Ulster says no is not the way forward and only by embracing others can the Union be safeguarded
Is political unionism a finished product or a work in progress? If it’s a finished product what did it end up creating and if it’s a work in progress what does it aspire to create? Objections to the NI Protocol provide unionism with a meaning that it is used to: the politics of rejection and resistance. And the inability of unionism to provide a compelling and inclusive political alternative to the enduring picture of loss and decay continues to provide solace only for those who value protesting against something.
However, this reactive mentality reveals not just an absence of imagination but an absence of hope.
What lay behind this predicament is an inability to grasp the importance of proactive thinking. The reactive mind may be presented as strength because it galvanises communities against an immediate threat but it also means that one is always responding after the event and so from a position of weakness. It is a rearguard action that might provide relief but only until the next crisis comes along. The long-term condition of anxiety continues.
Even more worrying is how there appears to be such little attention given to the inadequacies of this reasoning or how the reactive approach hinders the possibility of building social stability, forward-thinking and confidence.
How, given this tendency, can unionism be anything other than fearful of the future?
As an indication of this it seems apparent that hard-line reactions to the Protocol are based less on economic arguments about regulatory pressures, markets or access to goods and services to and from the UK.
Instead they draw from a deep well of anger that, over time, has taken energy from having no positive way of thinking about change itself.
Further, the inward-looking nature of unionism means that it is not easily inclined to seek friendships or collaborative relations outside of its immediate world.
Unsurprisingly, when a crisis emerges there is little external interest in helping.
Take the Protocol. By demanding that it must go there is no latitude for change that might be of benefit and the rigidity of this position makes it harder for others to help precisely because there is no space for those others to benefit either.
Emphasising only rejection and making the intractable position the only position provides no strategic basis for movement and reduces the scope for others to assist.
To demand removal of the Protocol where nothing less will do ensures only one outcome: more loss.
Those who expect others to show they are a unionist merely by adhering to expected intransigence have little to offer the future of Northern Ireland either. Reverting to Ulster says no will bring nothing because it gives nothing.
What this scenario reveals is the same old tendency to think exclusively rather than inclusively. Though it may be convenient to think the most intransigent position is acting in the best interests of unionism the reality is different. Doug Beattie has spoken numerous times on the need for unionism to be more inclusive in focus.
That must become a driving force in developing diversity, addressing social exclusion and isolation and encouraging greater public engagement in political debate. He is right.
But we should also recognise how hard it is to generate public interest around a message that does not prioritise an easily identifiable enemy or create a conflicting scenario that provides zero-sum excitement. Indeed to think inclusively means to recognise and acknowledge the limitations of one’s own thinking and actions and how both impact on others. To make the message of inclusivity radical means to make exclusivity the enemy of change. And that means raising public awareness about the benefits of inclusivity compared to the negative and stifling impact of exclusivity.
As an overarching concept inclusivity is powerful precisely because it can absorb differences. Equality, diversity, respect, tolerance, citizenship can all be seen as more likely in an inclusive society and less likely in an exclusive society.
Inclusivity therefore provides the basis for talking about Northern Ireland in terms of all and makes the case for Union more attractive as a result.
Although one might have different national identity convictions, who would not want to see a more equitable and diverse society committed to social justice, health, employment, the environment, public infrastructure and so on?
Yet it is the emphasis on just how likely a united Ireland is that preoccupies the attention of many.
Almost on a weekly basis it seems that some new poll will remind everyone how a united Ireland is more or less inevitable.
Yet, if there was a corresponding poll published at the same time as to whether people wanted to see a more inclusive Northern Ireland the perception of how inevitable that united Ireland is would be very different.
Polls serve propaganda purposes and without any comparison by which to evaluate possible outcomes one is much more inclined, as in this instance, to believe worst fears.
Other polls would mitigate those fears by suggesting another picture.
Inclusivity is not just about talking about Northern Ireland either. It is a demonstrated by the diversity of the Union and embracing or absorbing that diversity into what Northern Ireland is.
Because of this wider context of relationships unionists should be talking about issues and concerns that command universal attention much more than their political opponents.
In relation, further concerns are now emerging in London about unionism distancing itself from others in the Union, raising questions, particularly given debates about independence in a shifting post-Brexit landscape, as to why, and particularly given the historical linkage, unionists are not working more with Scotland to develop new forces of influence within the Union.
A need to re-energise such relations and to become more of an influence within the Union through direct and indirect engagement is another example to show the benefits of inclusivity. It is then a shorter step to have that image gain ground within Northern Ireland itself.
It is time to stop believing that one can get to a new place by staying in an old place.
A new language of politics needs to be found that unshackles Northern Ireland from the constant insecurities and fears of what may be lost.
That new language must point to what can be found and what the benefits are in the finding.
We have used the Einstein attribution before but it is pertinent to paraphrase it again: to keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result is insanity.
Time now to build the long and inclusive road back to sanity and in the process create a better Northern Ireland for all.
Graham Spencer is Professor of Social and Political Conflict at the University of Portsmouth and Rev Chris Hudson is Minister at All Soul’s Church, Belfast.