“Romantic Ireland is dead and gone…its with O’Leary in the grave”.
I saw this headline on Slugger O’Toole today. A piece written by BBC Walker. I was almost tempted to read it. I didnt read the full article because I think the headline says so much more than the article can say.
What exactly is “liberal unionism”? I have grown up with that phrase and it never meant very much. Certainly in the 1960s, there were unionist politicians with the reputation of being “liberal”. It is of course a relative term…but usually applied to decent men who had a preference for Norn Iron as a part of the “United Kingdom” and thought the best way was to oppose the naked sectarianism that too often under-pinned a worthy cause and to encourage Catholics and nationalists to engage with Norn Iron. After all, things like health and social security provision were much better in 1960s Norn Iron than in 1960s Republic of Ireland.
But “liberal unionism” still seems too broad a term. I half-remember names and faces of Decent Men. Yet the Debate within 1960s unionism seems to be dominated by two men “liberal” Terence O’Neill and his nemisis Rev Ian Paisley.
O’Neill …the “liberal” became Prime Minister of Norn Iron who had an agenda of making Norn Iron more inclusive. This seems in retrospect to have been little more than sipping tea with Reverend Mothers in the staff rooms at Catholic Girls Schools. O’ Neill may not have been sectarian but he was certainly patronising. His belief that if a Catholic has a good house and job, he will be a good unionist is risible by 21st century standards but it seems a belief based in pragmatism rather than a genuine understanding of the Catholic position.
Certainly Decent Men like Porter and McIvor sat on unionist benches at Stormont…but as Ministers after 1969, any “liberal” instincts were swept aside and they found more release as High Court Judges.
Yet Phelim O’Neill, cousin of Terence, who steadfastly refused to have anything to do with the Orange Order and became a founding member of the Alliance Party is more fondly remembered. And yet there are others lost to History, like Bertie McConnell and Bob Nixon.
Yet Nixon deserves a special mention as the Stormont MP who revealed that unionists in Derry had lobbied to have the proposed second university sited in Coleraine, rather than their own city.
So there is a division at the heart of “liberal unionists”. People who were pragmatists enough to see that the Norn Iron state could not control a restless and growing minority. And people (like Bob Nixon) who were minded simply to do the right thing. Yet somehow these two attitudes merged as pro-O’Neill (circa 1966-69) and a common revulsion against the sectarian street theatre of the Paisleyites.
Effectively “liberal unionism” died with the overthrow of Terence O’Neill. Some would drift out of Politics and others would re-allign to form the Alliance Party.
Effectively Alliance was formed as a “liberal unionist” Party but the violence turned it into a coalition of unionists and “soft” nationalists which pursued a “cross-community” narrative. To some extent that Debate is ongoing within Alliance. But as the furore over Anna Lo making sympathetic noises about Irish Unity in 2014 showed…Alliance has firmly returned to its unionist origins.
Anna Lo WAS Alliance MLA for South Belfast. Paula Bradshaw IS Alliance MLA for South Belfast. I rest my case. Obviously unionism is muted but understood within Alliance. No point in rocking the cross-community boat.
But certainly pragmatic “liberal unionists” have spent the past two decades courting and promoting the Alliance Party. Integrated Education is at the very core of liberal unionism.
The other side of “the pragmatic liberal unionism” is that Paisley-ism and its successor the Democratic Unionist Party ruined it all.
And this is what makes BBC Walkers article (or at least the headline so interesting). For any pragmatic unionist, who adopted “liberal unionism” and invested support in the Alliance Party , these are not the best of days. Unless DUP-SF intervene to save Alliance’s unworthy bacon, they are finished….no Justice Ministry and no Opposition.
But Pragmatists are….Pragmatists.
If “liberal unionism” has failed under O’Neill and David Ford, then the Pragmatists need new champions to make Norn Iron more British.
All the Pragmatists ever sought was (unionist) stability and the chosen programme was “liberal unionism” via Alliance puppets.
Stability. Stability. Stability.
As the headline suggests….Opposition is unstable and voting patterns may not change. The headline suggests that the best way for Norn Iron to survive is the “stability” of a DUP-Sinn Féin coalition.
“Real” liberal unionists rather than the “Pragmatic” liberal unionists must shudder at that prospect. And how nationalists and republicans should feel….thats a big question.
If Slugger O’Tooles favourite Party…Alliance…can no longer deliver the unionist Utopia….look out for some backtracking and some pro DUP-SF opinion pieces.