Not content with admitting the DUP was right about the Agreement all along (as Alex Kane notes here), Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt also finally acknowledged what the rest of us have long known – “Unionism” is not about supporting and promoting the “Union” with Great Britain, but about supporting and promoting “British [actually: Ulster Protestant] cultural expression”. Suddenly it all kind of makes sense…
Speaking to his own AGM on Saturday, Nesbitt was clear: people were telling him that they didn’t care if the Union was safe if they were not allowed to “express their British identity”.
I must say, I personally have become increasingly frustrated at my inability to express my “British identity” in contemporary Northern Ireland. My vehicle registration plate, uniquely distinct from the rest of the UK, is a bad start; then there is the point that soon my gay friends, uniquely in the UK, will not be allowed to get married; then of course there is the outrage that proper libel laws passing through the rest of the UK will not apply in NI; one minor victory for my “British identity” was the recent decision by Belfast City Council to fly the Union Flag in line with guidance from the Royal College of Arms and the traditional British norm, but that was a rare moment of contentment. Here, of course, is the thing: in each and every one of these cases, Unionists support NI being distinct from the British norm. Unionists continue to assault my British identity – you know, the real British identity of pluralism and tolerance – in favour of their ethno-religious, parochial Ulster-Protestant nationalism.
Of course, when Nesbitt says people are coming to him about “expressing British cultural identity”, that is not what he means. What he means is parades, demonstrations, flag-waving – i.e. methods of expressing cultural identity utterly alien to most British people, and often frankly intimidatory to most fellow citizens of Northern Ireland. Unionism has nothing to do with supporting the merits of the modern UK – it generally opposes that modernity; it has to do with sectarian cultural expression. Nesbitt should now just go the whole hog and admit it – and stop using the word “British” when he means “Little-Ulster Protestant”.