The near-daily media diet of a united Ireland somehow becoming inevitable is not being effectively countered by the unionist parties, say Chris Hudson and Graham Spencer
The recent street violence across Northern Ireland is influenced by a number of factors, but the central one around which others revolve is an enduring sense of loss in loyalist communities.
That feeling has been growing for years and reflects disillusionment and resentment with the polarised and divisive world of unionist and republican politics, as well as what is seen as a one-sided peace process.
One cannot put all this down to poor leadership in unionism, but the inability (or lack of interest) of unionist politicians in addressing the growing anger has done little to dissuade anti-social behaviour.
Since the Good Friday Agreement, unionist politicians have not been able to sell change positively, with most moves seen as concessionary to republicans and without any reciprocal benefit.
Not being able to effectively counter this perception relates to the absence of any coherence within unionism and so the absence of any strategic leadership which relies on coherence.
Recent demands for resignations in the police and withdrawing the Northern Ireland Protocol (both likely to be ignored) will only serve to compound the sense of loss.
Building friendships and a lack of engagement beyond Northern Ireland to assist in helping with unionist and loyalist concerns is also lacking. Making reference to President Biden as a “bigoted ignoramus” not only shows the inability to think before the hostile reaction, but closes off the possibility of developing much-needed positive relationships.
From a strategic perspective, it would have been better for unionists to ask the US administration for help with concerns over the Protocol. Since Biden has said that the US will be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress and security, then he should be tested on that.
Seeking to push for a re-energised east-west relationship between Dublin and London would also help draw the two governments closer to finding joint solutions, rather than allow the rudderless direction that currently exists.
Are unionists in dialogue with senior figures from the EU to explore possible modifications in how the Protocol might be applied? Is there a distinction to be explored between how meeting the spirit as well as the detail of the Protocol might work?
As is becoming apparent, for a society trying to emerge from violent conflict, political interests are not addressing public needs. The obvious lack of interest in creating much-needed alternatives to entrenched and dismissive positions shows us two things: either there is no idea about how to do so, or it is preferable to let it continue.
The near-daily media diet of a united Ireland becoming somehow inevitable is not being effectively countered by unionists, who continue to say nothing, so allowing the distant possibility to appear closer and giving more credibility to fears about the future; a future that unionist politicians should be shaping and driving.
Unfortunately, a political consensus on the need to condemn the street violence does not translate into a comparable consensus about the need to build a more inclusive Northern Ireland — even though that is what is most needed.
The immediate, short-term, expected condemnation will do little to address the problems that underscore the violence. Similarly, calls from some political parties that there should be no dialogue with loyalist paramilitary groups is another indication of a failure to grasp that dialogue is what is needed.
Political claims that loyalist paramilitary leaderships are behind the violence — though denied by police — provide another example of the predictable, immediate and ill-informed response to the problem, driven as it is not by understanding, but blame.
We believe that the Northern Ireland Office, the Secretary of State and other senior officials should be in direct dialogue with those leaderships on an ongoing basis and not just entertain the idea that the current situation will be overcome by some quick fix.
Yes, the Bobby Storey funeral was a factor, but the violent response from some loyalists drew from a much longer build-up of emotion that was about social as well as political exclusion and about the unaddressed issues of trans-generational trauma, suicide, mental illness, poverty, poor education and the intense feeling of having national identity slowly eroded.
No doubt, there were those who stoked recent tensions to exploit the street violence and, ultimately, the responsibility for that violence lay with those who perpetrated it. But for those who could be bothered enough to talk with people from loyalist communities, it was apparent that violence and civil disobedience was becoming more and more inevitable. The question was more about “when” rather than “if”.
Unionism’s tendency to try and prevent things getting any worse rather than making things better and making Northern Ireland a more attractive prospect is now seen as unacceptable for many young loyalists and there is serious, if tentative, work underway do something about it.
The vast bulk of young loyalists have no interest in street violence — even if they understand the reasons for it. They want a coalition of activists able to use social media to promote wider education and to inject a sense of optimism and confidence and to help envision a better future.
They are also seeking to build a consensus in relation to dealing with real life issues and problems, rather than pandering to national identity fears. They want fairness in politics and they want reciprocal respect and recognition across all communities: they do not want their identities used to dilute their British convictions.
For them, there is no surprise that media interest only really occurs when there is criminality. Most importantly, these young loyalists now see the urgency for alternatives and are working on practical steps to make those alternatives not only possible, but actual.
In that sense, the centenary of the Union offers a moment of opportunity. It may not be the end of the Union, but it could be the beginning of the end of unionism as it is traditionally represented and the emergence of a more inclusive attitude.
If so, Northern Ireland will be the better for it.
Dr Graham Spencer is reader in social and political conflict at the University of Portsmouth. Rev Chris Hudson is minister at All Souls’ Church in Belfast