Belfast Telegraph

Jim McAuley: Why, for unionists, Britishness will always be more about the heart than the head

Attempts to confine pro-Union supporters' British identity to either the 'civic' or 'ethnic' model are flawed ... it can only be understood as a fluid concept, associated with a range of different - and sometimes contradictory - meanings. By Jim McAuley

Three revellers enjoy the Twelfth parade
Three revellers enjoy the Twelfth parade

Peter Robinson's recent speech in Glenties caused major ripples, rapidly drawing widespread criticism across the Ulster unionist family. Perhaps most disconcerting for him was the reaction from within the Democratic Unionist Party, most noticeably led by Sammy Wilson, who claimed that the remarks by his former party leader were both "disturbing" and "dangerous" and that these comments were wildly out of line with the current thinking and mindset of most unionists.

But what is the mindset of unionism? Unionism has a long history of being riddled with internal tensions and its record demonstrates that unity has had to be constantly managed from within. Indeed, unionist political reactions have only confirmed the view that, while unionism remains a desirable goal for many, those who represent it are part of a broad movement made up from people who see the Union in different ways and who support it for differing reasons.

The political constituents of unionism and its supporters are drawn from a wide variety of people, from a variety of backgrounds and offering an assortment of social and cultural perspectives, many with differing goals and values and only united by their desire to remain in the UK.

So, what gives meaning and direction to attachment to the Union? Broadly, unionism is best understood as the political expression of a sense of social and political difference from the rest of the island that finds expression at an everyday, common-sense level through the claims of a strong attachment to the rest of the United Kingdom and the notion of "Britishness", or simply an expression of "being" British. Unionism has constantly sought to forge an inclusive sense of identity under the broad banner of Britishness.

But there are also schisms here, both in the understanding of unionism and party political terms. One of the main divisions within unionism is often projected as between civic and ethnic variants. An understanding of civic unionism rests in the development of the nation that had already emerged as a more or less coherent political and geographical unit (think France).

When unionists think in civic terms, they often seek to present an inclusive form of identity, with values based around citizenship and the political and legal institutions of the state. Britishness in this sense is an identity defined by attachment to the state institutions and not by its traditions, or religion.

Conversely, however, there are those who think Britishness is best defined as a form of ethnic nationalism. For them, it is precisely those traditions, political memories, religion and sense of heritage that matter. As opposed to the civic model, the ethnic understanding developed in response to the position of communities searching to define themselves in highly disjointed and fragmented societies (think Germany).

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While civic unionists emphasise a person's legal status in relation to the state and citizenship, ethnic unionists tend to focus on nationality and what is seen as an individual's intrinsic identity, often characterised by an attachment to ancestry and tradition.

Ethnic nationalism emerged in response to those culturally distinct communities who were looking to form their own state. This is why, in nation states where the ethnic understanding of nationalism is dominant, there is often a clear distinction drawn between citizenship and nationality.

Where does this leave Ulster unionism? Many of its current deliberations assume a very clear distinction between the two types of national identity. The dominant projection by civic unionism is of Northern Ireland as representing merely another political region of the United Kingdom, albeit one separated by geography.

Indeed, one of the more recent developments from those academics and politicians promoting the pre-eminence of civic unionism is the acknowledgement by its citizens that the legitimacy of the constitutional relationship rests on this claim. This, of course, overlooks something that is blindingly obvious to others; that at an everyday level identification with unionism is rarely interpreted, or expressed, simply in terms of citizenship, or formal legalised structures of the state.

Rather, the attachment to being "British" is understood as something which is fundamentally emotional, with intense feelings of a sense of belonging to Britishness. The sense of Britishness many unionists seek to express represents a much fuller understanding than that expressed by civic unionism and a much "thicker" understanding than that of citizenship, involving not just issues around the rights and duties of membership, but also the emotions and feelings evoked by Britishness.

Unionists draw upon different cultural, social, legal and emotional aspects to express their sense of Britishness and their core political identity. The model projected by civic unionists is far distant from the everyday reality and understandings of political life for many unionists.

Truth is, neither model represents reality. Britishness in Northern Ireland (as elsewhere) is a "fuzzy" concept that cannot be usefully placed directly into either of two categories outlined above. As such, it is possible to suggest a matrix within which these two types of national identity intersect with one another.

In almost 30 years of interviewing, getting unionists to engage with the notion of Britishness has not proved easy. In interview after interview, many have told me how rarely - if ever - they thought about Britishness and how tricky it was to put their understanding of Britishness into words.

Most respondents shared a commonality in their representation of Britishness, but rarely were these confined to a civic, or ethnic, model; there was a common representation of "Britishness" drawing on elements of geography, symbolism, biography, values and attitudes, cultural habits, behaviour, citizenship, language and achievements.

Britishness is not only a territorial and political entity, but also, in Benedict Anderson's famous term, an "imagined community". So, while one group may regard unionism primarily as the means to protect the Protestant heritage of Ulster, others see it as the way to confirm Northern Ireland's political and legal credentials as a region within the UK.

The recent emphasis on the development of an inclusive and more meritocratic Northern Ireland, where pro-Union Catholics can benefit equally from the social welfare service provision of the UK, reflects this position directly.

Britishness - like any other social identity - can only be understood as a fluid concept, associated with a range of different, and indeed sometimes contradictory, meanings. Yet, while flexible, the concept of Britishness is also grounded in a particular historical, political, economic, social and cultural reality. It is working-class unionists, for example, who seemingly have most problem buying into a civic model, seeing themselves excluded by economic reality and by those politicians who they regard as seeking to claim Britishness in their own terms.

The notion of Britishness in Ireland is rooted in political memory, as well as in contemporary social institutions. While this endows the concept of Britishness with a certain rigidity, it certainly is not ossified. To progress Britishness, the parameters within which we understand the notion must be expanded, not narrowed.

Jim McAuley is Professor of Politics and Irish Studies at the University of Huddersfield. His latest book is Very British Rebels?: The Culture and Politics of Ulster Loyalism (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017)

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