The concept of an agreed Ireland, which originated from John Hume’s nationalism, but was subsequently taken and used by Sinn Fein, has met no equivalent emphasis on the benefits of an agreed Northern Ireland from unionism. Indeed, the fractured and disjointed nature of unionism has hindered the possibility of common ground when it comes to articulating what the Union, or being British, means.
But is it possible to advocate the benefits of Britishness as a basis for an inclusive and dynamic Northern Ireland? And, if so, what might that look like?
For a start, this would require moving from fixations about the national question which offers little chance for enabling a sense of Britishness that can be broader, more embracing and more dynamic to be heard. Rather, it would require promotion of the merits of Britishness in relation to shared institutions and culture.
Even the most ardent of republicans would probably find it difficult to refute the value of the NHS, the BBC, or the FA Cup – all indicators of Britishness that have wider social resonance and attraction. Yet, by keeping expressions of identity and belonging locked onto fears and insecurities about national identity, wider progress has been stymied on many levels. Poor educational attainment levels on the Shankill Road should not be seen as a loyalist, or unionist, problem, but a social problem. High levels of unemployment, or poverty, in the Strabane area are not a republican, or nationalist, problem, but a social problem.
Poor transport links between Derry and Belfast and a lack of railway infrastructure across Northern Ireland generally are not a republican, or unionist, problem, but a social one. And yet, all too often, the response to such issues is framed in relation to segregated national identity positions and interests.
Routinely, one hears that Protestant schools are not performing as well as Catholic schools and so the reference-point for educational performance remains national division. No such conceptualisation seems to be used in the UK more generally.
Poorly performing schools are seen as socially unacceptable and action is expected on that basis. The problem is considered to be a matter of collective responsibility and understood in terms of fairness, inclusivity and the common interest.
Why has such an approach not found its way into Northern Ireland, some 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement?
Much of the blame for this has to be laid at the door of unionist politics itself. From the outside, unionism looks static, defensive, reactive, inward-looking and obsessed with the past. Regardless of how one spins it, the perception is overwhelmingly negative. It is hard to see how such a politics can help make Northern Ireland a better place in the long-term.
Unionism seems to lack an imagined future beyond the protectionism of now and, because of that, suggests no ambition. To put it another way: it has no aspirational imperative built into its language, or intentions.
The richness of British cultural identity in terms of music, fashion, technology, comedy, art, literature and sport contrasts to the apparent rigidity of Northern Ireland’s Britishness, which is overwhelmingly expressed as a political conflict with republicanism without any ability to creatively neutralise impressions of republican progress except by hoping that demographics will come to the rescue.
Strangely, unionism seems unable to reach out to those of Catholic background who remain satisfied with greater opportunities brought about by the peace process and who appear more comfortable with remaining in the UK as a result.
Indeed, when unionism speaks, one gets the impression that nobody thinks there is any advantage in trying to engage such people through a sense of Britishness based on respect, tolerance, fairness, multiculturalism and diversity.
It has always fascinated us as to why unionism is not able to counter Sinn Fein’s agenda on equality and rights by presenting a more compelling agenda of diversity and responsibility, both of which are conceived not in terms of “us and them”, but “all”.
Diversity and responsibility contrast nicely with the republican agenda that stresses equality and rights. A new agenda that puts diversity and responsibility at its heart, if communicated effectively, would carry a captivating and dramatic sense of Britishness likely to resonate widely, but it needs to be adopted as a common position by all of unionism in order to do that. The tendency to talk in terms of “us and them”, rather than “all”, can be found in the constant recourse to being of a community, rather than a society. Many in Northern Ireland talk about their community and a community is, by its nature, distinctive between those who are of it and those who are not.
The language of community is very different from the language of society and its constant usage has created a staleness and predictability in relation to political and everyday discourse.
The language of society is a language of inclusivity, but the language of community is the language of exclusivity. It is the language of “us and them” rather than “all”. It is the language of local interest, rather than the common interest and invariably it does not respond well to those within who find how that community conducts or presents itself as objectionable.
Arlene Foster’s recent move to engage with nationalist culture by making visits to a GAA final and an Irish school to discuss a language act has been strongly welcomed by the majority who participate in that culture and her presence at public events has challenged the enduring stereotype of unionist intransigence and disrespect. Apart from demonstrating confidence in relation to difference, her actions are representative of society precisely because she showed receptiveness towards others.
Although Brexit complicates the picture, the general impression that emerges for most who visit Northern Ireland, whether nationalist, republican, unionist, loyalist, Catholic or Protestant, is the generosity, kindness and decency of those who live there and yet these qualities hardly transfer across Northern Ireland itself.
When asked what being British means, many unionists and loyalists look to the monarchy, or the unreliability of government to inform their response. For them, this is a Britishness less representative of stoicism, humour, generosity, decency, fairness, or respect, let alone Dad’s Army, the Proms, the Sunday roast, or moaning about the weather, and more the reliability or unreliability of institutions. For them, identity arises through the structures of power that symbolise British endurance and history.
Yet, understandable though this outlook is, it is not tuned towards the future, but the past. Its appeal is necessarily backward-looking and uses the rituals and commemorations of that past to assert feelings of preservation and order.
However, identity is much more than national symbolism and is now being increasingly expressed as individual and minority attempts to challenge existing structures of power and conventions of order.
Indeed, for many in Britain, it would appear that it is minority identities which now create new expectations about what one can be.
Clearly, Brexit indicates the polarisation between an exclusive and inclusive sense of national identity, but a more complex dynamic about being British is playing out underneath the media headlines. It is at the everyday level of identity difference that a new sense of Britishness is taking shape.
The challenges to being British have always informed what Britishness means and, indeed, opened the way for new possibilities. It is about time unionism spoke to this dynamic and advocated the confusion, difference, generosity and ambiguity of Britishness that makes it so fluid and complex.
Unionism should start talking collectively on behalf of society, rather than community.
It should demonstrate more the diversity and possibility of a Britishness that views problems in terms of a common interest.
It should welcome difference and assert the need for a responsibility to communicate not just what Northern Ireland is, but what it can be.
In short, it should develop and use the concept of an inclusive Britishness to argue the benefits of an agreed Northern Ireland.
Dr Graham Spencer is Reader in Social and Political Conflict at the University of Portsmouth. Rev Chris Hudson is minister at All Souls’ Church in Belfast