You can be Liberal, or you can be Unionist – but not both

The term “Liberal Unionist” has long intrigued me. I have long felt that people use it to mean many different things and I came to the conclusion some time ago that, in modern parlance, it is a blatant contradiction in terms.

Firstly, it was established some months ago by a commenter on this blog – with reference, in fact, to the future or otherwise of the NI Conservatives – that “being a Unionist” is parallel with, say, “being Welsh”, not with, say, “being Conservative”. Where “being Conservative” is a political choice (albeit one which may well be rooted in upbringing), “being Unionist” is not something you can simply opt in or out of. You either are, or you’re not – Unionism is an identity, not a political or constitutional viewpoint.

It is for this reason that people speak openly about, for example, the “Unionist people” or “Unionist culture” – in the same way they might speak of “Welsh people” or “Welsh culture” (but not, for example, of “Conservative people” or “Conservative culture”). Yes, the extent to which you feel “Welsh” may vary depending on time, location or circumstance and likewise the extent to which you feel “Unionist”, but ultimately it is something you are born into; or, at least, something which, if you opt into it, is an overall culture (incorporating symbols, music, traditions and so on) rather than a political philosophy.

I have argued before on this blog that this “Unionist culture” derives from the requirement to maintain a Protestant ascendancy in Ireland (partly, at least, by maintaining a link of some sort to Great Britain), and is thus fundamentally anti-democratic in origin (rather, it is aristocratic and militaristic). In fairness, this seems more ludicrous in the 21st century than it did in the 17th, when such power wrangles and maintenance of minority interests at the top of society were common across Europe. Once this is understood everything becomes more easily grasped – from the establishment of Northern Ireland, to the mix or religious and national symbols within Unionism, to the failure to reach out to so-called “Catholic Unionists” (a term which grates precisely because it is so obviously contradictory, given the above), and so on.

Secondly, and resultantly, Unionism is essentially defensive, reactionary and communal. It seeks to defend the status quo without any consideration being given to whether this is, rationally, a good thing for the “Unionist community” or not – thus for example the eleven-plus patently isn’t advantageous for most children of the “Unionist community”, however defined, yet receives near universal Unionist support almost as a rite of passage (i.e. an inherent part of the culture). It is reactionary to events, based on a clear conviction that the present is as good as it is going to get and thus seeking to maintain the maxim “What we have, we hold” – witness Peter Robinson’s farcical and wildly exaggerated reaction to the idea Prison Symbols may be changed the same way Policing Symbols were.  And it is communal – even the “moderate” Unionist Party’s Leader (and Oxbridge-educated) Mike Nesbitt’s speech is littered by terms such as “Unionist community”, “the Protestant side”, “the side I represent”, “our side of the fence” and so on (note also the interchange of the terms “Protestant” and “Unionist”). As a consequence of all of this, Unionism is also innately lacking in confidence – almost always, for example, hinting at the innate superiority of England and/or Great Britain (not least through basic terms such as “mainland”, but also in areas such as economic policy where the eternal need for a gross subvention is assumed anyone questioning it is mocked). This “defensive, reactionary and communal” aspect is seen not just in politics, but at cultural and street level too, and even in bureaucracy in older “establishment” organisations (such as Invest NI) – little may change, things are done the way they are done because they were always done that way, and the old school tie may matter.

Liberalism, on the other hand, is completely and utterly at odds with all of this. It is progressive, visionary and fundamentally anti-communal (believing rather in the individual’s own right of self-identification). It rejects tradition out of hand, seeking always a rational way of doing things; it assumes the future will be better than the past and actively seeks out visions of how this may be so; and in the case of this part of the world it rejoices in talk of a common “Northern Irishness” rather than of different “communities” or “peoples”, actively rejecting the notion of “special treatment”. It is more of a political philosophy than a culture, but by definition people who adhere to it cannot at the same time adhere to a culture to which it is fundamentally opposed!

“Liberal Unionist” may, of course, merely be another way of saying “moderate Unionist”. But even that does not work. Either you adhere to the Unionist culture, or you accept outcast status – doomed, no matter what your commitment to the concept of the United Kingdom, to be at best a bit-part player. Any Leaders of Unionism must be clearly Unionist – that entails not just support for the Union with Great Britain, but also defence of the status quo, attendance at Unionist events (e.g. Covenant celebrations), and membership of some sort of Protestant establishment. It is impossible, for example, to speak of “our side of the fence” on one hand and talk about “bringing down walls towards a Shared Future” on the other. The two are directly at odds – Unionists prioritise the former, and Liberals the latter.

While it is perfectly possible for someone who supports the Union with Great Britain to become a leading Liberal, it is not possible for a Liberal to become a leading Unionist – because that would require adherence to a culture which is fundamentally opposed to everything Liberalism is about. Furthermore, it is a nonsense for anyone serious about a “Shared Future” to talk at the same time of “sides of the fence” – by definition, “Shared Future” politics (I prefer the term “progressive politics” to indicate clearly that a Shared Future is something new and different, not just a minor modification of the situation pre-1969) requires thinking and feeling for all of Northern Ireland, and that requires a party with people from all of Northern Ireland. As a side point, it is also a nonsense to talk on one hand of incorporating “Unionist” into your party name, and on the other of making a serious play for “Catholic” votes – again, you cannot really be “Catholic” and “Unionist” (while you may of course be perfectly content to remain within the UK while attending mass every week).

A number of people active in Northern Ireland politics are described as “Liberal Unionists”. In 2013, they’ll need to decide which…


5 thoughts on “You can be Liberal, or you can be Unionist – but not both

  1. harryaswell says:

    You have just made an excellent argument for all who are British Citizens NOT to vote Alliance! Well done. Fact is, of course, Alliance are allied to the British LibDems, and as such are indeed Liberals and a Liberal party. Liberals are well known for their fuddy-duddy behaviour and inability to make any sorts of decisions and for not thinking things through properly, not to mention sitting on fences! Unionists, on the other hand, are indeed a result of Carson and his actions in removing the Northern Irish six counties away from the, now, Republic of Ireland, staunchly remaining British under British rule from Westminster. The original Unionist Party was, of course, allied to the British Conservative party. This is the basic mistake made by the UUP today, in altering that arrangement. It has allowed a wishy washy replica, the NI Conservative party, to form. Yet another split, yet another waste of votes. IF one wants to remain as British, IF one wants to remain united with the rest of the UK, then one is left with little choice other than to vote DUP or UUP or NI Conservatives. This is because Alliance has shown itself to be totally unreliable as regards maintaining the Union. Proven by their complete misunderstanding of the Flags situation. It is so very easy to be friendly to all, but in politics there are many hazards in doing so. To be truly non-sectarian, it becomes necessary to realise that some of the, sic., Irish Republican sympathetic catholics, MAY be there to cause mischief and like the Sinn Fein and SDLP actualy aim for a United Ireland. Hence the enormous suspician caused by Alliances attitude to the flags flying at City Hall. Northern Ireland IS British, WE are British Citizens, and I for one am proud to be so. I am also Irish. I have no problem with that whatsoever. It is becoming more and more evident that logicality is trying to replace empathy, realism, tradition and loyalty with complete disregard to culture and history. To try to say that the UUP is NOT sympathetic to Roman Catholics is a complete nonsense, The DUP are of the evangelical and Protestant leaning, no doubt. To say, as you have tried to imply, that to be Protestant means that one is Unionist is correct to some degree. However, many Roman Catholics DO vote Unionist, but hardly DUP Unionist. The answer today IS to vote UUP, which traditionally is a staunch supporter of the British Culture and the Union with Britain. What we would ALL like to see are so called unionist parties coming out strongly and saying that they do indeed support the Union, and the flying of flags all day and every day if that is what people want. SF and Alliance need NOT have ordered the removal of the flag until after Christmas, in which case no damage would have been done to our economy. SF, of course, deliberately set this trap, which Alliance, silly muppets, fell right into.

  2. @Poodler78 says:

    Liberalism is a political philosophy but it comes in many formats across the world. The basics remain the same but the delivery by political parties is often very different, sometimes even within the same country. Unionism as a political philosophy in its own right is the same – a core belief but one that can come in different guises. To argue otherwise would be at odds with basic political philosophy.

    You argue, it is not only a political philosophy but a cultural identity. and the two cannot be separated. I think this is nonsense.

    To me, unionism as a cultural identity is one that at its core is about maintaining a link to the Union and a general way of life – political views may be shaped by, but are separate to, this identity. This identity is defined and enhanced, not just through life in NI but also influenced by the mainland through wider engagement in the Union (I, like many others, use this in a perfectly accurate way of defining our geographic position as opposed to the erroneous proposition of inferiority). There is a keen debate in GB about what it is to be British right now but in all its constituent forms, there is still a wider society, way of life and culture that we can identify with that is not defined by our political positions.

    It is also possible be a unionist through culture without lauding the trappings you mention – organisations such as the Orange Order, or past reverie with the Covenant or a protestant ascendancy (??); it is possible to be a unionist and not agree with the DUP’s fundamentalist views on abortion, homosexuality and religion. Not all of unionism has to be about weird religious beliefs, sectarian rhetoric or to abhor progression. Nor does it have to exclude a particular religion as you strangely allege. And it also goes, that for some, unionist culture can be about all those elements you object to too.

    In short though, you equate all unionism to the DUP/UUP models. This is nonsense. A lot of your objections to the DUP/UUP brand of unionism are fair enough but cannot be used to redefine all unionism to suit your argument.

    Sadly, unionist political leaders since 1921 have been for the most part poor and the rallying cry from then to now through the Troubles – vote for us or themmins will get in – has lead to voting patterns in NI based on constitutional determination rather than pure political philosophy. It is a sad legacy that this is the case and unlikely to end any time soon but it is also understandable how it came to be. This is possibly how people come to view the political and cultural as intrinsically linked.

    Unionism may be currently dominated by the DUP/UUP conservative position (indeed it could be even argued that they are Northern Ireland nationalists rather than UK unionists) but those parties have changed in approach before, so there is no reason mainstream unionism cannot in the future. A unionist through cultural identity, can still through political choice be liberal in view. There is no reason that a unionist party could not reflect this.

    Locke would shudder at your attempt to tell many liberal minded unionists that it was not their inherent right to self-idenitifcation by the way…

    • James Campbell says:


      There is indeed a debate in Britain generally about the meaning and relevance of “being British”. Perhaps ironically, those who feel most British (apart from BNP and its associates) tend to equate “Loyalist” and “Unionist”, see events such as urinating on churches and trying to murder police as the culture of “Unionism” in Ireland, and don’t want to be associated with it. You and I know that Unionism has (like every other ism) a spectrum including embarrassing extremes. Unionism as seen from England is a construct of the Media, seen through lace curtains; partial and intrinsically biased.


      Liberalism is a label that means different things to different people. For a long time “Liberal” meant “Freemason”, particularly in continental Europe and North America. My local council has Liberal Party members who are somewhat to the left of the Greens and are aggressively irrational. The Australian Liberal Party is Conservative (eg “wherever possible, government should not compete with an efficient private sector; and businesses and individuals – not government – are the true creators of wealth and employment”). Mrs T was a vigorous apologist for Liberal economists. So I am not convinced that you are right in claiming that Liberlism is progressive.

      Likewise “Unionism” is a label, and as such is a less coherent description than it used to be. In the 70’s, I was asked to give talks to local 6th Forms. I could say to them that they shouldn’t think of “Protestant” and “Catholic” as religious labels; rather as tribal; or as Media-speak for area of residence; or as shorthand for Unionist or Nationalist. They found it difficult to imagine that Republican might not mean Terrorist. I think the weave is rather more complex these days but you’d not realise that from the media reports.


  3. The Listener says:

    Ian, You should have been a professor of Political History, and you could have ruminated on among the towers and spires of academia. Your captive audience would have had to listen to you, or go to sleep in the lecture theatre, too many suppositions/ruminations!

    You correctly point out the stupidity of using religion as a name handle. However as has been mentioned elsewhere the Unionist Party used to be connected to the Conservative Party with its underlying political message centre right conservative. Of course any one who joins the DUP, Unionist or Conservative Partys must ipso facto be to some degree Unionist in believing that we are better together in these islands. I suspect the great majority in Alliance are as well.

    Alliance correctly looking to the future, majors on social issues. However its “sensble middle road, middle class” action to the flag issue has been the biggest gaffe in its history. If they had proposed the approach of selective flying of our country’s flag in Bangor or Craigavon there would not have been any fuss, but to remove the union flag, except for designated days, at the City Hall of the province’s major city without a tested groundswell of support was crass.

    The Conservative Party in Northern Ireland is a centre right political party. The Unionists may be, and I am not sure about the DUP. There may be tinges of socialism and working class solidarity there! Without being affilliated to an all UK party they are open to the description of Ulster Nationalist.

    In short Ian, I believe you are over egging your argument.

  4. […] have recently read the following comments on Twitter and in what is still left of the Northern Irish political […]

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