In his article in today’s Newsletter Ben Lowry states “Unionism is now the only significant movement in Northern Ireland that ever seems to defend the status quo.” I suspect from Ben’s perspective this is a good thing. A few weeks ago I wrote an article in which I stated
“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.”
To be clear being robust defenders of the status quo is not a winning political strategy.
Over the past few weeks I heard a number of interviews with young people caught up in the violence arising from protests against the Protocol, for some they believed that the Protocol was making them second-class citizens in their own country. What saddens me is that those same young people did not understand that they are second-class citizens already, like their parents and grandparents before them. The Protocol is an unconscionable act of social, economic and constitutional vandalism by people in power who neither know nor care about its impact but it is not the cause of the generational poverty which undermines the lives of the young people in the streets throwing bricks. Neither are their conditions determined by whether they are unionist and nationalist or whether they are Protestant or Catholic. Institutionalised poverty and deprivation exist and for that reason what we have can never be the status quo that some Unionist politicians and commentators aspire to.
Areas of multiple deprivation have been a feature of government policy and questionable investment for generations. Across a broad range of civic society, community and voluntary sector, churches, schools and sections of government funds have flowed to organisations to address the impact of poverty in education, health, community development, employment, arts and many other sectors. One cannot underestimate the massive impact that those individuals delivering such programs have had on improving the quality of life of people in those areas. But such work comes with many frustrations, there is little long-term funding, projects are funded on a piecemeal basis, pilot projects, even the most successful, disappear because there is no route to sustainability and time after time organisations are expected to reinvent the wheel when all is needed is a retread.
The reality is much of that work is focused on papering over the cracks and we have some of the best decorators available. But the cracks will re-appear and they do so because the foundations are either too weak or non-existent within too many communities, that is the status quo that we cannot sustain. Imagine if we had the courage to take all of that knowledge and experience within people working in those areas and applied it to building a new foundation, if we invested in changing society from the ground up rather than simply saying we must defend the status quo.
In Ben’s article he goes on to say “If there was not a Unionist education Minister, for example, academic selection would be gone.” It’s almost as if Unionism is dependent on academic selection, on the school you go to or the badge you wear. It’s not. For those who live in areas of multiple deprivation they are told that academic selection is the route to be a better future, it is the educational equivalent of the Hunger Games. Many schools, individual teachers and community organisations do all in their power to give those children who wish to attempt selection process every opportunity to succeed but overcoming the impact of disadvantage is a massive undertaking. Levelling up every child’s life opportunity means not accepting the status quo but charting a new path.
I don’t believe that for all its efforts nationalism will bring about a United Ireland but I do think that by default unionism will push society in that direction. We cannot defend a unionism which cannot deliver for working class unionists never mind anyone else. The world around us is changing and in evolutionary terms the saying is “adapt or die” it’s a valid metaphor for political movements as well. For political unionism the challenges remain that for many such evolution is an anathema, controlling the flow of funds to areas of deprivation gives a level of power and control over the populace and importantly too few have the vision, ambition or commitment to truly change the society we live in.