It wasn’t supposed to be like this. About three years ago, unionism and the Orange Order were beginning to make preparations to celebrate Northern Ireland’s centenary and highlight the continuing socio-economic benefits which flowed from remaining an integral part of the United Kingdom.
Plans were made for parades and bunting and dinners and special events; maybe even a few guest speakers of international renown talking up Northern Ireland’s special place within the UK.
Today, it all looks very different. An entirely new border has placed a very specific demarcation line between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, a line which sees Northern Ireland left in the EU while Great Britain stands alone.
There are a number of ways of interpreting the significance and impact of that demarcation line (with some saying it gives Northern Ireland the best of both worlds), but for political unionism it represents an undermining of their constitutional status and safety.
Just two months away from the anniversary of the state opening of Northern Ireland’s first parliament, on June 7, 1921, what is the state of play in unionism?
The Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) has withdrawn support for the Good Friday Agreement, the agreement which created the replacement for that original parliament. The LCC is also putting pressure on both the DUP and UUP to bring down the Executive, even if it means the collapse of the Assembly.
Key elements within political unionism have launched legal action against the Northern Ireland Protocol, claiming it breaches the 1800 Act of Union, the Belfast Agreement, the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and the Article 50 process set out in the treaties for the European Union.
Or, putting that another way, in Northern Ireland’s centenary year, unionism has been forced to challenge the UK Government’s right to alter the region’s constitutional status. Losing the case could establish very uncomfortable precedents for unionism.
On the back of Tuesday’s Public Prosecution Service’s report (which suggested prosecutions for breaching Covid regulations at the Storey funeral were unlikely to succeed because of "engagement" between Sinn Fein and the PSNI), the DUP, UUP, TUV and PUP have all demanded the resignation of Chief Constable Simon Byrne, claiming they have lost confidence in his ability to provide fair and impartial policing.
The Orange Order has withdrawn from its engagement with the Irish government’s Shared Island Dialogues project. There is growing pressure within some elements of political unionism and loyalism to collapse the entire Good Friday Agreement structures and institutions if the protocol impasse isn’t resolved to their satisfaction. And there seems to be a new generation of loyalism about whom the PSNI and intelligence services have limited information and over which the ‘older hands’ of the LCC have no control.
But where is all of this anger and the coming together of unionism/loyalism/loyal orders heading? What does it say about them — indeed, what does it say about the entire pro-union community — in this centenary year?
They don’t trust the Chief Constable; or the Irish government; or the British government; or the EU; or Joe Biden; or liberal unionists; or those unionists willing to listen to or participate in debates about a potential united Ireland. Indeed, apart from each other, it is hard to know who they do trust. And history suggests even that present trust will descend into new disagreement and division.
But there is also a voice within unionism which isn’t being listened to, and that’s the voice of those small-u unionists (some of whom have already drifted to Alliance) who don’t need flags and rhetoric to confirm their identity.
In an article last week, Peter Robinson described his personal feeling of alienation as a unionist. It was a view which resonated with many who belong to or vote for ‘unionist on the manifesto’ parties. It’s a view which I understand, partly because I think that unionism has sometimes had a hand in its own alienation from the world around it.
But I also know many small-u unionists who believe that the message and beliefs of the unionist parties is, in fact, alienating then within the pro-union community. While they may believe in the Union and would choose to vote for it in the event of a border poll, they have little in common with the priorities of party-political unionism.
They are too often dismissed as ‘not real unionists’ and derided for their views on secularism, abortion, same-sex marriage, the Northern Ireland protocol and laissez-faire attitude to the Irish language etc. But they are still unionists and their votes will be needed to maintain the Union, so alienating them is a self-defeating approach.
Party-political unionism, the LCC, newer elements of loyalism and the Orange Order must tread with great caution. Constantly upping the ante may give the impression of standing up for their rights, but it too often looks like doing something just to be seen to be doing something.
My advice: look at 1968, 1972, 1974, 1985, 1993, 2013. Learn lessons from how unionism responded then and don’t repeat the mistakes.