The former Ulster Unionist from Derry, Terry Wright, was on TV this morning. You could call him a veteran unionist, but his thinking about politics here is anything but old-fashioned. He doesn’t believe in a united Ireland, but he is very much in favour of sitting down and talking to people who do.
This raises a number of interesting thoughts. The first one that hits me between the eyes is that it is …I don’t think ‘wonderful’ would be too strong a word to use, to describe the coming together of unionists and nationalists/republicans to discuss the future of Ireland. For decades, it’s been megaphone diplomacy at best and shouted insults at worst. The fact that people are willing to sit down and argue their position is an enormously desirable development, and helps us see each other as human beings, not cardboard devils.
The second thought is that these initiatives are coming from what has been called ‘civic unionism’ – people who are unionists but not necessarily aligned with any particular party. Viewed positively, that’s a splendid example of how people are ready and willing to be involved in politics, helping counter the cynicism and the they’re-all-the-same mentality. It also suggests a failure of leadership in political unionism, and even a contrast between what political unionism preaches and what civic unionism believes.
But (yes, Virginia, there’s always a ‘but’) there’s a major weakness in this coming together. One of the things Martin McGuinness used to say was that when he had a meeting with Ian Paisley or Queen Elizabeth or other British-minded people, no one had anything to fear. “I’m just as much a republican at the end of the meeting and they’re just as firmly in favour of the union.”
The snag with this otherwise commendable stance is – why bother? If people are going to finish talking and remain as firm in their views as before the talking started, what is the point? It may not have been a dialogue of the deaf, but if nobody changes their thinking, it might as well be.
I’ve known people who have abandoned life-long beliefs as a result of an experience, but I can’t think of anyone who was radically changed as a result of simply talking to someone with a different view. Not that there’s a guarantee that experience will change thinking: there are some people off whom experience simply bounces – they never learn, as we say.
So. Assuming that you’re a nationalist or republican, what experience or experiences might change the thinking of unionists about the appalling prospect of Irish reunification? A hint: it begins with a B and is sometimes linked with an adjective that starts with a H.