Alex Kane: Political unionism won't save the Union

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is an Irish News columnist and political commentator and a former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party.

East Belfast has changed enormously – but is unionism up to meeting the challenge? Picture by Hugh Russell
East Belfast has changed enormously – but is unionism up to meeting the challenge? Picture by Hugh Russell East Belfast has changed enormously – but is unionism up to meeting the challenge? Picture by Hugh Russell

Earlier this week I was in a part of east Belfast I hadn't been to for years: at the invitation of a former member of a unionist party who has lived there for nearly 70 years.

She grew up there and remembers when her street and the neighbouring streets would have been a sea of flags and bunting from early June. It was, she says, "your typical loyalist, unionist area".

What she meant, of course, was an area where Catholics and non-unionists didn't live: "Nobody would have said we hate them, but we just knew that we had our places, and they had their places. And before the Troubles that's just how it was."

But the Troubles changed everything in her street and other streets. The sense of it being 'our place' was intensified by the fear that unionism was under attack everywhere: "The old language of 'what we have, we hold' could be heard again. Flags and bunting went up earlier and stayed up longer.

"The kerbs were painted red, white and blue. Gable murals were freshened up and new ones began to appear. New political faces also began to appear on our doorsteps during elections."

The biggest change, though, was the arrival of the new wave of loyalist paramilitaries. She didn't want to go into too much detail but did say that there was a "very clear sense that our streets were now under the control of people who weren't so much protecting us as dividing loyalist working class areas into their own turfs while they recruited members for their separate groups and focused on raising money one way or another".

The only time she stopped during our conversation was to choke back a tear when she mentioned young boys, "some barely into their teens", who were swallowed up by the paramilitaries: "Lives ruined by criminal convictions. Some killed."

She had asked me to come and see her because she wanted me to see the post-Good Friday Agreement changes in her area. We stood in her front bay window as she pointed to one house after another – not one of which was rented or Housing Executive. A young doctor and her partner. A couple of teachers. A social worker. A librarian. A few civil servants. Someone from the BBC. A physiotherapist. Somebody working for a computer company. A Polish family. Some of the older families, like her. A scattering of languages, including eastern European, French, Spanish and even Mandarin. Gay couples. Protestants, Catholics, atheists. The occasional Union flag and one or two football flags.

She stopped for a moment, then smiled: "I am so pleased that I've lived long enough to see this. So many people who wouldn't have thought of coming to live here and start families are choosing this area – and paying ever increasing prices for it.

"And do you know something, Alex, it's the best thing that could ever happen for those of us who want the Union to survive. Make the place comfortable, safe, attractive, child-friendly and with good schools, sports facilities, eating places and public transport close to hand."

Perhaps the most significant point she made was about having spent so much of her life just talking to people from her own community and with a similar worldview. Now, she was living in a new world of different languages, cultures, backgrounds and worldviews. It had changed her – and for the better.

I suspect I could have had a similar conversation with another woman from the same generation, who had grown up in a Catholic/nationalist area and had now seen her area transformed into that same new world of languages, cultures, backgrounds and worldviews. And I'm pretty sure that both would never have expected to see their houses and areas become what estate agents like to describe as 'desirable and sought after'.

I wonder if these changes are particularly difficult for loyalists to accept. They will not say it out loud, but they know that life will never go back to what it was before 1968.

It's not just a case of demographics having shifted against political/electoral unionism; it's the additional fact that what were once unionist-only areas – and east Belfast is a very obvious example – are now increasingly mixed. Which is, I think, a very good thing.

Unionism/loyalism needs to stop obsessing about change and learn how to turn it to their own advantage. Fair enough, happy unionism/loyalism isn't going to convert a single a-nation-once-again republican, but it might well allow the constitutional agnostics (now accounting for 20 per cent-plus of the electorate) to look more to the east than the south.

Let's be honest, you don't have to be a unionist to appreciate stability, a good lifestyle, good schools, a sound economy, growing job market, a block grant well spent, the creation of an attractive place for investment, a government that works in and for common purpose and, as an old friend puts it, "somewhere that just looks bloody normal for a change". So that's what unionism needs to focus on.

Henry Kissinger wrote about managing change: "Define objectives that can enlist people. Find means, describable means, of achieving those objectives. Emphasise the end goals of progress and success." That's what unionism/loyalism needs to do. Change is inevitable. But it doesn't have to be feared.

The Union won't be saved by political/electoral unionism. It will be saved when an overall majority likes Northern Ireland, likes living there, likes increasingly mixed and diverse places to live and prefers it to the constitutional change being offered by others.

Yes, there are huge challenges ahead for unionism/loyalism. So be it. Don't fear them. Look at the Civil Rights movement and SDLP and what they achieved. Look at the rise of Sinn Féin. They too had huge challenges.

Unionism needs to stop whinging, stop waltzing into cul-de-sacs, stop Lundy-hunting and, instead, start defining objectives and the describable means of achieving them. If nothing else, it will be better than most of the present tactics.