Comment is free and not always valuable…

31 08 2009
Ah, cute baloney. Gimme some!

Ah, cute baloney. Gimme some!

Jason Walsh has penned a curious article for The Guardian’s Comment is Free site.

I don’t know what it’s doing – I can’t work out why it has been published. Why was it commissioned?

It reads to me like Jason is offering his comment in the top three pars, then uses this book to back up his argument. So it’s not a book review – primarily it’s an opinion piece, right?

Why; how does this add to the sum of our knowledge; what insight is offered?

His argument is this: Unionism is now a ‘mere cultural project’, is moribund and disliked, and will sulk in the corner and die off.

Making your readers gag is sometimes evidence of administering the unpalatable truth. But sometimes that’s just the response to having something unpleasant inflicted on the tastebuds.

Apparently, Unionists are a group of people who once “revelled in the ‘glories’ of empire”. (Note the self-conscious single quote marks around ‘glories’. ‘Empire’ couldn’t possibly hang around in Guardian copy completely unchaperoned.) This easy cliché is grist for a detached observer. (We’re never done talking about East Indian Company and Isambard Kingdom Brunel round my way!) What on earth is he talking about?

In the course of riffing away on culture wars, he says that Unionism is now waiting for Godot (?), or an EU superstate, or joint authority, or none of the above because they guaranteed the Union in the first paragraph.

According to Jason, Irish unity through the EU is wishful thinking but perhaps the EU could act ‘deus ex machina’ (?) – although sovereignty questions lie with each individual state so, erm… that can’t happen either.

So where does this leave us? The sign-off. And that last line is most silly of all.

Jason asks (somewhat rhetorically) whether distaste for Ireland isn’t all there is to unionism. The context would lead to one to surmise that Unionism is chiefly anti-Irish.

This doesn’t do anyone any good. It adds nothing, it explains nothing. The piece is about the cultural identity of Unionism, but it’s seems devoid of any understanding, empathy or appreciation of the complexity of identity etc. The chunks of logic reproduced here are like the disconsolate bits of fragmented chatter you might pick up listening in on someone else’s conversation down the pub.

How could Jason refer to the distance between Unionist politics and GB politics without mentioning the closing ties between Conservatives and UUs? Not neutral on the Union etc

It looks to me like the starting point for this article is that Unionism is one of those woollier schisms too impractical to hang around for any great deal of time. Though I think there is an argument that the reporter’s grasp of the topic is somewhat woolly and lacking practicality. Jason may be rehearsing some of the arguments from Robert Ramsay’s book, but it shouldn’t be presented in such a way as to make oneself appear ill-informed and detached.

I really feel like my newspaper of choice has just served me up first-class baloney. Anyone else? Am I being unjustifiably rude? (If so, sorry Jason!)

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8 responses

31 08 2009
Chekov

I think you’re actually being kind to the article. It contained no insight, no argument and had no point. Jason’s not that keen on unionism but doesn’t understand much about it. Presumably someone edits CiF?

31 08 2009
Jason Walsh

Hello. Thanks for blogging.

“he says that Unionism is now waiting for Godot (?), or an EU superstate, or joint authority, or none of the above because they guaranteed the Union in the first paragraph.”

I said it appears to be guaranteed. It’s not. It’s guaranteed for the time being, but not for all eternity. However, whatever happens next, whether it’s more in the direction of republicanism or unionism, should be understood in political terms, not cultural.

I consider, and have argued at length elsewhere, the cultural analysis of the conflict to be at best a pointless diversion, at worst a dangerous illusion.

“It looks to me like the starting point for this article is that Unionism is one of those woollier schisms too impractical to hang around for any great deal of time. Though I think there is an argument that the reporter’s grasp of the topic is somewhat woolly and lacking practicality. Jason may be rehearsing some of the arguments from Robert Ramsay’s book, but it shouldn’t be presented in such a way as to make oneself appear ill-informed and detached.”

I am, indeed, responding directly to Ramsay – and doing so within a word-count of about 500 words. My grasp of the topic isn’t wooly, I promise you, though it is fair to say I am no fan of unionsm – my piece makes no claim to be non-partisan.

However, for what it’s worth, I think that republicanism made a ‘cultural turn’ long before unionism and have written plenty about that over the years. One recent example:

http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/article/7223/

Anyway, getting to my actual argument, why is Ramsay, an establishment figure associated with the Britishness of not only unionism but Britian itself, interested in creating an Ulster Scots identity?

Surely the best thing that Britain has going for itself is a modern, forward-looking polity? What has local or regional or national identity got to do with that? That’s my question.

Best,
Jason

1 09 2009
bobballs

Hi Jason

Many thanks for taking time out to respond – much obliged… (and apologies for taking so long to get back!)

I’m trying to understand your position. In the CiF article you assert that political agreements mean NI’s position is guaranteed for foreseeable future. Fine, but the next bit contains the leap in logic that I can’t make with you.

You accept that the political deals of GFA and SAA are wins for Unionism (they guarantee NI’s position within the Union after all). Also, that the political power of Unionism is such that republicans have ‘more obviously abandoned traditional claims’. This is your view of political Unionism. But then you leap ahead in the second par to say that Unionism is now a mere cultural project. However, you fail to demonstrate how or why.

Yes, the book you cite arrives by the 4th par to qualify your opinion, but you don’t explain how you arrived at your own conclusion.

In your response to me, you say what happens next ‘should be understood in political terms, not cultural’. If that is accepted by us all then (from your article)… Unionism has apparently done rather well. So why on earth would Unionism turn inward? If it has fought long and hard to secure ties with GB, why would it arbitrarily undo this by retiring to splendid isolation? Would the more obvious thing to do not be to entrench, stabilise, assert these ties?

Eg. Ulster Unionists have just signed up to an electoral pact with the next government of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. A Unionist could now be in line to hold a position in the government of G8 nation. So why is ‘turning inwards’ likely when the opposite is more true?

You see the difficulty?

This is how it reads to me. Your opinion on Unionism pre-existed the book by Richard Ramsay. You started with your conclusion (and you’re happy to say you make no claim to be impartial), then you worked backwards. Your evidence didn’t lead you, evidence was cut (or ignored) to fit what might just be a very settled and long-held view.

Consider this: your opinion of an ascendant Sinn Fein disregards what’s actually been happening to the Party in recent times. If you urge us all to understand ‘next steps’ politically, then how do you manage to ignore the poor local gov results; poor Euro results; the councillor defections; the ‘extraordinary meetings’ to discuss strategy and leadership etc etc etc?

How does the future belong to Sinn Fein? Because Unionists don’t have any culture? Or if they do, it’s simply anti-Irish?

This sort of appalling cliche really does verge on something pretty unpleasant. Your sign off line is tinged with so much more than a desire to call things as they are. How can this have any practical value? How does this add to the sum of our knowledge?

(And if a civil servant once wrote a book on Ulster Scots, how can on earth this be used to extrapolate and expound on the demise of Unionism in Ulster? The proposition defies practical reasoning doesn’t it?)

I know alot of this stuff is personal and reflects how we feel about it. For example, I feel very much a part of Ireland and value the distinction of Irishness. I have nothing to fear from Ireland and I want to see strong cross-border cooperation. Many Unionists feel this (otherwise how could there possibly have been a GFA?). On the other hand, there may be a watertight piece of dialectic which demonstrates republicans are truly in the ascendant, or are poised to do great things. But my problem is that, if there is, you haven’t found it.

I appreciate your coming back to me. And I enjoyed your piece on spiked-online. I’m sorry if I appeared to question your knowledge on the whole of the subject matter. But I’m afraid that on Unionism, its future, identity, values – I stick by what I said.

Surely the best thing that Britain has going for itself is a modern, forward-looking polity?

It’s a good question. There are a great many (Unionist) people contributing to ensuring the answer that question is firmly in the affirmative.

What has local or regional or national identity got to do with that?

I’m not sure what you mean. Does this question allow any room for Scottishness? Or Welshness? Or Irishness? Wouldn’t that question promote precisely the kind of cultural vacuity you railed against in your article?

Many thanks again for coming back Jason. I don’t expect we’ll agree on this – though I do think we understand each other’s position better for having discussed it…

Best Wishes
Geoff

2 09 2009
Unionism as a living tradition « Divided Loyalties

[…] apparent identity crisis has generated two very insightful and helpful responses from both bob and […]

7 09 2009
Jason Walsh

Hey Geoff, will respond later today. Short version is: I don’t think the US project does or should represent unionism but I think that it is being pushed in that direction by its proponents. I think that US is the problem (for unionism) as it represents a cultural turn which is a mirror image of SF’s cultural turn (and heroic victimology). In short, while the US project certainly gives some sense of pride or identity to unionists, they don’t need it as they can get that from Britain anyway and, IMO, any such turn inward would represent a kind of NI ‘nationalism’.
Best,
J.

7 09 2009
Jason Walsh

Let me put it another way: growing interest in US seems to mimic SF’s cultural shenanigans and will likely prove as destructive to the actual content of its politics.

I’m not impartial, but I didn’t work backwards. My desire is to see a situation where a republican can say: “You’re better off in a UI because of a, c and c [reasoned, logical positions]” and a unionist can say: “No, you’re better off in the UK because of x, y and z [similarly reasoned, logical positions].” Irish language bills, Ulster Scots community groups and all the rest of it are, IMO, distractions for the actual political questions.

7 09 2009
Jason Walsh

Two quick final points: by saying “it looks as if the future belongs to them, and Sinn Féin remains upbeat about its prospects” I do not mean that SF is guaranteed anything. Certainly it’s slipping in the South. What I meant was, despite abandoning its core political beliefs, it has an easier task ahead of itself than unionism.

There is also no doubt in my mind that the DUP (and TUV, if they become significant) are divorced from the British mainstream.

7 09 2009
Jason Walsh

An attempt at a full reply while I wait on a phone call:

You accept that the political deals of GFA and SAA are wins for Unionism (they guarantee NI’s position within the Union after all). Also, that the political power of Unionism is such that republicans have ‘more obviously abandoned traditional claims’. This is your view of political Unionism

I think it would be absurd to claim, as SF does, that the Assembly is good for republicanism. The union is now guaranteed until such a point as a head-count decides otherwise. That’s good for unionism in the short term, probably even the medium term but it could prove difficult in the longer term (though it probably won’t because SF cannot attract much Protestant, let alone (ex-) unionist, support and whatever republican vehicle that could… well, frankly, I don’t think it currently exists. More importantly, however, I feel it makes the North’s position in the union conditional. Anyway, this is not my main point. It is simply to say that unionists won a significant political battle and republicans responded by saying, “Ah, but we got various concessions,” some of which are political, some of which are cultural.

Now: I think that the DUP is an expressly cultural force, a kind of mirror of republicanism cultural turn. It is particularist (‘Ulsterish’) in outlook. Its rise represents an abandonment of traditional political claims just as much as Sinn Féin’s transformation does – it’s just that this phenomenon is not as widely recognised.

But then you leap ahead in the second par to say that Unionism is now a mere cultural project. However, you fail to demonstrate how or why. Yes, the book you cite arrives by the 4th par to qualify your opinion, but you don’t explain how you arrived at your own conclusion.

True, I didn’t state how I arrived at that conclusion. Mea culpa. I feel that by being so preoccupied by local matters the main voice in unionism is isolated from the wider British political scene. Now, I don’t actually buy the Tory-UUP link-up as serious, but it does turn out to be and grabs votes back from the DUP then I think that would be a significant move toward a rebirth of unionist politics.

In your response to me, you say what happens next ‘should be understood in political terms, not cultural’. If that is accepted by us all then (from your article)… Unionism has apparently done rather well. So why on earth would Unionism turn inward? If it has fought long and hard to secure ties with GB, why would it arbitrarily undo this by retiring to splendid isolation? Would the more obvious thing to do not be to entrench, stabilise, assert these ties?

Why indeed? I wonder if the difference here is because I am writing of the dominance of unionism by the DUP and you (seem to be, anyway) talking about the UUP. I grant you they are very different beasts. I also think the UUP is an easier party for an opponent to respect not because they’re ‘soft’ (as perceived due to the DUP etc.) but because they represent a much clearer political tradition that is linked to the UK as a whole, especially if the Tory alliance rejuvenates the party’s electoral base. From a unionist POV, the ex-BICO’s (former) demands for the British Labour party to organise in the North also, I would argue, make a lot of sense.

However, I think that both the DUP and the Ulster Scots projects both represent a clear turn inward.

[…] How does the future belong to Sinn Fein? Because Unionists don’t have any culture? Or if they do, it’s simply anti-Irish? […] On the other hand, there may be a watertight piece of dialectic which demonstrates republicans are truly in the ascendant, or are poised to do great things. But my problem is that, if there is, you haven’t found it.

It’s not my job to find it and I don’t think there is one. I do think that SF has an easier job to do than unionists – for example, joint authority (which I consider to be a grubby and dodgy compromise at best) would probably be hailed by SF as a giant leap in the direction of a UI. In days gone by SF would have said that the Southern government was illegitimate.

I’m not actually a SF-supporter, I’m merely observing that (in the North) they have become unassailable as the republican party of choice – at the price of abandoning any tiny residue of universalist, Enlightenment-inspired republicanism that (were the IRA not a factor, which of course they are) might have attracted support from more Protestants than the odd one or two who now vote SF.

So, as I mentioned above, by saying “it looks as if the future belongs to them, and Sinn Féin remains upbeat about its prospects” I do not mean that SF is guaranteed anything. Certainly it’s slipping in the South. What I meant was, despite abandoning its core political beliefs, it has an easier task ahead of itself than unionism.

One can either accept that SF is playing a (very) long game or assume it has now transformed itself into the Workers’ Party (and, become, partitionist). My money is on the former, no matter what disgruntled ex-Provos like Anthony McIntyre might say. Now, I happen to think SF’s strategy is foolish, but that’s not my problem and I can understand the problem that ‘Provisional’ republicanism (or whatever one might want to call it) as formerly represented by SF and now represented by Ó Brádaigh and co.) is a dead end: people clearly wanted the violence to stop. Despite all of the disputes since, I remember the feeling of relief in 1996, ’97 and ’98. It was palpable.

(My POV is that an end to violence was the correct decision but the Assembly was not.)

There are a great many (Unionist) people contributing to ensuring the answer that question is firmly in the affirmative.

There may be but there are plenty doing precisely the opposite, revelling in a localised identity that harks back to a mythical past rather than offering a new future. I recognise this because it is more than reminiscent of the romanticism peddled by some in republican circles.

Does this question allow any room for Scottishness? Or Welshness? Or Irishness? Wouldn’t that question promote precisely the kind of cultural vacuity you railed against in your article?

Presumably it would, but presumably they would be politically subservient to Britishness, no matter how keenly felt as a cultural matter. The particular issue with the North is that ‘Ulster’ is not a nation and a great many unionists do not feel Irish at all – again, this could be an issue predominantly for certain strands of unionism, but those strands have their hands on the levers of power.

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