Unionism swept back to power in the United Kingdom in December 2019 in a new Conservative government. Their Prime Minister (also Minister for the Union) is committed to a swift withdrawal from the European Union that is likely to weaken the union with Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, unionism in Northern Ireland – in the form of the Democratic Unionist Party – has already undermined the union through its support for – and eventual betrayal by – hard-line British Conservativism.
Why does unionism – which promises progressive and flexible politics – have such effects?
Unionisms are important in the contemporary world because they offer an alternative form of politics to zero-sum national conflict: they promise more flexible interrelations between peoples and their polities.
If, in the past, imperial and conservative unions were held together by force, now the glue is said to be the democratic will of the constituent peoples. But this is hard to maintain. British and Irish history reveals contrasting types of unionism: from the conservative (focussed on the traditional British state) and the imperial (focussed on the wider global British ‘family’), to the ethno-religious (focussed on the religious heritage of the British people) and the constructive (willing to negotiate a modus vivendi with nationalisms in Scotland and Ireland) to the civic (focussed on the citizens of the UK) and the project-oriented (focussed on the shared values governing the union).
For long periods in Scotland and shorter ones in post 1998 Northern Ireland, considerable flexibility in the understanding and practice of the union has removed the contradictions between unionism and nationalism. But more often, at least in the Irish and Northern Irish cases, unionism has involved repression, lack of attention to and dismissal of Irish voices.
Why do unionisms frequently turn to reaction rather than negotiation? Why has democratic consent not more frequently been sought?
Unions – made up of a multiplicity of territories and people – are vulnerable to fission. Nationalist movements survive successive defeats and adapt to changed circumstances, but, if a union breaks up, this is likely to be definitive; in a Northern Irish unionist phrase ‘unionism only has to lose once’. Because of this, and conscious of the dangers of separation, unionists are tempted to use state resources to repress challenges even when this holds out longer-term dangers to the union.
There are cases where unionism is more far-sighted, responding to challenge by negotiating the distribution of benefits and recognition, loosening the union in order to strengthen it. This can be seen within the EU, devolution through the first decade of the 2000s in the UK, in the Good Friday Agreement, and in the state of autonomies in Spain after 1978. Without a shared project, however, this is difficult path to maintain. Thus, unionisms, in the UK, Spain, Northern Ireland, and arguably the EU tend to flip-flop from flexibilism to rigidity and back.
This concertina effect is seen historically in Northern Ireland where policies of openness and compromise were followed by closure and polarization. ‘Constructive unionism’ in 19th century Ireland was followed by militarist unionism in the early 20th century. In the 1990s, unionism turned to compromise in the Good Friday Agreement, then unionist support fell off; it was revived again in the St Andrews agreement of 2006, it fell off again by 2012 with mobilization around the ‘flags’ protest, followed by polarization around Brexit (2016-19), followed in the 2020s, perhaps by a new phase of unionist flexibilism.
The concertina movement has become faster in recent decades because the Good Friday Agreement can underpin a shared project that some of unionisms’ Protestant support base is open to. But the unionist parties have failed to articulate such a project, and as their support base itself begins to split, they have allowed reactive defence of the existing union to take priority over the values that could underpin its evolution.
Only project-orientated unionism can flexibly negotiate relations within and among the parts of a union in light of shared values. From this perspective, unions can be a moving balance of their parts, held together by shared and evolving ideals and institutions. But what values can be appealed to in unions that have been built on conflict? In situations of conflict, project values have to be able to overcome opposition, permitting greater deliberation about the future, creating more permeable boundaries, delinking community-belonging and political rights, and allowing these values to determine whether constitutional change or constitutional renewal should occur. Without such an ideal, unionism reverts to repression and zero-sum territorial conflict.
In face of the uncertain geopolitics of Brexit, unionists in Northern Ireland have many triggers for reflection about the future. The traditional rationales for maintaining the Union – economic, material and security – are being undermined by Brexit and the more so the more assertive and threatening unionist politics becomes. The wider unionist public in Northern Ireland is – for the first time in over a century – faced with hard choices as to the sort of Union it wants, and the price it is willing to pay for it. Whether or not a consensual and open UK union can be restored after Brexit, and after the breakdown of trust within Northern Ireland and between Northern Ireland and Westminster that it involved, remains very uncertain. And what sort of Irish union – if any – could help overcome opposition, create more permeable boundaries, and delink community belonging and political rights is a question that is only now beginning to be seriously discussed.