start with. Quite why anyone would wish to leave this economic success and settle for the Euro-zone with all its troubles and tribulations is not apparent, and has not been argued with any real conviction or with substantive data by Irish nationalists. Whilst the UK retains the Pound Sterling, it offers all of us all sorts of economic advantage together with the national freedom to manage our economic needs according to our specific needs.

Enjoying the rich cultural, artistic and sporting dimensions of a shared UK heritage is another splendid reason to stay in the UK.

The centuries-old links between NI and GB, specifically going back to the Glorious Revolution, also creates a formidable attraction. Ulstermen and women have made the supreme sacrifice in order to preserve our ancient liberties. From Flanders Fields to the Iraqi desert, from the back roads of South Armagh to the donkey tracks on the Falkland Islands, there is a shared blood sacrifice in pursuance of liberty. This is manifest on Remembrance Sunday each year, and affects virtually every family in Northern Ireland.

The Protestant Monarchy is one more reason for staying within the Union. Even at this time of ecumenical apostasy, the UK remains nominally a Protestant nation. Having provided a sound constitutional settlement for centuries, many unionists feel a deep sense of commitment to the Monarch.

One final reason for remaining British is the certainty that we will almost certainly never win the Eurovision Song contest again. With the Franco-German axis of weasel influencing the voters, we must be confident that the national character will be damaged through another unexpected win in Euro-music land.

And yet, questions must be asked.

What value is a Union with GB should Mr Blair take the UK into EMU? If we seek to remain British in order to enjoy ancient liberties, and these liberties are thrown away by Blair, what then? Do we settle for common servitude?

How about if the Union chooses to replace it’s constitutional monarchy? What is the Protestant (or even Christian) dimension to the UK disappears? What if a Roman Catholic Monarch sat on the throne? Would that dim the brightness of the Union?

If being British ceases to be valued by the majority within Britain, whither Ulster Unionism?

I do not seek to trouble Unionists further but sometimes it is very necessary to examine WHY one retains a given political loyalty. An unswerving commitment to an ever-changing Union is admirable in terms of loyalty but is it sensible? Unionists could do worse than reflect on the fundamentals of their professed political allegiances.

Confident Unionism needs to understand why it exists. Pursuing devolved power is not an answer. Maybe we need a debate on the essence of what Unionism means in 2004?


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