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Where is unionism's plan for an inclusive Northern Ireland?

Graham Spencer and Chris Hudson

Continuing with an exclusive approach that reinforces division can only be to the detriment of NI in the long term, write Graham Spencer and Chris Hudson


Protest: A loyalist sign and Union flag erected near Larne port

Protest: A loyalist sign and Union flag erected near Larne port

Protest: A loyalist sign and Union flag erected near Larne port

If Covid has brought a harsh and undeniable reality into our lives it is that we are all potential or real victims of its destructive grip. Because of this the pandemic has required a collective response to minimise its lethal power.

National identity is irrelevant here and Covid has shown that shared and agreed actions are the most effective response to resist its impact. Cruelly and perhaps ironically, what this disease has also shown us is that it is inclusivity and common approaches to problems that serve society best.

Of course, there are individuals across Northern Ireland who are inclusive in their lives, finding no reason to discriminate between Protestant or Catholic, or nationalist or unionist.

But at the political level, an inclusive approach to problems is lacking as each side continues think in tribal rather than social terms. What future does this offer for those who want a better, less divided, Northern Ireland?

Within unionism, there has recently been a series of debates about what unionism means. These debates have been prompted by the realisation that there are those who do not appreciate the need to be a unionist, but who, at some level, value Northern Ireland and wish to remain in the Union. Some call these people "the 20%" and part of this debate has been to coalesce around something called "civic unionism".

We believe this concept is pointless - and not only because it amounts to nothing of substance, but because it excludes the very people who do not respond well to the "unionist" label and who should be accommodated in any dialogue about the future.

Securing the future stability of Northern Ireland is best achieved through dialogue and actions that promote the inclusive society that, regardless of identity, addresses the damage of social exclusion, actively promotes diversity and invests in citizenship through education, regardless of affiliations or social status.

Diversity is the basis of this. Although it would be foolish to underestimate the power of national identity, it is also evident that social identity is now becoming more central to people's lives and that issues of class, gender, education, employment and popular culture are occupying the attention of young people.

What is further evident is that the current state of politics among the dominant political parties ensures a carve-up of power that prevents much-needed change. And that in response a new activism from the ground up, outside of the party political system is required. Activism should not be based on a whim of anger that has no understanding of issues beyond emotional response. It should go hand-in-hand with better education to build confidence and understand the issues of change better.

Addressing the educational deficit among young people is vital if we are to become more aware of possibilities and alternatives that will assist us in building better lives and communities. It is this conversation that we are now seeing among some younger PUL people that provides optimism for believing that there is a growing appetite for change.

But this also requires a fundamental shift in the unionist psychology that persists in seeing change as bad or dangerous to the Union and so must be resisted.

Fear of loss is contaminating the need for a new moral position on what Northern Ireland is and can be. The basis of a new outlook depends on seeing this problem and working on a solution to remove it.

The biggest mistake is to persist with seeing the old, reactive ways as the most effective for dealing with the challenges of now and the future.

We suggest that the political parties in Northern Ireland commit to a 20-year plan on building an inclusive society. A society that prioritises those who need the most help, regardless of national identity affiliations, and promotes the need to think about opportunity and responsibility as a matter of common purpose.

More openings and support should also be made available for third-level education, so learning becomes a life-long process and not concluded if you come out the door of a school with five GCSEs or not.

More public engagement with journalism and the media to ensure that underlying problems and issues that effect communities are examined alongside the daily diet of crime and zero-sum political comment are also needed - as is wider discussion about what a Northern Ireland means to others within the Union, but who do not share or are sympathetic to the depressive picture of Northern Ireland that is constantly communicated.

Opponents of the Union know only too well that they only have to oppose a symbol of that Union for unionists and loyalists to hit back with protest and anger without any thought for how this can be used to present identity differently and inclusively. All the time and energy spent on trying to deal with areas such as legacy or reconciliation are examples of debates that have no overarching reference point by which to understand how society is best served by engaging with these areas and so they immediately become points of hostility and dispute as well as extensions of the conflict mentality.

Such areas can be used to promote positive change, but only when framed in terms of common purpose and where the benefits for society as whole are clearly explained.

We are in little doubt that a new and compelling narrative is needed that departs from the static and self-defeating attitudes of the past. And that Northern Ireland can only get stronger if there is a will to recognise the need for urgent action that breaks with traditional and predictable approaches to social problems.

We also believe that DUP and UUP efforts to present themselves as defending the Union should be recalibrated to developing the Union and that they take an approach that speaks to others about the value and importance of Northern Ireland and not just themselves.

Energies should now be tuned towards building a sense of common purpose and inclusive actions for the social good.

Unless this happens, unionism is going to bring about its own demise - and Northern Ireland's with it.

Dr Graham Spencer is Reader in Social and Political Conflict at the University of Portsmouth. Rev Chris Hudson ministers at All Souls' Church in Belfast

Belfast Telegraph

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