Wednesday, October 14, 2020

There's only one united. Or maybe two. Or maybe lots...

This is the masthead of the News Letter from 1986. Somewhere in the depths of the letters pages, sometime in between 1985–1990 (I can't be certain exactly when) there is a letter from a young me. Now and again it was a kind of game that a few mates and I got up to, to see who could get published. I think my real name was on it, but sometimes we used fake ones.

Bear in mind that the Troubles were raging. Back in November 1983 my uncle had preached at Darkley the Sunday night prior to this horror and he knew all of those killed and injured. As a 13 year old I had been with my parents - and about 200,000 others - at the massive Ulster Says No rally at Belfast City Hall in November 1985. It was in response to the sudden revelation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and it was a memorable, electrifying, day out. We got there very early and were about 6 rows from the front right up at the platform. The socio-political temperature of those years was very hot. 

I don't have a copy of the letter, as back then they were handwritten and nobody had a photocopier at home. If anyone ever goes looking for it I expect that it is probably mostly bonkers. Maybe I will get 'cancelled' for whatever those words were. I do recall clearly that in the letter I advised Ian Paisley and James Molyneaux, the two unionist leaders of the time and the key platform speakers, that England didn't want us – and so Scotland and Northern Ireland should get together. I can see Scotland from my window every day. It's natural. We belong together.

I have many Scottish friends who are pro-Independence, or 'Indy'. Just today an IPSOS-MORI opinion poll has reported that a record high of 58% of Scots plan to vote SNP at the next Scottish Parliament election. This is in a context of high profile strife, scandals and controversies around the party. But the even wider UK context for the Scottish population – of Brexit, Boris Johnston and Coronavirus confusion and cronyism – by far trumps any negative baggage there might be around the SNP.

We are 30+ years on from the heady days of my letter writing foray into the pages of the News Letter and the United Kingdom clearly has the potential to unravel. Who knows if politics will permit another Scottish Referendum as a sequel to the 2014 original which finished 55.3% v 44.7%? But is there even one sensible advocate for 'The Union' who speaks credibly and persuasively to each of its constituent nations and regions of being together? Is there anyone doing likewise across the entire UK and also reaching out to the common interests that are shared with the Republic of Ireland? I can't think of one.

UK Devolution of the late 1990s has caused a generation of divergence, and a complex infrastructure of administrators and bureaucrats have institutionalised that divergence. During this year of coronavirus there has been yet more divergence of policy among the nations and regions than ever before, with too many key figures in our various legislatures opportunistically taking advantage of the pandemic to prepare the ground for their next election campaigns – with an eye on the next stage of their political careers rather than caring for the greater good of the people they get paid to represent. 

So, what happens next? Well, if the cliché "the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there" still applies, then the future must also be a place where things are done differently. That future will still require co-operation across our islands - through the ever-presents of geography, trade, health, transport, energy supply, tourism, language, culture, history, natural resources, family ties, and many more factors.

What The Sun tabloid newspaper front page yesterday proclaimed as Disunited Kingdom might not be the end game. In fact, it might create the potential for new unities, a mesh of uniteds in multiple collaborative directions, and not just the binary Ireland v GB options that currently exist. A fabric. A weave. The co-operation, and how to get on with the neighbours, will always be needed. Perhaps those are the very relationships and interconnections that have been badly needed, but missing, for the past 50+ years.

Who knows. There are endless hypotheticals. But championing the ideas and values that truly unite people is the very core of any serious 'unity project', however you choose to define that, and whichever 'United' you support. The cold mathematics of an election or referendum result, or a paper agreement arrived at in secret between politicians, might be presented as a form of 'unity' – but these fall far short of actually uniting people. And nobody is doing that.