Do unionist politicians still cherish the link with London?
Published 21/02/2012 | 08:00
The Prime Minister David Cameron has set out his stall in support of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. His vision is all for one, one for all - for the Scots, the Welsh, the English and for us across the Irish Sea.
"I believe in the UK head, heart and soul," Cameron told the Scottish nationalists last week. He reminded them that we are all part and parcel of the seventh largest economy in the world, that in good times and difficult times "we are there for each other". That we are stronger, richer and fairer together. That there is real solidarity across the UK with a shared country and history going back centuries.
In relation to attitudes in Northern Ireland, how realistic is Cameron's vision of the UK? His are not the sentiments I have heard for a long time now from the leaders of Ulster's unionist parties. Cameron's type of unionism seems to differ from theirs. Attitudes to the Union have changed since direct rule was imposed on Stormont 40 years ago next month.
Do unionists really wake up in the morning and think "Gosh I'm part of the world's seventh largest economy. I'm there for my friends across the water whenever they need me. I share everything with them in good times and ill. We are stronger, richer and fairer together..."
When he addressed the Ulster Unionist conference three years ago, David Cameron produced a speech defining Northern Ireland's position within the UK that won him a standing ovation from the delegates, but few votes at the polls. The two unionist parties remain a political race apart in British politics, unwilling to be too closely associated with Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrats. In point of fact, Brand Unionism 2012 is built on blaming successive British governments for many of the ills which befell Northern Ireland over the past four decades.
The unionism of the Democratic Unionists keeps London at arm's length. To take but one example, the DUP, re-elected in strength at the last Assembly, preached defiance over London's cuts in public expenditure. Painting a picture of a big bad British Government imposing its recessionary measures on Northern Ireland proved a vote winner, but is hardly in keeping with Cameron's one for all, all for one, unionist message.
If constant criticism about the British governance of Northern Ireland is pounded into unionist heads for long enough - as it has been - then it is inevitable that peoples' perceptions of the Union fall into a more questioning mode.
They may believe they are still true blue unionist, but they're not. They may offer unquestioning allegiance to the Monarch, but they do not feel as much part of the UK as the Prime Minister thinks they do or that their parents and grandparents did.
The unionists may not realise it, but they have drifted into a different relationship with Great Britain. That sense of detachment from the Union could have longer-term repercussions for politics here. Deep down, I wonder how many, particularly in the Democratic Unionist Party, are closer to Alex Salmond's thinking than to David Cameron's?
Of course, the Scottish nationalists want power for themselves. In that they are unlike Sinn Fein and even the SDLP, who have advocated a Northern Ireland run from Dublin. Do they really want that? Or in the event of unity becoming a realistic prospect, would northern-based politicians play second fiddle to a southern-based government?
Therein lies another political conundrum in today's Northern Ireland. If unionists are not what they used to be, perhaps the same will be said one day about nationalists and republicans, who noticeably are not as vocal these days about Irish unity.
Perhaps, if unionists and nationalists are revising their allegiances, they might gel even more with each other and develop some form of common identity in Northern Ireland. Could they be like the independent-minded Catalans of south-east Spain or other minority communities scattered across Europe, who exhibit a strong sense of independence, not unlike the Ulster-Scots/Northern Irish tradition.
Standing in the way of a common northern identity are the significant anniversaries of 1912 and 1916. No doubt the memories of Edward Carson and James Connolly will be invoked with great passion, but what happened a century ago appears increasingly irrelevant in today's world.
Despite the Prime Minister's message to the Scots, the United Kingdom is not what it was and neither is Ireland buried in its current economic bog. Never mind the Scots Mr Cameron, where will the people of Northern Ireland be in the next decade or two? Could it be that amongst the DUP and Sinn Fein, we have more than a smattering of Ulster Nationalists and closet Alex Salmonds in the making?