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Why the unionist working class, not our political leaders, holds the key to strengthening the Union

Graham Spencer and Chris Hudson


New voices are needed to lead the debate on how to create a more diverse and inclusive Northern Ireland and they need to reach out beyond these shores, argue Graham Spencer and Chris Hudson

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Unionist leaders such as the DUP’s Arlene Foster (pictured) and the UUP’s Steve Aiken have been accused of being unable to create a more inclusive strategy

Unionist leaders such as the DUP’s Arlene Foster (pictured) and the UUP’s Steve Aiken have been accused of being unable to create a more inclusive strategy

The UUP’s Steve Aiken

The UUP’s Steve Aiken

PA

Unionist leaders such as the DUP’s Arlene Foster (pictured) and the UUP’s Steve Aiken have been accused of being unable to create a more inclusive strategy

The emergence of those in Northern Ireland who choose not to see themselves as nationalist or unionist and who prefer to be seen as Northern Irish rather than Irish or British is a move away from the traditional polarisation of identities that has historically defined Northern Ireland.

This development also appears to parallel a new growing demand for a centrist politics that represents a clear break with the conventional and predictable 'us and them' towards a community focus where issues are dealt with in relation to some sense of a collective good. Interestingly, the Northern Irish identity reflects a shift that could never happen in the Republic of Ireland.

The development of a significant community calling itself Southern British in the Republic is unimaginable and this is because identity in Ireland is not built on the same dynamic of difference that has shaped the make-up of Britain. The evolution of the Northern Irish is therefore the manifestation of a very British tendency towards diversity and inclusiveness.

The Union is a set of relationships and its history is a tension of different national convictions within the one context. That context is necessarily one of contradictions and ambiguity as well as continuity and clarity.

The importance of commemorating war and military history through monuments and rituals that also ensure continuing audiences for films like Dunkirk and 1917 must also be seen alongside characterisations like Colonel Blimp and Captain Mainwaring.

The weekly episode of Dad's Army reflects the British attitude to war as much as Remembrance Sunday.

The apparent contradiction of a society that is both inclusive and diverse and that holds within it the tensions and differences of national identity is the basis of the Union. The new Northern Irish are a manifestation of that relationship and so have a stronger basis in Britishness than Irishness.

Unionism lacks strategic thinking on how to change and at party political level cannot seem to counter the impression that change is loss

For those who are intent on preserving the Union it would be wise to recognise this evolution as a development that serves the Union more than a united Ireland. But it is also important to realise that this affiliation can easily be damaged and reversed if not welcomed and accommodated.

Within unionism, although there have been some individuals who have argued for the need to reach out beyond immediate communities, there has been little pick-up or serious attention given to the urgency of that recommendation. Stasis remains the order of the day. This response, although reflecting poor judgment, is not surprising.

Unionism lacks strategic thinking on how to change and at party political level cannot seem to counter the impression that change is loss. For that reason we argue strongly that the impetus to meet such a challenge must come from outside the silos of top-down political unionism. The answer is a bottom-up motivation for change driven by the unionist working class.

The strategy for transformation rests on two central pillars. The first is to change the ethos from defending the Union to developing the Union, and the second is to push hard for a more inclusive and diverse society. Clearly, development of the Union requires reaching out to those such as the new Northern Irish and engaging in respectful dialogue and collaboration, but it also means reaching out to those outside of Northern Ireland, both within the Union but also internationally.

The strategy addresses the need to build two convergent dynamics with regard to change that may be seen in terms of an internal and external dimension for Northern Ireland and the Union. This offers a means to build relationships and recognise the importance and the credibility of new 'hybrid' identities that have no interest in conforming to old stereotypes but which are more favourable to maintaining the Union than building a united Ireland.

This discussion should not just be about what young people want Northern Ireland to be in 10 years' time, but how others would also benefit from supporting and being part of that ambition

Without question young people and identity groups who have remained largely absent from public debates about the state of the Union should be encouraged to become the driving force for a more inclusive and diverse Northern Ireland. And a bottom-up approach to transformation will provide space for those people to give visibility and credibility to new public conversations about what a future Northern Ireland might look like.

This discussion should not just be about what young people want Northern Ireland to be in 10 years' time, but how others would also benefit from supporting and being part of that ambition.Where they factor in that journey will be a central aspect of extending the Union's appeal and to assume otherwise would be a mistake.

The internal dimension of transformation is about coming to see diversity as a necessary strength for the Union and not a weakness. It is building appeal through tolerance and the acceptance of difference.

When we talk of the unionist working class we are also talking about loyalism, but since the loyalist-unionist distinction has been used as a divide within unionism that has better served top-down political unionism we now believe that the motor of change must come from the bottom-up, without the usual categorisations that imply one group is acceptable and the other not.

This shift is encouraged to help support a new and much-needed respectability for working-class voices in unionism as well as proving that diversity and inclusiveness is now being encouraged from within and not just expected from without.

The same old voices saying new things will not convince as much as new voices that emerge in response to pressing needs and opportunities. New voices are less constrained by the stereotypes that have evolved around established and well-known faces. Calls for a new society must be symbolically supported by those who represent this newness.

We recognise that much good cross-community work currently exists and that respect for change is growing. But this energy has not been harnessed to any convergent end and so is subsequently lost to public awareness beyond the groups immediately affected

New voices that show a respect for diversity instead of resistance to it can only help the case for an inclusive Northern Ireland that will benefit its status and undermine the agenda of those opposed to the Union's continuation.

The logic of republicanism depends on those who are supportive of the Union being seen, by association, as disrespectful, exclusive and defensive of the past. But such a portrayal collapses when the exact opposite becomes visible. That is, when those who support the Union become the face of and motivation for a new sense of diversity and inclusiveness.

Extending the appeal of the Union beyond Northern Ireland is also vital for progress and requires building contacts and relations with influential figures and groups able to support growth and development.

Evidence for the value of change has to be forthcoming and the benefits discernible for all to see. Investment, collaboration and supporting projects that facilitate diversity should be encouraged and the wider the circles of collaboration the better.

We recognise that much good cross-community work currently exists and that respect for change is growing. But this energy has not been harnessed to any convergent end and so is subsequently lost to public awareness beyond the groups immediately affected.

There is now an urgent need for unionism to undergo a bottom-up transformation driven by a desire to change the face of Northern Ireland, where the diversity and inclusiveness of being British shapes and influences the diversity and inclusiveness of being unionist and where those from other communities now see the benefits and value of a Northern Ireland that serves all, compared to a united Ireland that is ill-equipped to do the same.

Doing nothing on this is not an option for those who insist the Union must be protected. A new force for change has to emerge and quickly. We propose the above challenge as a starting-point.

Graham Spencer is Reader in Political Conflict at the University of Portsmouth and Chris Hudson is minister at All Souls' Church, Belfast

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