Monday, June 26, 2023

The Union


The word union is a strange word, Google "union definition" and you get "the action of joining together or the fact of being joined together, especially in a political context". It's a noun and many people choose to interpret that as meaning it describes a defined state of existence that should be understood by everyone, no further action or interpretation is needed. Yet every union is subject to tensions and stresses especially where that union exists "in a political context".

As Brexit has shown the maintenance of a union requires continuous engagement and negotiation with all the parties to a voluntary union to ensure that the basis of the union still exists. For unionism in a UK sense this remains an important factor which ulster unionism (small "u") struggles to understand. While the determination on whether the people of Northern Ireland choose to remain within the UK is for them alone, the actions required to improve what the union has to offer its citizens is a matter for all its citizens.

A future referendum on Northern Ireland's position will offer 2 choices, to join with the rest of Ireland or maintain the Union. While it is clear that those advocating for a United Ireland will have made significant efforts to define the social, economic, cultural and political realities of that choice those advocating for a maintenance of the Union face multiple challenges.

There is a medical term called "cognitive dissonance", frequently described as "the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes. ( Unionism struggles with a form of political cognitive dissonance, on the one hand ulster unionism demands equal citizenship with everyone else in the nation, on the other hand, once equal citizenship is given on a particular issue ulster unionism flies into almost apoplectic rage at the thought of being treated as equals. We have spent our political lives ignoring this rather large elephant in the room, come a border poll this elephant will be paraded through every issue being debated, ignoring it is not an option.

Of course, the narrowness of ulster unionist thoughts on the union subtly ignores the fact that ulster unionism represents about 1.5% of the UK population. It takes a particular arrogance to suggest that ulster unionism should be the section of society to define the union moving forward. Whatever the vision of the union of the future, the union that is presented as the alternative to a united Ireland, it is not for ulster unionism alone to define. Neither is it a vison to be determined by unionism joining with a few right-wing national actors seeking a new cause celebre to rally people to the flag.

Whatever the union of the future looks like it must reflect the aspirations of all its citizens, including, but not exclusively, ulster unionism. A national discussion, a conversation, must transcend party politics, it must include a space to listen not just to the powerful but the powerless. The union must be more than a flag, or loyalty to the Crown, it must define the rights of citizens, the responsibilities allocated to Governments and the benefits accruing to all.

Even without the possibility of a border poll it is an exercise worth having, not just for ulster unionism, for the UK as a whole. We, the UK, have drifted along, pushed and pulled by world events and our own choices, to arrive at a point where an honest conversation about who we are and what we want to achieve for future generations would help create the foundations upon which our future society will be built. For ulster unionism, making the case for such a conversation, not only helps define our future locally but strengthens the nation as a whole.


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