Unionist? Don’t be shy.






At a recent gathering of representatives of what could be called Unionist ‘middle Ulster’ – middle class, middle ranking, middle politics citizens – one attender made an interesting observation. She had returned to Northern Ireland after a long spell in the US and was struck by the political timidity of those Unionists she encountered.

She thought that both instrumentally – they understand the social and economic importance of the Union for the well-being of people in Northern Ireland – and non-instrumentally – they have strong affinities with what academics might call British ‘values’ – these people are solid in their beliefs and convinced of their identity.

In other words, they do not share that fashionable condition which lazy journalists or convinced nationalists think is gnawing away at them: there is no ‘crisis of identity’ (whatever that may mean); nor do they doubt their allegiance to the United Kingdom (despite being mainly supporters of the Ireland rugby team).

So why is it then, she asked, that one rarely hears these people publicly? How is it, when it comes to civil society, there is a crisis of representation? What is the reason for soft nationalism being apparently the default position of those in positions of authority?

Given her experience of the vibrancy of debate elsewhere, she was really asking the questions which recently taxed the wisdom of pollsters: who and where are the shy Tories? Or to put that more accurately: why, if you know who and where they are, do those Tories or in this case Unionists stay ‘shy’?

One doesn’t have to look far for the answer. The answer is that Unionists (like those Tories) have internalised a discourse which defines them as nasty, bigoted, reactionary – just fill in the next negatives. Of course they need to keep quiet because there is a prejudice amongst those in the media that their ideas should be an embarrassment to themselves and certainly are to everyone else.

Of course, this is nonsense, and is nothing if not nasty, bigoted and reactionary of itself. However, it remains the acceptable discourse of polite society, a discourse which confirms the old adage that ‘the only respectable form of bigotry is anti-Unionist bigotry’. And for all its polite articulation it is just that – bigotry.

How do we explain it?

Shortly after that meeting, there was interesting article by the brilliant Iain Martin who recalled the celebrated remark of the journalist and historian Paul Johnson: if you do not read the Guardian of a morning, what else would possibly get you so annoyed that the creative juices start pumping?

Locally, television programmes, for example those such as The View or the numerous Nolan shows, are certainly not in the same league as the Guardian. Rarely do they get creative juices flowing but they certainly annoy. However, where they intersect with the Guardian is the linkage between the trivial and the message.

Most of the discussions on The View, for example, are trivial certainly. Yet still convey a message all the more powerful for being unspoken. Unionists may be given a voice on TV and radio but insofar as their arguments fall outside a range of prevailing assumptions they are open to barely concealed contempt.

Martin puts it this way when reading the Guardian’s bizarre editorial on the trivial – pop singer Taylor Swift’s politics (or assumed) political views:

‘Running through the entire editorial is a bizarre assumption that Swift has a moral duty to agree with the way the Guardian views the world’.

It is an assumption, he believes, which:

‘…demonstrates a cultural elite that seems incapable of grasping that its ideas and values are not universally shared’.

His conclusion is one which explains the culture of shy Unionism to that returning Unionist:

“The message of obligation to comply with the new norms is like a sermon, an ideological backing track, incanted constantly about what is or is not deemed acceptable, delivered presumably in the expectation that everyone who disagrees just gives up for the sake of a quiet and compliant life. For anyone who believes in a free society, it has become chilling.”

It is for the sake of that quiet and compliant life that those Unionists who so puzzled the returnee keep their heads down. It is understandable – especially if you think that the ideas retailed by the usual suspects are the measure of political virtue, especially if you think that imaginatively you are in the minority.

However – as Martin argues – what these ideas propose are often either bizarre or superficial, mainly because they are usually unexamined groupthink.

Moreover, when you consider who seems to define the boundaries of peak virtuousness, why anyone should give up for the sake of a quiet and compliant life is even more bizarre.

Stephen Nolan? Mark Carruthers? Deirdre Heenan? Jude Collins? Come on – the cutting edge of intellectual enquiry, or an echo of middle-class groupthink?

As it was said of philosophy, you can’t learn to swim without getting wet.

Unionists need to take the plunge and say what they mean and mean what they say.