Stalwarts of unionism must change to survive
Stalwarts of unionism must change to survive

By Tom McGurk (for the Sunday Business Post)

The ‘Love Ulster’ campaign is heading south.

Led by Willie Frazer, spokesman for victims’ group Families Acting for Innocent Relatives (FAIR), the group is coming to protest outside the Dail. What exactly it is protesting about is somewhat unclear: there’s a litany of the usual grievances post-Good Friday Agreement but, on television recently, Frazer said they wanted to find out if the South really believed in equality for all.

That subtext is presumably to do with testing the tolerance of the citizens of Dublin with a march containing six Orange bands and the usual Union Jack-waving ragbag of hangers-on.

At this point, two things are important to emphasise: firstly, that peaceful protest should be tolerated, and secondly, that it would be a dreadful mistake to react to the provocation that is somehow inimical to Orange parades.

Since, in the first instance, Orange parading in the North was always about public displays of territorialism, it is important that the marchers discover that Dublin is not a series of territories but an authentic public space for citizenship.

On one level, I’m sure there will be vast curiosity from Dubliners, who rarely get an opportunity to see live 18th century political theatre. On another, there will be a profound poignancy to the whole occasion.

Frazer’s ragged army, a living museum piece of a long-past imperial age, deserves our compassion, not our contempt. Over a century, as the imperial tide has ebbed away from this island, the last loyal tribe now finds itself trapped on a small disappearing sandbank they call ‘Ulster’.

Unable to contemplate moving into deeper waters to effect their rescue, they simply sit there now - generation after generation - solemnly saying no. Since 1998, the rescue boats have been hovering nearby, but to no avail.

Shivering in the 21st century winds that blow from all directions, they have simply wrapped themselves in the last remaining mantle of sectarianism and refused to budge.

Remarkably, there is not among them now a single voice who would dare articulate the extraordinary moment of both political and economic regeneration that awaits them, had they the wit to see it. Not 20 minutes from Frazer’s door sits one of the wealthiest economies in the world.

Where once the border divided a poor, mostly agricultural South from a heavily subsidised but wealthier North, now it divides economic achievement from economic failure. One economy has become the envy of Europe; the other has become a basket-case.

Where are those apparently traditional Northern protestant virtues of hard work, enterprise and economic self-sufficiency that we once used to hear so much about?

Indeed, what shade now are the “grey skies of an Irish Republic’’ so beloved of the Sandy Row graffiti artists?

London is now showing all the signs of a deep impatience with Northern Irish unionism. In the context of the past war, any reassessment of the North’s relationship with Britain would have been seen as a concession to violence. But now, in the absence of violence, and with a united Irish nationalist voice demanding a devolved power-sharing in the North - in tandem with a new and growing cross-border economic relationship with the South - the context is entirely different.

The days of the North having a favoured economic status in comparison to regions of Britain are coming to an end, hastened by continuing unionist political intransigence. With its vast dependence on public service employment and a steadily growing subvention of over stg#5 billion a year from the British treasury, the shoe is beginning to pinch.

Northern secretary Peter Hain has already sent signals of his displeasure, and he has deliberately presented them as an addendum to the forthcoming attempt to re-float the political structures.

Even worse, the social and economic crisis within traditional unionist heartlands is beginning to fragment what were once homogenous, civic and thrifty communities. A ‘loyalist subculture’ largely overseen by the remnants of the loyalist paramilitaries has transformed these communities into what might be termed a trailer-park world. Unemployment and educational underachievement are everywhere and, even from the unionist middle classes, the brain-drain to British universities continues.

The lament that “our Protestant culture is being trampled on’’ simply illustrates that the old heady brew of sectarian triumphalism will no longer be tolerated either by the authorities or by nationalists.

That particular tide was stopped at Drumcree, and was finally turned back during last year’s Ardoyne riots.

When one also considers that any ongoing progress towards equality of citizenship and cultures in the North is now being depicted by unionism as a ‘concession to Sinn Féin’, the sheer scale of their political bankruptcy becomes evident.

And whatever about a David Trimble-led UUP attempting the task ahead, the prospects are slim that the DUP under Ian Paisley can face up to a political legacy which it was primarily responsible for creating.

And now there is a new side to this ancient political Rubik’s cube. The recent decision to reduce local government to seven super-councils, three of which are west of the Bann, raises a new scenario in the context of future stalled political progress. The temptation to devolve more and more power to this tier of local government could create a Celtic Tiger-esque knock-on effect in the nationalist-dominated councils west of the Bann.

Already, the town of Newry is benefiting from its geographical hinterland, and the newM1 motorway is already radicalising employment options in the wider region. Mid-Ulster and the border regions would then have an opportunity for growing economic linkage that will have inevitable political implications.

Daily, the unionist political sandbank grows smaller. Maybe it’s a vain hope but even Willie Frazer’s bedraggled army, as they process through Dublin, might sense the waters beckoning beyond.

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© 2006 Irish Republican News