In a few weeks time I will turn 60, in the circumstances it won’t be celebrated by a trip to the States as was my initial intention. But it does represent an opportunity, given the current political challenges, to reflect on my journey through Northern Ireland’s history of the last 40 or 50 years. When I was old enough I joined the security forces serving Queen and country. When given the opportunity I sought elected office and over several terms served my local community.
Through the years I listened to our political leaders and followed the guidance they gave. When they called on us to gather at the front of the City Hall I joined with hundreds of thousands of others, when we were urged to march on the gates of Maryfield I marched, when we were called upon to block roads I blocked roads and every time the result was the same, we changed nothing.
Today I hear discordant Unionist voices from the past rattling their chains and once again expressing a wish to climb upon the back of a lorry and urge Unionists to action, were it not for the pandemic the backs of lorries would be filled with old men and young turks. They would be urging us to stand our ground, to push forward, to fight. And as in the past they would do no standing, no pushing and definitely no fighting. What they propose has nothing to do with political intelligence or a carefully thought out strategy, their proposals represent a lack of political knowledge and an absence of strategy. Had they any such ability we would not be in the position we are in.
There are different quotations based on the same theme but Churchill’s is perhaps the most pertinent “those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it”. Are we or our politicians experiencing anything different than Carson who reflected
“What a fool I was. I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power. And of all the men in my experience that I think are the most loathsome it is those who will sell their friends for the purpose of conciliating their enemies, and, perhaps, still worse, the men who climb up a ladder into power of which even I may have been part of a humble rung, and then, when they have got into power, kick the ladder away without any concern for the pain, or injury, or mischief, or damage that they do to those who have helped them to gain power.”
When the North Antrim MP raised this week in Parliament with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster the fact that he knew The Sash as a way of intimating ‘you are really one of us’ the putdown was brutal. Mr Gove pointed out that he also knows The Fields of Athenry, Flower of Scotland and Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Mr Gove is not one of us, Mr Gove will sing any song, will wear any coat and will put on any face that gives him political advantage, it is sad that leaders of Unionism placed much faith in such a man. And such a man was placed in charge of negotiating our position in respect of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Of course he is not alone, there are many whose belief in English nationalism is as big a threat to the union as Scottish nationalism or Irish nationalism. Yet uniquely it is to English nationalism that some in political Unionism have lent their support. They’re represented in government by the group of MPs formally known as the European Research Group (ERG) now better known as the Covid Recovery Group (CRG). François, Baker, Harper, Rees Mogg and the rest, though in the minority in the Conservative party came to dominate the post Brexit landscape, nothing would do but that the Brexit we achieved should be the hardest of them all. In the choice between financial opportunity in trading with America or ease of trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of United Kingdom, money won.
So why do some unionists sup from the same cup, it’s easy, in their pomposity the most right-wing English politicians wrap themselves in the union flag. It is not a sign of loyalty, it is not a signal of allegiance, it is merely that with slightly more self-awareness than the Emperor they realise they wear no clothes. They are the Militant Tendency of the Conservative movement and sadly the Conservatives lack a Neil Kinnock with the spine to deal with them.
With no sense of direction, with no clear understanding of the external environment the United Kingdom set forth on a journey to the sunny uplands. Here in Northern Ireland we learned some valuable lessons, we are not the most important people in the world, we are not the most important people in Europe and we are not the most important people in the United Kingdom. The needs and wants of others take precedence. The whole of the United Kingdom has learned that trading arrangements between nations are complex and bring difficulties and we have learned that when national governments take shortcuts regions face the most challenges. Let me say from the start I am no less British today than I was in December 2020 or pre-and post Brexit in 2016. There have always been goods and services available in Great Britain that were not available in Northern Ireland, from entering competitions to getting cheap car insurance or getting electrical products that had nefarious alternative uses, we didn’t wreck the place when the meerkat said no.
This week I watched representatives of the logistics sector present to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee each and every one of them had solutions, where they had identified problems they were also identifying ways to address those problems the one thing they were missing was a clear and tangible route to putting those solutions in front of decision-makers. Not one of them suggested pulling articulated lorries across the road and torching them or blockading ports as a solution. Yet, but for the pandemic, I suspect that is precisely what some Unionist leaders would be advocating.
There are some hard lessons to learn, I suspect some politicians have yet to learn them and even when they do they will defer from telling you the truth. The Northern Ireland protocol is part of an international trade agreement there is no such thing as simply dismissing it, to replace it means reopening negotiations and to get something different the Conservatives must give something more and that is something they will not do. In the words of Kipling “we are the sacrifice”. Much is made of using Article 16, it doesn’t replace the protocol it allows only for breathing space and addresses issues that were unforeseen. Much of the difficulty in using Article 16 derives from the fact that Mr Gove and Lord Frost knew exactly the consequences of the agreements they were signing, none of our current challenges were unforeseen. Even in 2024 a vote in the assembly to remove Articles 5-10 of the protocol means only renegotiation between Europe and the UK and new Articles, any such eventuality will not lead to any outcome which limits UK trade internationally.
So where do we go from here, some in Unionist politics suggest bringing down Stormont and ending devolution, I can think of no more irrational thought than this. In a world where our influence is already small some would remove it altogether and place every aspect of our lives and our futures in the hands of those who have already shown they are quite prepared to use and abuse our loyalty for their own financial and political advancement. A neoliberal conservatism determined to remove the £10 billion cost of belonging to Europe will, left unhindered, turned their attention to the other £10 billion cost to the Exchequer.
Those who clamber onto the backs of lorries are fond of using a phrase “what we have we hold” it has been a feature of Unionist politics my entire life. It was unchallengeable, but now perhaps is the time to challenge it, for the sake of the union and for Unionism. What if what we have, what if what we hold is not enough. Last summer I became a grandfather for the first time. The country, the nation, the future I want for future generations must be better than what we have now and no amount of barricades and marches and rallies will deliver change for Northern Ireland. To do so requires a vision that builds a common purpose. Instead Unionism, if we truly believe in the union we must be prepared to sell a vision of something better not just here but across the Kingdom, for Scotland, England and Wales as well as ourselves. When we talk of promoting the union we put the health service front and centre yet the model we have hasn’t delivered in years. Following the pandemic it will require massive change and investment, as unionists supporting the transformation of services across the UK will we support the radical reforms necessary to deliver that change. Our economic model is fixated on the concept of Gross Domestic Product as a measure of success yet other societies are moving to recognise the well-being of their citizens as being the fairest measure of economic and social advancement. Our education system is designed to deliver workers into the economy, yet just as the agrarian revolution and industrial revolution transformed society the technological revolution provides the opportunity to change education to deliver citizens into society not just workers into a job. As a nation we struggle with poverty in all its forms have we the courage to raise it to the top of our agenda, across the nation and consider any measure that gives hope of a better life and better opportunities. Future generations will face massive challenges due to climate change and the scale of those challenges will be decided by decisions we take now and yet Unionism for the most part is bereft of strategies, proposals and motivation to change. We are responsible now for building the foundations upon which future generations will build their society. Will those foundations be built on hopelessness and fear, running from challenges, or will they be built on resilience, science and flexible rational thought. To secure our place in the union decisions will depend not on friends and allies in high places, as we have experienced, when the time comes and they are needed we have very few. Our place will be secured on the value we bring to the growth and development of the UK as a whole not just our place within it, for what we put in, not what we take out.
To abandon politics at any level at this stage is to abandon the future of Northern Ireland and leave us entirely at the mercy of those whose loyalty is to profit and for whom Northern Ireland is a burden. On those rare occasions we have real influence and the ability to make change in the UK we must use it to make real meaningful changes for all, we shouldn't sell such influence for short tern financial and political gain. Be truly part of the Union and its people. Political leadership means winning by force of argument and having better solutions than anyone else at the table, political cowardice means refusing to engage and walking away from the table. It is time for Northern Ireland Unionism to build a vision of the union which resonates in Scotland Wales and England, Governments are only transient, the hearts and minds of people endure..