What is interesting about so much of the non-DUP Unionist reaction to the highlighting of the Irish Language in Northern Ireland is how often the negative response to it is framed as “protecting the Union”.
However, what too many Unionists really mean when they use the term “protecting the Union” is in fact “protecting Unionists”. What they are doing is determining that Northern Ireland is a dichotomy between Unionists and Nationalists and that any gain for one must automatically be a loss for the other.
Yet this misses Unionism’s profound problem. In the 2011 census only 48% ticked “British” (and for that matter only 48% ticked “Protestant identity”). In March 2017 Unionism lost its Stormont majority and even in the so-called “bounce back” election three months later only 49% voted for a Unionist of any description. Unionists are a minority and Unionism is a minority interest.
Therefore it should long since have been obvious that if you really want to “protect the Union”, you have to move beyond “protecting Unionists”. Indeed, focusing solely on Unionists is outright damaging to the cause of making the case for protecting the Union, as doing so omits the majority of people in Northern Ireland.
If Unionists are serious about “protecting the Union” their appeal will have to broaden. They will need to show respect for other identities in Northern Ireland, and they will have to find ways to facilitate expression of those identities.
Remarkably, the one party which is showing signs of having worked that out is the DUP. Its expressed view that the Irish Language is not a threat to the Union, which is a million miles from past positions, demonstrates at least an awareness that Northern Ireland in the UK can – and indeed must – accommodate more than just the (minority) Unionist identity.
It should be emphasised that it remains entirely reasonable for Unionists to oppose an “Irish Language Act as proposed by Sinn Féin [in 2015]”; even Sinn Féin itself has stated publicly that there were some problems with it. However, by addressing the issue sympathetically while others snipe from the sidelines, the DUP leadership can do more than restore the trust needed to get an Executive up and running. It can actually go a long way to protecting the Union.