Tuesday, July 20, 2010

2021 Vision

The News Letter have been running a fascinating series on the prospects for Northern Ireland in 2021 - the centenary of the foundation of the Northern Ireland state. Contributors range from Unionist politicians to the Orange Order to historians and many more besides.

Together, the contributions add up to an insightful guide to contemporary Unionism and an assessment of its own future. And that assessment is a very positive one: confident that Northern Ireland will still be part of the United Kingdom by the time of the 2021 centenary. By implication, of course, they do not expect a United Ireland by 2016 or any other date this side of their centenary.

Here are just a few of the comments that stood out for me. Firstly, Christopher Montgomery on the realpolitik of partition:
Partition worked because it reflected reality: there are two nations on the island.

Nationalism, in its mystical 32 county incarnation, hasn’t worked because it proposes something that’s not true – that there’s just one.

A country 60 million strong can cope with a few hundred thousand unhappy inhabitants indefinitely. Whereas the Irish Republic – the real one – dreads nothing more than the impossibility of a million unionists swamping them and their institutions.
The inability of an economically moribund Irish Republic to fund Northern Ireland gets mentioned a lot by contributors. Understandably in the circumstances. But looking ahead eleven years raises lots of questions about the future - not only for Northern Ireland but also for the United Kingdom as a whole. Arthur Aughey observes that:
...the big question for this political generation: ‘what is the United Kingdom for in the twenty-first century?’

...the “big long-term issue arising from devolution is not so much about Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, but about the UK as a whole”.

A big question for the next decade but also a big opportunity.

Surely unionists, who have talked of little else, can contribute to a new vision for the UK?
The 'vision thing' comes up a lot - though few really conceptualise what that might be. However, Alex Kane has the best stab at it in my opinion:
...it's about promoting and marketing the long term socio/economic benefits of the Union; contrasting the authentic mammon of a United Kingdom with the bogus god of a United Ireland; diluting the link between unionism and Protestantism; and winning over increasing numbers of people to the pro-Union camp.

Put bluntly, it's about maximising the pro-Union vote and representation on the back of a propaganda war built upon confident unionism.
As visions go it might lack a certain emotional appeal, but an appeal to 'hearts and wallets' can be just as effective as one to 'hearts and minds'.

Of course, defining and mapping the future for Unionism demands an assessment of the future for Nationalism - or at least for those with Nationalist aspirations. Here a very interesting range of opinions emerge: from the 'no-nonsense/bribe them out of their false consciousness' approach of Alex Kane to a 'we were all rebels once but then we changed' perspective from David Hume on behalf of the Orange Order (harking back to the Presbyterians who supported the United Irishmen). My words not theirs, I should add.

History is the ghost at the table of any discussion about the future. History comes up a lot in the various contributions - the Battle of the Somme in 1916, for instance. I can understand its powerful resonance in the folk memory of Ulster Unionists - even if my Catholic grandfather also happened to fight in the same battle, along with many of the 17,000 Ulster Catholics who fought in the Great War. More recent history also resonates - the Belfast Agreement in 1998 which effectively committed Sinn Fein to the recognition of partition.

There is almost a sense of surprise that Northern Ireland has survived this long, and looks likely to survive in its current guise to 2021 (unless Unionism starts demanding a United Ulster, of course). Even King George V seemed uncertain about its future in his speech at the opening of the Northern Ireland Parliament in June 1921:
May this historic gathering be the prelude of a day in which the Irish people, North and South, under one Parliament or two, as those Parliaments may themselves decide, shall work together in common love for Ireland upon the sure foundations of mutual justice and respect.
The visit of his granddaughter - Queen Elizabeth II - will no doubt spark similar deliberations on this side of the border. The News Letter has set the bar high with the standard of its contributions. I hope the same standard will prevail in other discussions about the future of both parts of this island.

1 comment:

  1. NI will still be part of the UK by 2021 I'm completely sure. In my opinion; in resent years the UK would have handed it back in a heartbeat if they actually believed the south would take it. Through the ESB the Irish Government has taken ownership of the North's National Electricity Grid. The North's single biggest and strategically important piece of infrastructure being purchased by the Irish Government surely will give them massive political influence in the North. Without the headache of actuality uniting with basket case of a country (a little harsh I know) like Northern Ireland.

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