Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: Arlene Foster's problem with 'new unionism' is that, at heart, she isn't really a new unionist

The Republic that civic unionists were trying to save nationalists from turned out quite civic too

DUP party leader Arlene Foster
DUP party leader Arlene Foster

By Malachi O'Doherty

Let's imagine a possible recruit to Arlene Foster's next-generation unionism. We'll call him Donal O'Mahoney (apologies to any reader who might actually be called Donal O'Mahoney).

Donal is an urbane sort of chap. He has travelled a bit. He's not really a practising Catholic, but he went to a Catholic school, played for the hurling team and finds himself in church more often than in the past because his peers are getting married and that's how they still do it.

He remembers a little bit of Irish and had his first sexual intimacy with a girl at the Gaeltacht. He has cousins in England and Scotland and they have English and Scottish accents.

When he visits them the conversation invariably turns to Corbyn and Brexit. Occasionally someone will say something utterly excoriating about Arlene Foster and he will, to his own surprise as much as anyone else's, find himself obliged to clarify things a little in her defence.

In what way is he not really at heart a unionist? He watched the Last Night of the Proms for the first time this year and found it outrageously camp.

Donal votes for the SDLP, but he has problems with them and knows that they are never going to have a seat at a Cabinet table, or hold the balance of power in Westminster.

He will never, he swears, vote for Sinn Fein because of their retrospective endorsement of the IRA campaign, which he lived through.

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His dad had his car hijacked from outside the house at gunpoint years ago and has never got over it.

But could he ever bring himself to vote for, let alone join, the DUP? He would certainly be a prize for the party, especially if he brought a few mates along.

What he likes about the SDLP is that, when he goes to party conferences, he meets people like himself, the sons and daughters of teachers and barmen and lawyers, who went to schools like his own.

Looking around now for options, he is going to be far more attracted to the Alliance Party than the DUP. Surely, that is where new unionism is?

And Arlene's problem is that, with her wee crown brooch and her Orange culture, she is always going to make Donal feel like a stranger. Arlene's problem is that, at heart, she is not a new unionist.

She was once part of a group of young barristers who promised bright ideas. There was an idea being aired within unionism at the turn of the century. This was that the entire ideology by which Northern Ireland was a part of the United Kingdom could be rethought.

The problem with the old way was that it was essentially backward-looking. It was Protestant and pro-monarchy, it had reverential feelings towards the British armed forces, a nostalgia for the Great War and for Empire.

A more modern and less-romantic rationale for the Union was available to us, said the civic unionists.

They said that being part of the UK was good for a whole range of reasons that did not require the committed citizen to feel the heart stirred by a flag in the breeze, the national anthem, or Remembrance Day.

For one thing, modern Britain was a better polity to be part of than the Irish Republic because it was more diverse. You could walk the streets of London or Manchester and meet people from the Caribbean, from India and Australia.

This was a good thing.

True, the insular-minded unionist in the sticks might rather like the fact that Northern Ireland was - then - still white and feel that having some remove from the cultural mish-mashing of the modern world was a comfort.

Similar thoughts had motivated Irish republicanism in the past, the idea of a country that could keep its identity pure, safe above the "filthy modern tide".

But the civic unionists were trying to stretch the idea of the Union far enough to include people who had come out of the Irish Catholic tradition. It argued that to retreat back into that tradition was to enfold yourself in something that was restrictive, boring and old.

Instead, why not be part of Cool Britannia? That was actually the name of a collection of essays I contributed to at the time of that debate.

The civic unionists were saying: for goodness' sake, if a man from Somalia can be content to be British, why's it so hard for a man from Strabane?

The problem with this idea was not that it was wrong, but that it seemed insincerely put. It did not have a convincing leadership within unionism, where the old chauvinism was still strong. This just seemed like a clever idea to get a few small-'n' nationalists voting for parties that were not really changing.

I was once invited to a loyalist forum on racism. Essentially, the idea was of the same root as civic unionism. It said, being British is being inclusive, so we have to get used to that, stop being racist in defence of the Union, but celebrating diversity as a strength of the Union. I remember walking into that hall and seeing the pictures on the wall of groups of happy little black children in an African village waving Union Jacks. These guys had got it wrong.

They were saying, in essence, that we should be nice to black people, because they might, for all you know, be good unionists, when the strength of modern Britain was that it included people from around the world who retained their own cultures.

Allowing people to be British did not require them to wave the flag and cheer the Queen.

Well, obviously, for a lot of people in Britain that is what it means.

They want citizenship tests and mandatory language skills and clear evidence of loyalty.

But a true civic unionism would endorse an idea of Britain in which neighbours old and new would be accepted for what they are. Their only obligation would be to keep the law and pay their taxes and participate in the democratic system.

And out of that we would get a Muslim mayor of London and leader of her Majesty's Opposition who's a bit sniffy about the Queen.

Since those days Britain itself has become more wary of the diversity that some local unionists were trying to tell us through a strained grimace was a good thing.

And the Irish Republic, which the civic unionists were trying to save us from, has turned out to be really quite civic itself. Donal is thinking of moving to Dublin.

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