Why Unionism needs a John Hume

Nearly thirty years ago, during the early stages of the peace process, a well-respected unionist politician said to a well-respected nationalist politician: “What unionism needs is a John Hume”, writes Professor Graham Spencer.
John Hume.John Hume.
John Hume.

His comment is as relevant today as it was then. Not because there is any desire for a unionist to become a nationalist but because unionism lacked then, as it lacks now, a leading figure who is able to articulate widely about how relationships and rights are the basis of a decent society for all.

Hume’s ability to develop relations beyond Northern Ireland (the international dimension), prioritise negotiations as three interlocking strands, shape the principles of engagement and help draw Sinn Fein into the political arena demonstrates the breadth and scale of his influence.

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Hume, as one former nationalist politician involved in the peace process put it, had the ability to think “globally” and see all aspects of the process in convergent terms. The same former politician recalled how unionists, in contrast, tended to “divide problems into further problems, without any real sense of an overall or vital outcome”. “Their approach”, he said “was piecemeal” and, so, unable to understand Northern Ireland as a set of interlocking relations and conditions.

Such observations remain relevant. Now, as then, unionism lacks a coherent idea of what an inclusive Northern Ireland might look like. Now, as then, unionism resists building relationships and influences beyond Northern Ireland to help make this a reality. Now, as then, unionism sees movement as a threat. And now, as then, unionism struggles to envision a Northern Ireland that is different from what it was.

In a recent piece for the Observer newspaper, when writing about developments in the Middle East, Simon Tisdall astutely noted how “change driven by fear has shallow roots”. Such change is based less on a desire for progressive activism and more on prevention; its main intention to stop political influence disintegrating rather than seeking to widen and deepen that influence.

This particularly relates to dominant unionism which, unable to make the case for a new society, reverts to promoting fear as a response to the problems it faces. Can anyone remember what the unionist parties had to say about inequality, social exclusion, trans-generational trauma, educational under-performance or the environment in the recent election?

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The Protocol appeared to be not just the main issue but the only issue, with any focus on other concerns seen as largely irrelevant. Worse, fears about the Protocol framed the unionist message to such an extent that those who tried to move away from it were seen as a threat to unionism itself.

No doubt, come the next election, there will be another threat to the Union, so continuing to justify responses about the need for resistance in the hope that this will calm unionist communities into believing that the Union is safe. The irony is that such an emphasis does not reduce fear but sustains it. Nobody is calmer as a result. Instead, communities remain anxious that the worst case scenario may have been averted this time but it has not gone. Indeed, the expectation is that it will return again soon enough.

Such a belief is understandable without any alternative on offer. And, in relation to an alternative, where is the possibility within unionism of envisaging how Northern Ireland can be different and better?

One of the potential weaknesses of the peace process is, and has been, the lack of a single overarching body - such as an International Commission on Peace and Social Development - that is able to monitor, assess and recommend in relation to how different peace-building initiatives and projects are pulling together, or not, to confront sectarianism and social exclusion.

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This absence indicates a lack of convergent thinking about how to respond to the difficulties and challenges Northern Ireland continues to face as a whole. Can unionists use the idea of an international body for thinking about peace as a context for better social conditions? Can unionism, to put it another way, think and act in ways similar to an international body committed to supporting and building the common good?

Central to this is a need to identify the issues that hold Northern Ireland back and evaluate the effectiveness of policy and action in relation to collective as well as communal impact. Much comment and emphasis within unionism relates to fears about the future and, particularly, a united Ireland. But what is sustaining these fears and how can they be transformed into an impetus for change?

Such questions remain at the heart of the ‘post-conflict’ environment and bring into view the problem of building peace without an intersecting or overarching approach to identify how social anxieties and fears hinder confidence and progression. One obvious implication of this is that, when people are resistant to change, they will see tend to see it as danger or loss. And that, when they cannot see the value of engagement, they fall victim to the actions of others. Isolation, therefore, perpetuates fear.

As well as providing a stronger point of focus for responsibility and accountability, compared to unrelated initiatives that support vested interests, thinking in terms of the whole (society) has powerful strategic value for unionists and provides a new direction. Significantly, too, it offers a context for better comprehending social concerns and issues in ways that are related and interlocking.

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This, perhaps, was the importance of Hume’s thinking; being able to see how tensions, divisions and issues of contention might be managed and contained within the context of an overall ethos. Unionism has no such ethos.

To be fair, one must acknowledge that it is hard to try to make a strong case for what you already have (Union) but the danger with such thinking is when it becomes static and unchanging.

The Union can be more or less secure, more or less diverse, or more or less inclusive. It is, like all things, in a state of flux.

To understand this and to welcome it is not to dilute the Union. It is to keep it intact by absorbing concerns and disputes into a malleable and, so, more adaptable space for conversation and dialogue.

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But to achieve this, unionism needs to look out as well as look in. It needs to see all forces at work and be able to work with, rather than against, them. And it needs to understand that the whole is the best context by which to do this.

It needs, to put it another way, to think more like Hume.

○ Graham Spencer is Professor of Social and Political Conflict at the University of Portsmouth.