Neither Britain nor nationalists see the attraction in the Union
How might we rethink the Union? Margaret Thatcher famously said that the people of Northern Ireland were as British as those of her constituency, Finchley. That’s not quite true.
Unionists have long preferred to call themselves British in a way that the Scottish and Welsh tend not to. Perhaps this is the over-emphasis of those who actually doubt their position, protesting too much.
But a Union is different from actual membership of a nation state.
We in Northern Ireland have something that the people of Yorkshire do not have. They can’t vote themselves out of the Kingdom.
It is unlikely that a unionist could be persuaded that this freedom to leave is an advantage since staying in the Union is their fundamental aspiration.
But that inhibits them from adapting to changing circumstances.
And they can’t threaten to go as a negotiating position and anyway, Britain might be glad to see the back of them.
Yet they have always disdained full absorption into Great Britain and they have valued devolution. If we could imagine a future scenario in which a British prime minister sought to reverse devolution and absorb Northern Ireland, unionists would probably be almost as outraged as nationalists.
So the reality of Northern Ireland’s position within the Union is that it retains and values some distance from Britain but has never been able to play that distance much to its advantage.
When Britain proposed the welfare state, some civil servants in Stormont — notably Patrick Shea — argued that Northern Ireland should not accept London’s prescriptions of how the money should be spent.
Shea argued that we could take the money under local control and decide for ourselves how to spend it.
Personally I think that would have been appalling but that’s not the point. Shea argued that Northern Ireland became a mere vassal state when it, essentially, let Britain’s welfare system dictate how much we spent on unemployment benefits and health and so on.
He believed that Northern Ireland could have diverged from Britain much as the south did, shoring up its own autonomy, remaining in the Union but with more localised power.
Like Hong Kong perhaps.
Unionists have sought to preserve the distinction from Great Britain in order to defend social morality legislation, banning homosexuality and abortion, for instance, but never creatively.
All this speaks of a unionist tradition which has no better idea than simply to adhere, as closely to Britain as possible while defending a religiously informed culture that makes us different from Britain.
Those who play the advantage of distance are the nationalists and republicans.
Michelle O’Neill could chat to King Charles as if he was her next door neighbour, while Jeffrey Donaldson waited humbly in line for his turn to bow before him.
But currently nationalism sees only the prospect of breaking the Union, not developing it, despite the fact that many who are glibly described as nationalist are apparently content in the Union if not to call themselves unionists.
Republicans won’t even take their seats in Westminster when they could be there, if they chose, seeking to modify the Union, perhaps by defending the protocol.
Nobody is thinking of changing the terms of the Union or thinking of it as a flexible arrangement.
When Scots threaten to leave, England turns into an abusive partner addicted to coercive control, goes into a huff and pleads with them, or flies into a rage, refusing to allow them out the door.
Why, unionists might ask, does Britain not love us in the same way?
For if they did, we could play them a bit. They might look at the protocol not as a weakening of the Union but as a fruitful embellishment of it.
Republicans who demand a new Ireland can confront the government in Dublin in a way that unionists are unable to confront the one in London. One says, change everything; the other says change nothing.
Britain says it has no selfish strategic or economic interest in us.
‘If your southern suitor wants you then go, see how much I care.’
Four years ago Prime Minister Theresa May announced that this year we would have a Festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, celebrating ‘our precious Union’ as she called it. That plan has gone the way of another plan to take down the peace lines next year. You don’t remember that because you didn’t take it seriously at the time, nor should you have done.
“Just as millions of Britons celebrated their nation’s great achievements in 1951, we want to showcase what makes our country great today,” said Mrs May.
Her successor Boris made himself Minister of the Union and did nothing.
Unionism does not have any ideas for how to enrich the Union or to deploy our detachment to our advantage.
The protocol offers a little loosening of the Union for economic gain. The case against it demands a tightening of the Union to stifle our room to grow and manoeuvre. It says, let’s always just leave things as they are, yet things don’t stay the same for long.
Britain is like the lover who has already said we are free to go in our own time. Unionism’s response is an unattractive clinginess.
Nationalism’s response is to draw us all closer to the door, which is easier when there really is no alternative vision on offer.
Unionism has to take responsibility for having so little to offer either Britain or its neighbours.
Malachi O’Doherty’s latest book asks, Can Ireland be One?