Belfast Telegraph

Why defining identities is more than Armalites and Ulster Scots

By Ed Curran

If you think you're a unionist or a nationalist can you define what you mean?

I venture to suggest that the definitions are not so straightforward as they were before the Troubles started. As a result, the major parties in Northern Ireland are having to dust down their political outlooks and set out new visions for the future.

Older unionists and nationalists may hanker after a past where choice in life was simple — not black and white, but orange and green. You were either for a united Ireland or against it. Either for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland or against it.

Life today, post Good Friday agreement, is not so simple.

First it was the Republican movement dispensing with Armalite guns and donning Armani suits. More recently the Ulster Unionists joined forces with David Cameron. Next up, the two contenders for the leadership of SDLP say they need to take their ailing party in a new direction.

Finally, Peter Robinson revealed recently that the Democratic Unionists are undergoing a root and branch makeover. All in all, we are witnessing a shake-out in unionist and nationalist |thinking.

The main choice for unionists at election time will be between the Conservative and Ulster Unionist candidates and the Democratic Unionists. We know what the former stand for. To quote David Cameron: “I'm proud that at the next election we will be the only party fielding candidates in every part of the UK.

“Britishness is not mechanical, it's organic. It's an emotional connection to a way of life, an attitude, a set of institutions. Make these stronger and our national identity becomes stronger.”

The Ulster Unionists have decided for better or worse to hang their red, white and blue hats on Cameron's coat peg. What of |the DUP? What does it stand |for in 2009?

It began to steal the Ulster Unionists' clothes shortly after the Good Friday agreement was signed and it has been doing so ever since.

The DUP still has good old-fashioned unashamedly Protestant Unionists within its ranks but to what extent is the Paisley Free Presbyterian influence on the wane? Is Peter Robinson leading it towards a more mainstream message? His comments in an interview in the Belfast Telegraph last month were intriguing and interesting.

He said: “There has been a major operation which I don't believe any other political party anywhere has undertaken. we have a raft of issues which will mean a seismic change in the way the party operates and which impacts on every level in the party.

“We have looked at how we encourage greater community involvement in politics in Northern Ireland. So we are talking about fundamental change in the way we do business. It will be a very different DUP operation.”

I can understand the party not wanting to throw its lot in with the Tories as the Ulster Unionists have done, and certainly not with poor beaten-up Gordon Brown and his Labour party. We await with interest. What kind of unionism Peter Robinson is actually asking |people to vote for.

It is not only unionism which needs redefining but also as the SDLP and Sinn Fein are discovering, the message of nationalism as well.

Is there anybody out there who sees any hope of a united Ireland on the far horizon? What exactly does Irish nationalism mean today in the wake of the Good Friday agreement which seems to have put the aspiration of unity to bed in the woolliest of nightgowns?

Are the people of west Belfast, the Bogside or south Armagh having sleepless nights over whether the next north-south ministerial meeting will take place or not?

Is it not a fact of life in that nationalism is in the doldrums and probably will be for years because the Good Friday deal is where we are and are likely to stay?

And yet, when the election comes, most of us will vote unionist or nationalist as ever. Why should we do so if politics in Northern Ireland is not really about the constitutional link with London or Dublin?

The Good Friday agreement has put us all in a new limbo land. The link with Britain may not be what it was but neither is the promise of a united Ireland.

In reality politics today is about our heritage, and principally about our British/Protestant and Irish/Catholic traditions.

With the constitutional issue on the back burner, unionists and nationalists are falling back on their respective traditions, habits and social background. They want their politicians to preserve their separate cultures. Defining what makes a unionist or a nationalist in today's world is a challenge facing every major party.

The Good Friday agreement and subsequent St Andrews deal parked the constitutional argument between unionists and nationalists in neutral gear. Northern Ireland is not as British as Finchley but it is the case that it remains a British governed and funded state in which even ardent Irish republicans are prepared to co-exist with unionists.

We will not be voting at the next election to be part of the UK or a united Ireland. We will be voting mainly to defend and promote our British or Irish way of life, our individual habits, religious and social beliefs.

Our political choice will be determined by how we identify ourselves in our daily lives and which candidate fits the bill as far as preserving that lifestyle. That is why the major parties are having to reinvent their messages and readjust their strategy to show how they are defending different cultural interests.

We can see that in the bitter debate over the future of grammar schools, or the promotion of Ulster-Scots traditions or Irish music, language and gaelic sports. The more unionist and nationalist parties have joined together at Stormont, the more people have returned to their respective cultural trenches and appear to want to stay there.

They don't really object to political partnership but they still like being unionists and nationalists in their day-to-day life.

The challenge for the parties at the next election is to satisfy them. Think about it. Why are you a unionist? Why are you a nationalist? In your heart of hearts, are you really comfortable with your answer?

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