“Protecting the Union” not the same as “protecting Unionists”

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.


5 thoughts on ““Protecting the Union” not the same as “protecting Unionists”

  1. Alan Burnside says:

    I take issue with the view that unionists are a minority. Some 60 per cent of Alliance are Protestant (or non-Catholic). If it came to a border poll they would, along with declared unionists and a sizeable number of Catholics would vote for the union. As got the ILA the sooner SF say what they it should contain the sooner we can debate our way to a restoration of Stormont.

  2. A very good article I do not believe the vast number of ‘branded’ unionists have any objection to the Irish language being used more but it must be balanced off against the cost and practicality of imposing it across the board.

    I travel throughout Ireland and can count on the fingers of half a hand the times that I have heard Irish being spoken even in the designated areas.

    The idea that Ulster Scots should also be treated with such parity is without merit for the same reason as very few of us ever new it existed before there was money made available (from other projects) to promote it,

    Like all resources there is no extra available it has to be taken from someone else.

    • Howard says:

      I would like to disagree with this (dismissive) comment about Scots, the language of R Burns and something that resonates a lot with me, as I have heard it a lot spoken in a very nice way in the ordinary business of life by rural Co. Antrim people.

      • Yes indeed, it’s a very interesting example of how intolerant people can be when they feel they have the safety of the crowd. It is easy to ridicule Ulster Scots, so everyone does so – without taking time even to do some basic research. As I’ve frequently written before, we have to do better than that.

  3. In reply firstly let me say I am an individual, I have no crowd nor do I follow an agenda. My opinions are my own and I will accept criticism if I am shown to be wrong.
    One side of my family is Scottish and I love that country and have no difficulty with the Scots language.

    My difficulty is with the promotion of an Ulster Scots language to match the requirement for the Irish language to used across the board at a cost that has removed public services from people where the money needs to be better spent. and I believe this is only a distraction from the politicians having to deal with real issues.

    To each their own and whichever language you choose to learn and use I wish you well I just resent having to pay personally for surgery I should have had on the national health because of the waiting list is now in excess of two years and I could no longer tolerate the pain

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