Anthony McIntyre
June 1995

Twenty five years to the day when rampant unionism was banished from Ballymacarrat by the IRA at the battle of St Matthews, the same unionists, no longer rampant, assembled barely a mile from the scene of their ignominious 1970 defeat. This time they came without guns. The Ulster Hall, rather than a catholic church, was the focus of their attention.

Visions of the Union was a News Letter sponsored conference aimed at strengthening the union and rolling back what is widely perceived to be the onward march of Irish nationalism. A variety of shades of unionist opinion was represented. Predictably, Paisley and his undemocratic unionist party boycotted. He even said 'no' to that. Even more surprising than Paisley's absence was that of Sisyphus. He could have saved the unionists a lot of time and bother by relaying his own experiences to them.

From the point of view of the sponsors the purpose of the conference was to investigate ways of copper-fastening the union to such a degree that it was no longer an issue for politicians to mull over. Intellectual Jurrasicism there.

Among those who spoke were Ken Maginnis of the 'impeachable source' fame (open to impeachment for all the lies that he/she has been telling Ken since the start of the IRA ceasefire), Robert McCartney (the only serious rival to Billy Hutchinson's status as a thinking unionist), John Alderdyce, Conor Cruise O'Brien, Kate Hoey of the British Labour Party, David McNarry of the Orange Order, Professor Antony Alcock and a 'nationalist', Kate Fearon of Democratic Dialogue.

The conference was worth attending if for no reason other than finding out how far the unionists have come over the past twenty five years. And with a large measure of regret it must be said very little. The dominant messages to emerge from the conference was that nationalism was an obstacle to peace - nationalists were presented as refusing historically to take any blame for the situation and as being narrow, arrogant and limited. Strange allegations indeed from those whose entire political discourse is grounded in the word 'no'.

There is a tendency on the part of republicans to exaggerate the extent to which the unionists are divided. Certainly there was evidence of division at the conference, the sharpest of which manifested itself in Maginnis launching a diatribe against the new MP for North Down, Robert McCartney. But more fundamentally, there is a strong unionist consensus that an internal solution is the only way forward, that North-South institutions with executive powers are not on the unionist agenda, and that unionism even in the more traditional sense, i.e. naked sectarianism, was a legitimate philosophy. In short, on the question of the North of Ireland as an entity separate from the twenty six counties, there is little division within the ranks of unionism. It remains very much a monolith.

The tendency of republicans to over emphasise the extent of unionist division is by no means a recent phenomenon. Simply read the An Phoblacht and Republican News from 1970, and the An Phoblacht/Republican News since 1979, and the same theme is prevalent - the unionists are divided more than ever before and a crisis of transformative potential is in the making. Yet it has never quite worked out that way.

That unionists have never moved forward is firmly rooted in the veto. Their inability to say anything other than 'no', and their subsequent inability to win friends, is in large part the consequence of a self-induced and British nurtured intellectual impoverishment. They have, unlike republicans and nationalists, never had to intellectually deliberate on ways to persuade political opponents - any outcome being pre-determined in advance by the existence of the constitutional guarantee. And there is little point in republicans trying to argue unconvincingly that there is a difference between unionist consent and the unionist veto. Unity by consent is the veto - a partitionist fudge.

This is not to say that the present republican strategy does not have the unionists all at sea in a manner that the armed struggle may never have achieved. But it is to point to the obstacles faced by the present strategy in terms of moving the unionists to a position which will cause a serious seachange of opinion in the unionist community regarding the future of the North of Ireland as 'part of the United Kingdom'.

That change will come is undeniable. But it will be both much less quick and less radical if republicans seek to play the game of winning unionist consent. As the conference demonstrated it will not be forthcoming. Unionist visionaries with white sticks can lead no one far or fast.



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