Throughout February, we’re getting people from all over Northern Ireland to contribute personal pieces in the run up to the election on March 2nd. 28 days in February for 28 different voices.
There are still a few spots left to fill so get in touch!
“Be advised my passport’s green.
No glass of ours was ever raised
To toast the Queen.”
Untitled, Seamus Heaney
The words of Ireland’s greatest poet accentuate the importance of identity in Northern Ireland. In contrast to Heaney, my passport most definitely is not green and I regularly toast the Queen. Born in Ballybeen (sprawling, loyalist, working-class estate on the outskirts of East Belfast) I was brought up unquestionably British. I consider the union flag to be my flag and I even enjoy the bonefires on the 11th of July (with obligatory Sinn Féin election posters atop) and the triumphant thunder of bass drums on the 12th. An impeccable unionist, you would think? Except, I have never actually voted for a unionist party and I certainly won’t be at the forthcoming assembly election.
The policies espoused by the DUP (who for the purposes of this piece, given the paucity of options, we will consider “unionism”) are largely anathema to me, except for the principle of unionism itself. Whether it is criminalisation of abortion, persecution of homosexuals, the neurotic vilification of any kind of Irish culture or identity, or the outrageous support of Brexit, I essentially do not identify with unionism today.
Two broad trends within unionism have left me particularly aghast. Firstly; conservative social policies. I’ve lived in London for over a year now. This has opened my eyes to just how far removed from British values unionism has become. The idea that we should criminalise a woman for making a health choice, or ban the recognition of love between two men is something that is more in step with rural Pakistan than a constituent part of the United Kingdom. It’s beyond my political wisdom to understand how advocating policies repudiated by the rest of the United Kingdom (and indeed the Republic of Ireland) enhances the Union. Until a unionist party has policies which aim to bring Northern Ireland society into the 21st century mainstream, they won’t be getting my vote.
The second trend is the repudiation of all things Irish. This anti-Irish, not-an-inch stance seems to offer an identity for unionism, much more than any of the heroic forefathers and events that happened in bygone years. To see the former First Minister, Arlene Foster, insist (stony-faced) that she does not have any Irish identity leaves me dumbfounded. It encapsulates the myopic view of history and culture pervading unionism today. How a woman born just a couple of miles from the Irish border, whose father served in the RUC (symbol of harp and crown) and who is the first minister of a country which contains the name “Ireland” can have not a trace of Irish in her identity is symbolic of a pig-headed approach towards the complex realities and interwoven histories of Northern Ireland. It also shows a disdain towards a large section of the population which identifies as “Irish,” something made all the more apparent at the DUP campaign launch yesterday.
Don’t let any of my grievances above lead you to believe I’m not a unionist. I absolutely am, and can see no possible scenario, even accounting for Brexit, in which Northern Ireland would be better off outside of the Union. I’m also no soft touch. I support the political arrangements established under the Good Friday Agreement, but recognise it’s a messy compromise needed to end the bloodshed. The sight of certain Sinn Féin characters still makes my skin crawl when thinking of their heinous past. I am simply incensed that the ancient animosities and suspicions are still carried by unionism today and form the basis of all policy. It seems that anything outside of traditional Protestantism is a threat to the constitutional integrity of Northern Ireland. Yet, how mistaken? This reliance on an ever dwindling section of the population at the expense of other, ever growing minorities, only makes Northern Ireland’s constitutional position more precarious. Lord Carson urged the Ulster Unionist leaders on the formation of the state to “look after the minority”. They chose not to and the following years, during which we disgraced ourselves in sectarian bloodshed, are well recorded in the history books.
I vote Alliance. I would dearly love to vote for a party that was openly unionist, but unfortunately the option simply doesn’t exist. No doubt there are sensible individuals in the Ulster Unionist Party (and possibly even the DUP) who I could lend my vote to. However, they are rare voices of reason. Unionism should be outward looking, confident and embrace everyone, no matter their race or sexual orientation. The failure to adapt and move on from the insular attitudes of the 1920s could ultimately lead to unionism’s extinction.
To explain the mentality of unionism John Hume, former SDLP leader, suggested it is important to think of unionism, not as a majority, but a minority. A minority on the island of Ireland, as a whole, and indeed in large parts of Northern Ireland. Hopefully the DUP will heed Lord Carson’s advice and begin treating all minorities better. For the betterment of unionism.
Phil Hill is a trainee solicitor with an international law firm. He is originally from Ballybeen but now lives in London.
Photo credit: Newsletter – Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.