Unionism must learn: we are all minorities now…

I was most disappointed by a tweet from a Unionist commentator whose views, even when I disagree with them, I can generally respect.

Voting to restrict flying of flag is, in my opinion, the wrong one: but the reaction from some of the protestors [sic] was equally wrong too.

Equally wrong?

Or, to try another angle, the First Minister demanded respect for the Union Flag (above, for example, the Tricolour) as the flag of the United Kingdom that the people of Northern Ireland (i.e. the majority of people of Northern Ireland) want to remain within. Constitutionally, he is of course correct in that. But the same logic must be consistently applied: only a minority of people in Belfast voted for Unionists, and comfortably more voted for Nationalists; thus the majority position in Belfast is not to fly the Union Flag 365 days a year on City Hall. Yet the compromise still gives the Union Flag primacy, and even does so in a way which is commonplace across the UK. So where, precisely, is his problem?

Here is the truth: Unionism is not a democratic tradition. 

Unionism has, rather, relied on two things: firstly, threat of the force of arms (as per the gun running 100 years ago); secondly, threat of force of numbers (deliberately creating for itself artificial majorities).

Both were instantly in evidence over the past 36 hours. Some suggested that non-Unionist Councillors should have gone along with Unionist demands to avoid the violence (and implicitly suggested those who dared to disagree with Unionists were somehow responsible for the Unionist rioting which followed) – that is mob rule, not democracy. Others suggested that the city boundaries were in the wrong place (the same boundaries that gave Unionists a majority until 2001) – that is gerrymandering, not democracy.

Many Unionists would distance themselves, in the 21st century, from mob rule – though by no means all. “The violence was inevitable” wrote one UUP former Special Adviser – knowing full well that it was utterly avoidable, if his colleagues hadn’t joined in the rabble-rousing online and in leaflets. Breaches of the law during the parades disputes were similarly regarded as “legitimate” by many – too many.

Most Unionists, however, even those who oppose violence outright, would struggle with the concept that “democracy” is not the same as “majoritarianism”. The whole argument for maintaining 365 days/year was based not on a persuasive constitutional case, but rather on numbers – either orchestrated or straight-out invented in most cases, it turned out. The argument made to Alliance representatives almost always took the form of “If you don’t do what we say, you’ll be voted out” – in other words, “We’re bigger than you so you’d better do as we say”.

In other words, to the Unionist mindset, anything can be justified, provided the majority think it. There are two problems here: first, Unionists are no longer a majority; second, and more importantly, democracy is about much more than majorities. It is about taking into account the overall “power of the people” (the origin of the term), meaning all of the people having a say equally, regardless of whether they happen to fall into a cultural, ethnic or linguistic majority or otherwise. It is about taking decisions while thinking and feeling for all the people, so that they are all empowered, not just a certain section.

To think and feel for all the people, you need to learn the art of persuasion and compromise. Force of arms or numbers are illegitimate, only force of argument counts. If you cannot persuade others to your view, you must seek compromise, not pursue threats – that applies, in fact, even if you are a majority, but much more obviously so if you are not.

There is more to democracy than voting, too. Fundamental pillars are also participation – i.e. the ability to engage in meaningful debate through the media and elsewhere; and abiding by the Rule of Law – i.e. the acceptance that the law and rules as passed by democratically elected institutions are binding on all of us, whether we happen to like it or not, and whether it happens to suit us or not. Over the last few months, Unionists have not proven consistently able to do either.

What was most obvious about the whole Flags debate was the complete inability on the part of Unionists either to put forward a persuasive argument, or to seek compromise – and then a willingness to breach the law or excuse its being breached, as in the summer. This would be alarming – for them and frankly for Northern Ireland – if they were the majority. But they’re not even that any more. Unionists must learn, and learn quickly, the democratic tradition where debate and compromise trump threats and numbers – not least because we are all minorities now.

13 thoughts on “Unionism must learn: we are all minorities now…

  1. Madhava says:

    thanks mr. Parsley for basically stating my exact viewpoint on the situation , thereby preventing the necessity for me to write a single word….

  2. Jack says:

    Great post.

  3. Richard Cronin says:

    Don’t enough about life here yet to know if this is true. But it sure sounds like it is.

  4. Jason says:

    Excellent post. It’s a shame that us people who intellectual enough view it as it is are in such small numbers.

  5. HCH Hill says:

    Hi Ian, just a question. You say that unionism is not a democratic tradition. Setting aside the broader truth of that, your examples raised a question for me. You posit ‘force of arms’ and cite the pre-war gun-running as an example. Then you say ‘creating artificial majorities’.

    Now there is a theme in much nationalist thought that the creation of Northern Ireland was itself the creation of an “artificial majority”. Given that you imply that gerrymandering is a long-standing source of unionism’s alleged anti-democratic character, do you subscribe to that view of the Province’s creation yourself?

    • It’s indisputable.

      Pretty much all nation-states are gerrymandered, of course.

      • HCH Hill says:

        I’m going to dispute it, at least because “artificial” implies that 1) it is somehow illegitimate and 2) that there is some form of… “authentic” or “natural” alternative.

        Setting aside quibbling over the actual position of the border, do you think that the unionist right to self-determination in an area where they were the majority was any less legitimate than the Irish nationalist claim of right to self-determination in an area that they were the majority?

      • No; but the Anglo-Scottish people of Ireland were the majority in nine-county Ulster, and actually fairly comfortably in seven-county Ulster, either of which would have been far more authentic on geographical, historical and linguistic (the latter is noteworthy, as it is often an expression of true demographic patterns) grounds.

        I still regard myself as “at home” in Donegal, despite the lack of any family bonds to it. I think it ludicrous that it lies in a separate country (whereas I wouldn’t say the same about Galway, for example).

      • HCH Hill says:

        OK, I can’t reply to your reply for some reason. Odd.

        I think the thing is that it might be true that Donegal is akin to the counties that make up Northern Ireland, but that isn’t really the point. The point was creating a territory wherein the unionists were a majority and could choose a separate destiny to the rest of their entitlement.

        Many nationalists complain – rightly – that this ended up including several Catholic majority areas/counties that could have been included in the Free State. Indeed, I’ve read that Lloyd George specifically advocated for Fermanagh and Tyrone’s inclusion on the grounds that it would make Irish reunification likely, and that had he known the border was going to end up “permanent” (at least lasting nearly a century at present) the current border would not have been settled upon.

        Unlike you, I think Northern Ireland should have been *smaller*. Because what happens when the larger province you envision as ‘natural’ has a nationalist majority? The right of nationalist majority areas to accede to the Republic hasn’t gone anywhere, but similarly the right of unionist-majority areas *not* to accede to it remains the same.

        It might strike you as ridiculous that Donegal and Antrim are in different countries, but if the majority of each county *want* to be in different counties then their right to self-determination and the borders that stem from it are not ‘artificial’.

      • Good point re: Donegal – my friends from Cavan and Monaghan would say the same about feeling at home in the North – until then, I didn’t really think our lost brothers in Ulster-beyond-the-Borders would have some emotional attachment to Ulster proper so I guess if we are to have an independent Ulster, would Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan be willing to join us?

  6. While it may be not relevant to waste time and energy arguing over flags, it is good to have no flag flying on the City Hall for most of the year – that way people carrying Irish passports won’t feel second class or intimidated. It is important that the City Hall is open to everyone, not just people with British passports. It is all about accommodating – as long as the Union flag flies, a very large number of people will feel excluded. But then again, I think there are more important things to worry about but I do hope the solution over the flag will be seen as a step closer to effective cooperation between all the political parties in creating a just and equal society for everyone in the North.

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