Sunday 3 May 2009

Hearts and Minds and Europe

There was a Euro-centred edition of Hearts and Minds on BBC 1 on Thursday (if you're in the UK you can watch it on BBC iPlayer while it's still up). Hearts and Minds is a political programme for BBC NI, and they will be interviewing the candidates for the European elections here over the next few weeks. It's on in NI at 11:45 pm on Thursdays, but you can watch it on iPlayer later (you can catch it in the Republic if you've got a good enough signal).

There were no Euro-candidates on this week; instead there was a panel of political commentators discussing the European elections in Northern Ireland. (See my general overview here). Again, the elections are not going to be very European, with the DUP turning the campaign into a "stop Sinn Féin topping the poll!" crusade (not that it matters where you come in the poll, as long as you get enough votes for a seat) and hoping to unseat their former party member and current MEP Jim Allister. Sinn Féin, on the other hand aims to up its vote (probably at the expense of the pro-Europe and PES-aligned SDLP).

And interesting detail that I missed in my last post was the question of intra-unionist transfers. I had focused on how the UUP's stance on Europe and alliance with the Tories could affect the number of transfers there may be between them and the nationalist SDLP. But the Jim Allister factor could again upset calculations here since he could attract transfers from the DUP which would have gone to the UUP's Jim Nicolson. Could the SDLP candidate slip in if the unionist vote is split? Could the race for 3rd place be more exciting than I'd previously thought?

Then there was a segment on the elections in Dublin, which is loosing a seat this election (going from four to three, as Ireland's share of seats drops from 13 to 12). Since Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald just got came in 4th last time, she has to fight particularly hard to keep her seat, hoping that the government's unpopularity and the successful No campaign in the last referendum will be a boost to her. (McDonald ran in Dublin for a Dáil [national parliament] seat in the last general election but lost). De Rossa, the current Labour MEP for Dublin is set to win another term, and said that he's not hearing anyone on the doorsteps saying that the No last year was the right choice. Whether or not it actually came up that much seeing that the economy is the big issue is another story.

Particularly interesting was the final section, where Robert Ramsay - a former civil servant who knew Faulkner (last PM of NI before direct rule was imposed) and several other leading unionists - was calling for unionists to redefine themselves as a minority within Europe. At least, it's particularly interesting for me, since I have to do a presentation on Unionist identity and the legitimacy of NI (1880-1925) on Wednesday. He basically called on unionists to define themselves as an ethnic minority based on an Ulster-Scots heritage, pointing out that mainland Britain doesn't associate NI with itself in its national mental map, and that unionists will have to ensure their status, identity and interests can be defended in Europe in a way that is acceptable internationally in the 21st century. Redefined ethnically, because unionists are perceived in religious terms or other terms that wouldn't be widely acceptable or as defensible in today's world as a legitimate group identity.

He also said that British reluctance to embrace unionists and the Republic's open arms may mean that unionists will have to accept a position as a minority in Ireland in the future, so they should strengthen their position by joining a family of European minorities. (Although the Republic doesn't really want NI until it can afford it, the rhetoric of nationalism and unity may lead to reunification anyway if the majority of NI give their consent - perhaps much like the EU's rhetoric on enlargement?). Ramsay said that the Republic had seen reforms that would make it more acceptable to unionists, though it's still a way away from being a "happy house" for unionists.

I doubt that this view will gain much ground within unionism any time soon, but Ramsay's ideas are remarkably in line with those of former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald (Fine Gael), a Europhile who felt that Irish reunification would be a lot easier and acceptable for unionists within a European context - it may be impossible to accept the authority of Dublin, but to accept the authority of both Dublin and Brussels, in a community of nations that includes Britain may be possible. So it's fascinating to see largely similar ideas being articulated by someone from a more unionist sympathetic point of view. He's published a book on the subject, "Ringside Seats", which could be interesting, if you like the subject of complex identities.

[As a side note, the next few weeks will be busy for me, so my stalled series on Sovereignty, Democracy and Legitimacy isn't likely to have much added to it anytime soon. But I am still thinking about it, and hope that I get back to it eventually.]


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  2. Hi, Eurocentric!

    Another great post!

    I'm interested in your presentation about unionist nationalism in Northern Ireland (I'm giving a presentation on Tuesday about UK nationalism in general). Could I get a look at the notes for your presentation? Either as a blogpost or sent to me directly?

    In return, I'll post the results of my presentation as well! :D

    As to the rest of your post:

    "Although the Republic doesn't really want NI until it can afford it"

    I think this is a really interesting point. On the other side of the coin; when I was in Northern Ireland I heard people say that they don't think the UK really wants NI (too expensive to police and support economically) - but it can't afford to be blamed for any bloodshed that unification would bring.

    And in Derry/Londonderry, I had an interesting talk with a nationalist about why a lot of Catholics don't support unification. His take (in Derry, at least) was that if the Republic took over government in the North (and hence welfare support), it would simply be unable to cope with the high levels of unemployment.

    Northern Irish Catholic identity (i.e. I don't mean just "nationalist") is also a very interesting thing. Chatting with NI Catholics, I got a real sense that they have some mixed feelings towards Catholics in the Republic. There's sometimes a sense that NI Catholics have gone through something that people from the Republic don't really understand - they haven't shared in it.

    In a sense, just as NI Protestants are alienated (or at least distinct) from people in Britain, NI Catholics are distinct from those in the South (I'm deliberately avoiding the terms "Unionist" and "Nationalist" to make this particular point - although I'm aware of all the problems of terminology. These are big, clumsy statements I'm making!)

    "Irish reunification would be a lot easier and acceptable for unionists within a European context"

    When I first arrived in NI, I really supported this idea. But after living there for a while, I started to understand how much unionists (in general) seem to hate the EU. It almost seems that any symbol of identity supported by one community automatically cannot be supported by the other.

    These are only my observations after less than a year living in NI, so I could be completely barking up the wrong tree!

  3. You're right on your observations. I have family North and South (and in Britain), and they can have different outlooks on different topics.

    Unionists are quite cold on Europe - after all, their whole ideology is based on preserving sovereignty and the integraty of borders. However, unionism can and has changed its meaning over the years, and if there's a debate within unionism over where it wants to go, or even if it just evolves, it could head that way.

    Nationalists aren't fully sold on the EU either, though politically they seem more open to it (SDLP is very Europhile).

    I'll try posting a blog post, though the subject was really just tacked onto the course, so I'm sure there are a lot of holes in my thinking and in what I've read.