Thursday, 26 June 2014

Do unicorns eat flags?


The politics of Northern Ireland’s “Catholic Unionists”

By Andrew Coffman Smith for Issue 14
The search for the elusive Catholic Unionist vote is far from an “exercise in folklore” as Alex Kane maintains, it’s a journey into the very real no man’s land of Northern Ireland politics.
Polls continue to show that up to 40 percent of nationalists favour Northern Ireland remaining within the United Kingdom if a border referendum was held tomorrow. However growing support for the Union since the Good Friday Agreement has yet to translate into votes for unionism. To their credit, unionist parties haven’t done much to appeal to Catholic voters beyond occasional lip service.
Ulster Folk has sought out to hear from three politically-minded individuals from this “mythical” electorate on the issues that matter to them and what has kept them from voting.
20th century labels, 21st century politics
“I'm a ‘cultural Catholic’ but an economic unionist,” said NI21 candidate for North Down Council, Matt Johnston.
“Other ‘unicorns’ as Catholic Unionists are called do exist. Many of them are like me. They find the idea of young educated Catholics voting for Sinn Fein to be abhorrent,” Johnston said. “Sinn Fein and the DUP didn't contribute to the peace process. They were part of the reason there needed to be a peace process.”
The 42 year old tech industry ‘czar’ and Territorial Army veteran said he is one of 200,000 Northern Ireland residents who voted for peace in 1998 and then never voted again. He was simply not interested in politics until the flag riots soured a potential business deal with Nintendo. Seeking to find a party not bogged down by sectarianism and the past, Johnston said he was disappointed to find only the Greens and Alliance as options.
“Then NI21 appeared,” Johnston said. “They wanted to focus on jobs, not flags; on health and education, not the past misdeeds; on the future, not revenge.”
Launched just last year by two former Ulster Unionist MLAs, the self-described “progressive pro-UK party” seeks to gain cross-community support but is officially-designated unionist in the Assembly.
Such labels no longer matter as the constitutional question was settled with the Good Friday Agreement said party chairwoman, Tina McKenzie. According to McKenzie, who is also the estranged daughter of a Republican ex-prisoner, the continued use of outdated political language explains the discrepancy between Catholic support for the Union with Britain and Catholic identification with Unionism. 
Johnston believes NI21 offers Catholic Unionists, like himself, what the established unionist parties don’t – a future.
“By removing the constitutional question from the debate and the preoccupation with the past, it gives us the freedom to move forwards,” Johnston said.
“For me it's about not worrying about cleaving to London or Dublin but engineering our own strength so that we could become a net contributor rather than a resource sink,” Johnston said.
It’s the policies, stupid.  
One such potential voter is Anonymous, a 22 year old Irish speaker from Belfast, who has rejected Nationalism’s goal of an united Ireland. She can’t see how an all-Ireland healthcare system based on the NHS model can become a reality in the foreseeable future.
“This hits home hard when I look at ill family members and wonder how they could afford healthcare if we lived down south,” Anonymous said.
Anonymous said she has never voted but was a SDLP member until she quit over the nationalist party’s continued opposition to both same-sex marriage and women’s access to abortion. She considered joining Alliance but felt like they fell short of defending equality issues which matter the most to her. Now in the political wilderness, she said she would be open to the idea of voting for an unionist party – even one that supported the flag protests.
“If a party has literature that depicts only the union flag I would be a bit disgruntled, but still open to voting for them,” Anonymous said. “It is off putting, because it seems that they prioritise the constitutional issue rather than 'bread and butter' issues.”
By crossing the divide, Anonymous is a reviving a family tradition as her two paternal great-grandfathers were thrown out of the Orange Order for marrying Catholics. Her Republican grandfather remembers marching alongside his own loyalist grandfather on the Twelfth, she said.
But what keeps her from punching the ballot for Unionism?
“I think my issues with unionist parties are to do with paramilitaries, parties' positions on social issues and the DUP's dictatorial approach to politics more than anything else,” Anonymous said.
Pragmatic and young
Unionist opposition to gay rights and distribution of leaflets attacking Alliance has not only been off-putting to Anonymous but also to 16 year old Belfast resident, Liam. Already passionate about politics but not old enough to vote yet, Liam said if he could he would consider voting for NI21, Alliance and People Before Profit.
Far from idealistic, Liam said he opposes Irish reunification on economic grounds.
“The UK can afford Northern Ireland, Ireland cannot. I've also thought a lot about a Union with Scotland, if they choose to leave the UK,” he said.
“I'm unsure what to label myself, as labels aren't really including of all opinions,” Liam said. “I'm a nationalist in the sense that I want Ireland to become unified under one nation, free of control from other states. However, before any question of Irish unification or staying within the UK is asked, there are other pressing issues in Northern Ireland.”
The issues that do matter to Liam are poverty, community relations, attracting foreign businesses, creating a working private sector to fix the bloated public sector and working within the EU. The flag is not a pressing issue but if flags are flown on government buildings, he said it should be either both the Union Jack and Tricolor or an inclusive flag as “the government represents two peoples.”
“I think maybe living in post-conflict Northern Ireland has provided my generation with a different view point, though some may chalk this up to a lack of experience,” Liam said.
Round pegs, square holes
2014 will be a telling election year on whether a fresh, post-constitutional yet “pro-Union” liberal party can sway Catholic voters or not. As the responses indicate, it appears that it isn’t just tribalism and lack of identification with the label of “unionist” but also difference over social issues and policies that has kept what could be tens of thousands of potential voters from casting a ballot for unionism. The gulf between votes cast for conservative unionist parties in elections and votes in favor of the Union in a possible border poll can only deepen as an aging Protestant population gives way to a younger Catholic majority.

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