Back in September 1912 there wasn’t a Parades Commission. A century later there is one.
That fact alone tells you something about the nature of the relationship between unionists and republicans here: namely, that whatever else may have changed on the political/institutional front in the past 100 years, we still have pretty big problems with each other’s views!
In June 1921, when George V addressed the opening of the Northern Ireland Parliament he appealed to “all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and forget, and to join in making for the land they love a new era of peace, contentment and goodwill.”
In April 1934, Sir James Craig, still Prime Minister of that Parliament, said, “all I boast of is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State. It would be rather interesting for historians of the future to compare a Catholic State launched in the South with a Protestant State launched in the North and to see which gets on the better and prospers the more. It is most interesting for me at the moment to watch how they are progressing. I am doing my best always to top the bill and to be ahead of the South.” So much for the hand of conciliation!
The preamble to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement encourages everyone to “acknowledge the substantial differences between our continuing and equally legitimate, political aspirations. However, we will endeavour to strive in every practical way towards reconciliation and rapprochement within the framework of democratic and agreed arrangements.”
So, while unionists have good cause to celebrate the centenary of the Covenant (if, for no other reason that a united Ireland seems further away than ever) there is very little evidence to suggest that the relationship between the two communities has improved all that much since 1912. That strikes me as rather odd. More people still want to remain in the United Kingdom than want to transfer to a united Ireland---even though there has been a significant demographic shift since 1921---yet there is no corresponding sign of Roman Catholics/Protestants or Unionists/Nationalists getting on better than they did in 1912, 1921, 1968 or 1998. Indeed, I can’t think of a single Roman Catholic who will be playing a leading part in the Covenant centenary celebrations.
Even odder, perhaps, is the fact that the centenary procession now has to seek permission to parade through particular areas, because it is clear that Protestantism/Unionism is not ‘welcome’ in those areas. To try and help matters the parade organisers withdrew an application to walk past the Ardoyne and agreed to a series of private conversations with residents and interested parties in other places. Both sides insist they are keen to reach an ‘amicable resolution’ on parading issues, yet it is increasingly hard to avoid the conclusion that they do so through gritted teeth.
In one very specific sense the Covenant centenary can be viewed as a victory for unionism: they are still here, still loud and still proud. But in another very specific sense it has elements of being a Pyrrhic victory. There is no sense of the pro-Union argument having been won and locked down. While it is true that increasing numbers of people from a background perceived to be Catholic/Nationalist don’t seem keen on Irish unity, it is equally true that they aren’t exactly rushing out to describe themselves as unionists, let alone to vote for pro-Union parties.
Similarly, the vast majority of those Catholics/Nationalists who are voting are voting for arrangements which give Sinn Fein/SDLP a permanent power of veto over unionists; suggesting that they don’t trust unionists to govern fairly and in their interests. Again, that strikes me as a little odd: for there is evidence to suggest that there is a substantial pro-Union majority, but very little evidence to suggest that pro-Union Catholics are any more comfortable with their unionist neighbours. Why is that?
It seems to me that the Covenant centenary is being celebrated mostly by unionists, but not by the wider pro-Union base. And that should worry unionists. It should worry them because it is not a good thing that a celebration of the Union is still seen as an almost exclusively Protestant celebration. It should worry them that it is seen in some quarters as a rather narrow-minded, self-serving victory over republicanism.
The centenary of the Covenant deserves to be celebrated: but it should be celebrated on the basis that the collective benefits of membership of the United Kingdom have been good for all of the people of Northern Ireland---even if unionists haven’t always been the best ambassadors for that fact. It should be celebrated because the United Kingdom is a strong, confident Union which offers so much more than an unknown and untested united Ireland. It should be celebrated because the democratic, multi-cultural and multi-national values which underpin the Union are, for their own sake, worth celebrating.
The next big celebration for unionism will be June 2021, the centenary of the opening of the first Parliament of Northern Ireland. But rather than prepare a few events based around the reality that NI is still here and still in the United Kingdom, they should be working towards the goal of a unionism so confident and broad-based that increasing numbers of people—from all creeds and backgrounds---will be prepared to join in the celebrations. In other words, instead of the obvious difficulty some people still have about declaring their unionism, we need to reach the point at which people (and I don’t just mean Catholics) are openly and happily in the pro-Union camp.
That is going to require some new thinking within the existing unionist parties, as well as some new thinking across the wider pro-Union base. Unionists should enjoy the Covenant centenary and parade, because it is an important milestone. But they mustn’t rest on their laurels. There is still a lot to be done to secure and promote the Union and Northern Ireland’s role within the United Kingdom.
Alex Kane is a writer and commentator