Making NI a fairer place is crucial to the future of the Union
A few years ago, I went to west Belfast to watch a panel event at the Féile. During the discussion, a member of the audience asked why unionists weren’t very good at selling the Union. Dr Sophie Long replied wryly: “Because they’ve never had to.”
In my childhood, there was always a sense of certainty among family and friends about the Union. “A united Ireland won’t happen in my lifetime,” was the usual refrain.
During the Troubles, you can understand why that attitude prevailed. Who, people asked, would want to unite with a strict, Catholic country, with no divorce, or access to contraception? Who would vote for it after living through 30 years of violence?
These days, the belief that “it’ll never happen” is harder to grasp. Most unionists voted for Brexit, something nobody thought would happen. They should know better.
And, yet, complacency prevails. People still — incredibly — hold on to the certainties of the past. They fail to realise that the rules of the game have changed.
This comfortable mindset came through when the Lord Mayor, Kate Nicholl, said that unionists should be having a conversation about post-Brexit Northern Ireland and its future in the Union. She added that she didn’t think unionists were having the same conversation as nationalists.
Some responded in anger, others derision. People said the benefits of the Union were obvious. Others said that they only wanted to talk about the NI Protocol, her comments an attack on unionism itself.
Kate Nicholl must have been exasperated. Her words formed a small part of an interview where she talked, at length, about her desire for a more equal society. She talked about homelessness, NHS waiting lists, her support for refugees and asylum seekers. She took aim at politicians who visit food banks to promote their “brand”, instead of fighting to tackle austerity.
Instead of talking about these important issues, people had a go at her for suggesting that unionists talk about their future. The irony, I’m sure, wasn’t lost on Nicholl.
Unionists are talking about the Union and their vision for Northern Ireland. Earlier this year, I took part in Civic Space, a University of Liverpool project that focuses on the constitutional question.
I and other unionists wrote pieces about our hopes and dreams for Northern Ireland and the Union. There were contributions from the UUP and the PUP.
In 2020, a civic group called Uniting UK was formed to promote the Union and its benefits. Another group, NI Civic Voice, was set up earlier this year. People are talking and planning. They are thinking about how to win a border poll.
Kate Nicholl wasn’t wrong, however, to say that unionists aren’t having the same conversation as nationalists. I’ve written before about my cynicism about the “constitutional conversation” and its disingenuous framing.
It’s not really a conversation. One can’t deny that nationalist groups have got ahead of the game in terms of their digital presence and online messaging. They’ve held multiple conferences and panel events talking about a united Ireland. They’re on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Activists are on TikTok, engaging with a younger generation.
The younger members of my family are firmly in the middle-ground, persuadable camp. They are curious and intrigued by the idea of the united Ireland.
For them, it’s a credible option. A way to stick two fingers up to the DUP and Boris Johnson and bring about positive change. For them, a “new Ireland” is a compelling offer. Ask them what the pro-Union offer is and they shrug their shoulders.
We aren’t on a trajectory towards a united Ireland, but we are in a moment. Unionists can’t afford to be complacent. They need to up their game.
Civic groups need to continue to grow their online presence. They need to engage with young people, organise conferences, forums and events to talk about Northern Ireland and their vision for its future.
Most importantly, they need to push for change within Northern Ireland to bring about that future.
What is the vision? It must be progressive and inclusive of everyone in Northern Ireland. It must be a Northern Ireland where nobody uses a food bank, or sits for years on an NHS waiting list. It must be one where refugees and asylum seekers are made to feel welcome and treated with dignity. It must be ready to face the climate crisis that awaits us.
The pro-Union side needs to show that you don’t need to change the constitution to get a better society. Looking at the younger generation, I fear that they’re losing hope in Northern Ireland and the Union. Nobody can afford to be complacent.
We sit in no man’s land between Christmas and new year: 2022 and an Assembly election awaits. The DUP talk of pulling down Stormont. Another fight over the Protocol awaits.
Political unionism is entitled to fight its battles, but these self-defeating strategies do nothing to help the pro-Union case.
Many people, like Kate Nicholl, want to know about the NHS, the waiting lists and how they’re going to put food on the table.
That — and that alone — will determine the future.
Sarah Creighton is a lawyer, writer and political commentator