Tuesday, 31 August 2010

A Dissection of Liberal Unionism

Conal McDevitt has blogged Arthur Aughey's speech to the McCluskey Summer School.  It contains a detailed dissection of 'liberal/progressive Unionism'.  He points out that an attractive idea does not mean success:

" remains rhetorically powerful if not practically convincing."

He points out that an underpinning notion of liberal Unionism is:

"There is an assumption at the heart of liberal unionism and it is the possibility that ‘middle Ulster’ can find common ground with ‘middle Ireland’ (within Northern Ireland and between North and South). That common ground can be found insofar as Unionists and Nationalists think rationally and put material interests before sectarian ones."

However, that assumption has structural problems nothing to do with the merits of Nationalism and Unionism.  He highlights that while people talk moderation they continue to think tribal.

"Those surveys tend to present Northern Ireland opinion in its Sunday best but I think this one is most revealing.  The question is: A political gain for one religious tradition in Northern Ireland usually results in a loss of ground for the other? – 53% agreed and 15% were too polite to say! However, with all allowance for positive response syndrome, it looks like about three-quarters of the Northern Ireland electorate believe this is a truism of politics."

The resultant risk is it proves:

"...unpersuasive for nationalists and missing the point for unionists."

However, the strongest criticism is liberal Unionism's ability to ascribe a system of thinking to nationalists that they don't have:

"...liberal Unionism, then, seems to misrecognise nationalist opinion (rather, idealise it according to its own requirements) it can often fail to understand the anxieties and concerns of unionists."

Its misrecognition (critique here and response here) is not necessarily restricted to nationalist opinion.  Despite the pessimistic dissection of liberal unionism's flaws and inability to achieve he places his hope on the optimism displayed in the Union 2021 series:

"...when you consider the contributions to the Newsletter’s Union 2021 series it is striking that (with a few exceptions) contemporary Unionism – in its diversity – is reasonably optimistic about its future, possibly most consistently for a generation. If this is true, then the future is not without its promise. For liberal Unionism requires optimism in order to flourish."

He is predictably harsh on the DUP:

"...having its clothing stolen by the DUP...The DUP and Sinn Fein have both made the most of that fable politically but want – and prosper – by the ‘two communities’ keeping their distance."

However, the DUP is the dominant party and with that comes certain responsibilties.  Necessity may require him to revise that opinion if he desires an sustained effort to build Unionism.  The alternative party is the UUP which has not been fit for purpose for some time with questions if it is capable of being so.


Andrew said...

I've never been that sure of what 'liberal unionism' is.

I know what liberal is and I know what unionist is, but what is the liberal case for unionism?

Off-shoots of modern liberalism like secularism, pluralism, multi-culturalism all seem to tell against a geographic and spatially orientated political philosophy like unionism.

Dilettante said...

Not really - if you set 'unionism' as one half of a dichotomy with 'nationalism' as the other, then the liberal case for unionism becomes easier to comprehend.
Really, it depends on what definition of 'Liberal' you use. If you take me, I'm a classical liberal, and I'll outline my position.

Liberal unionism (at least, my view of it as a self-titled Liberal Unionist) is a branch of unionism that stresses the cosmopolitan, as opposed to the inherently communalist nature of nationalism. Followed through, this leads to the idea that political unions can and should help to transcend communal/identity divisions between peoples, creating political and cultural space where individual agency is maximised by the dislocation of state authority and imposed identity. Followed through logically this leads my kind of liberal unionist to support things like the EU.

Other Liberal Unionists (and probably the more common type) are simply unionists (for whatever reason, perhaps in part at least my reasons above) who don't share the conservatism or communalism that is a trait of 'Orange' unionism.

I'm sure there are lots of other interpretations, liberal being such a variable word. But for me it is the cosmopolitan foe of nationalism. I'll see if I can answer it better on the blog.

Andrew said...

I think we've had something close to this discussion before.

If I understand you aright unionism for you is universal political union following a liberal account of the individual. This follows because your political philosophy is not bounded by concrete individuals. Real people, in my view, are a constituent element of place, this relationship, along with other elements, are reciprocal - people both influence and are influenced by their place. Liberalism, on the other hand, moves from an abstract person, the natural man say, and builds a political system from there.

Certain of these statements may require qualification but generally I hold them to be true.

When it comes to unionism we are talking about very different things, so much in fact that to use the word for both positions is confusing. A definition of unionism might be the maintenance of political union between GB and NI. I would want to add more to this definition but it is I think the one most widely agreed upon. In common usage the prefix traditional or liberal acts as a modifier of this definition of unionism, so depending on which is used I can know a bit more than if just 'unionism' is used. Yet from what you have said, it seems to me, that unionism is the modifier as opposed to liberalism for your position.

I'm not opposed to this, your position is pretty consistent although there might be a better word than 'unionism' which would communicate this better. My previous comments should be directed against the other usage i.e. Liberal as a modifier of unionism where unionism is conceived as a desire to maintain a particular union, of a particular people, in a particular place. If they are using liberal in the same way you are, as a theory of individualism of the neo-lockean kind, where pluralism, secularism, multi-culturalism and human rights are the courtiers of a weak master , then their liberalism undercuts their unionism.

Traditional[Orange?] unionism, although I wouldn't class myself as a traditional unionist as commonly conceived, doesn't suffer quite the same way because the same idea is embedded in traditional as in unionist. Indeed, traditional acts a demarcation from the apostates.

I've said more than I intended but I hope it explains my point from before a little better.