The Case for the Union – A Personal Perspective.

The union for me has always been defined by what is best for the people of Northern Ireland. And one can at least measure this practically.

The United Kingdom offers Northern Ireland the best advantages in terms of economic, military and diplomatic standing on the world stage. Its greater links to trade and investment all over the world provide opportunities for job creation both here and in the rest of the UK. The whole shape of the world economy will change over the next two decades – robotics, artificial intelligence, new technologies – and I see the UK (post-Brexit) being well-placed to adapt to this change. The fragility of the Irish economy and its narrow dependence on foreign subsidiaries was demonstrated clearly in 2008.

Moreover, everyone in Northern Ireland has access to the full benefits of the National Health Service which, despite funding problems and waiting times, is one of the great practical symbols of equal citizenship and social solidarity throughout the UK. As I currently work in the mental health sector, I know all too well the importance of accessing and availing of mental-health services, essential for the wellbeing of people in need of them.Northern Ireland in particular has poorer mental health in relation to the rest of the UK due to the impact the Troubles. It would cause deep concern for all if access to our current mental-health services were put at risk.

Of course, these could be dismissed as merely instrumental, self-interested, ‘loyal to the half-crown’, reasons. It is more than that. I can celebrate these advantages of life in the UK because I also feel a part of its larger cultural, social and political life. The short hand for that is patriotism.

However, fully committed to maintaining Northern Ireland’s place in the UK as a matter of principle, I am also committed to Northern Ireland’s working cooperatively with the Republic of Ireland. Most Unionists have different views from the Irish Government on Brexit but once that is out of the way, co-operation is the way forward for all our benefit.

This is the ultimate reality of modern economics and it makes no sense for Dublin and Brussels to sacrifice trade on the island when workable alternatives are possible. That only plays into the hands of extremists. I still have hopes that good sense and mutual interest will prevail.

Personally, as a young openly-gay man from a unionist background, I am impressed that the Taoiseach is also openly gay and holds measured contemporary views on social issues, human rights and equal marriage. I was also impressed that he attended Belfast Pride in 2017.

These good gestures from the Taoiseach are recognised and appreciated by Unionists like me. They do not make me any less Unionist or any less committed to Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. They show simply that goodwill and cooperation is possible – as it should be on Brexit and the border. This is in stark contrast to the leaders of Sinn Fein who, although they talk about respecting unionism, still see fit to attend hunger-strike commemorations and insist on an Irish Language Act as a precondition to the restoration of the Assembly. Unionists made generous compromises towards the Irish language in 1998. Such an Act is not needed and it is a political replay of the militant thinking summed up in the phrase ‘non-negotiable demands’.

As a gay man, I am not fooled by Sinn Fein’s parroting of equality. Indeed,in early 2018, the party was quite happy to promote the goal of attaining an Irish Language Act in negotiation with the DUP and to discard attaining marriage equality. So much for it being a Sinn Fein red-line issue for the Assembly’s restoration. Many LGBT people were disappointed by this and recognised the extent to which that party’s language of rights is purely instrumental not principled, aimed exclusively at the subversion of Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.

There are those unionists with a small ‘u’ who today seem to think that a united Ireland would somehow make the agenda of Sinn Fein go away. It wouldn’t. It would intensify Sinn Fein’s local agenda to impose its own distorted values of what is right and wrong; impose its own bizarre form of culture that is strange even to my Irish friends in the South; and to promote its idea of a united Irish-state utopia that has infinite resources.

The union is Northern Ireland’s best protection for its culture, economy, values and genuine equality. And here is the biggest irony of all. To defend the Union today is not a matter which is exclusively in the interest of northern Unionists. It is in the interest of everyone on the island of Ireland who is not infected by the populism of Sinn Fein and its weary mantras.


Michael Palmer is a young member of the Ulster Unionist Party.