Northern Irish Unionism fundamentally differs from its Scottish and Welsh cousins in that it splits not along constitutional (federalist-devolutionist-integrationist) but instead primarily cultural (i.e. communal)-civic fault lines. Cultural Unionism believes in the concept of a “Unionist People” or “Community” bound together by history, British nationality, ethnicity, location and religion. Its prime loyalty is not to the parliament of the United Kingdom, nor even necessarily to the nation’s monarch, but to the material well-being of their “Community” within the Greater British nation. It is essentially a defensive Unionism dependent on demographics and, of course, constant vigilance. Presently the biggest party in Northern Irish politics, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), along with its even more fundamentalist rival, Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), unashamedly espouse the policy of Cultural Unionism. Unfortunately for David Cameron it has been recently proven that a large segment of his putative partners, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) still also believe in this idea of a “Unionist People” as opposed to a Union whose benefits should be available to all.
Civic Unionism in a Northern Irish context is the promotion of the Union as a non-communal political philosophy, attempting to sell our continuing link with the rest of the United Kingdom as a stand-alone as opposed to being merely a part of the bigger communal whole. It remains today, as throughout Northern Ireland’s history, very much a minor strand in the province’s bigger polity but it was given a boost nearly two years ago by the decision of David Cameron and the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Sir Reg Empey, to fight as a single force (UCUNF) in both the European and Westminster elections . A truly secular, wholly non-sectarian N.Irish Unionism taking its place at the centre of our nation’s government was promised and to hear Messrs Cameron and Empey saying they wanted:
"to offer the electorate of Northern Ireland something more than a continuation of 'us-and-them' politics," and:
"Something more than a Balkanisation process which will condemn another generation to elections based on sectarian headcounts and pure self-interest."
“…was a very welcome contrast to the stagnant, defensive and very often sectarian nature of “traditional” Ulster Unionism.
As I’ve already mentioned, unfortunately for Cameron, the Conservative Party and those of us who bought into the UCUNF’s publicly declared concept, the promise still remains very much only that- a promise. Despite “Irisgate” and the shenanigans of the Policing and Justice debacle, events of the last month or so  have proven that “Cultural Unionism” is most definitely not only alive and kicking, but also ready and willing to grab a large majority of the seats won by pro-Union parties in the next Westminster election.
If my pessimism is realised, then what will be the implications for the wider Union and more specifically for the readers of this site, the cause of English nationalism?
Cultural Unionism has an intensely focused, even myopic target and that is to ensure Northern Ireland’s “Unionist People” continue to benefit disproportionately in political and economic terms from remaining a part of the United Kingdom. If in attempting to achieve that target that brings it into conflict with the United Kingdom’s government (even one as avowedly Unionist as Cameron’s), then so be it. If, as a side effect, collateral damage is caused to the wider Union it is of secondary importance to the fact that as far as their folk back home are concerned, they are “fighting and winning for Northern Ireland” at Westminster. Case in point is the Barnett Formula.
Arlene Foster, the DUP candidate for Fermanagh and South Tyrone and our temporary First Minister stated quite categorically (despite admitting to fact that it discriminates against England!) Barnett should be kept because…well, because Northern Ireland does rather well out of it . A second example is Cultural Unionism’s attitude towards devolution. For Northern Ireland, it’s a very good thing- indeed, the more space between “our” “parliament” and the cosmopolitan, interfering busybodies at Westminster, apparently the better. The belief in the better governance which is devolution, however, doesn’t extend to countenancing it for the biggest part of the United Kingdom, England. In fact, as evidenced by speeches by several DUP MPs (the Upper Bann MP, David Simpson amongst them ), even the limited “English Votes On English Matters” proposal is not something these N.Irish “Guardians of the Union’s Integrity” are prepared to consider.
In the normal run of things this contradictory “Keep Sending the Cash and Leave Us Alone” school of pseudo-Unionism has played little part in the every day business of the House of Commons. Almost all of the N.Irish Unionist MPs are “double-jobbers”, holding down MLA and local councilors positions simultaneously and consequently their attendance at Westminster is sporadic, to say the very least. A hung-parliament however would not be in the “normal run of things” and such a scenario has the potential of leaving these Unionist MPs with a very strong negotiating hand:
Would they play it to the overall benefit of the Union, attempting to address the financial inequities of the present settlement?
Would they be looking to solve the constitutional conundrums thrown up by asymmetrical devolution?
Or would, once again, a detached, pork-barreled Ulster Unionism be holding a UK government to ransom, regardless of the bad publicity and ill-will generated?
David Cameron and the Conservatives should be aware that the dangers to the nation’s integrity come in many varied forms. Cultural Unionism may not be directly threatening to have Westminster “dangling from a N.Irish rope” dancing to ‘our’ tune but ironically its potential to ultimately damage the Union may be greater than all of those whose publicly declared aim is to dismantle the United Kingdom. For the sake of the Union’s future well-being, let’s hope that potential isn’t realised.
O'Neill is the author of A Pint of Unionist Lite.
This post is part of the Constitutional Futures series.