Unionists of the left

Sophie Long uncovers the progressive unionism overshadowed by Northern Ireland's right-wing mainstream

April 12, 2021 · 8 min read
Mural of David Ervine, former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, in Belfast. Credit: Keith Ruffles

The political imagination of progressive unionism remains under-utilised in Northern Ireland. As we lapse into yet another ethno-sectarian struggle over how to adjust trade borders following the UK’s exit from the EU, the loudest (and most conservative) voices within unionism are again gathering the most attention.

And yet there are multiple manifestations of unionism, ranging from socially regressive, right-wing political ideas, such as those held by Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), through to more left-wing politics, such as those displayed by the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP).

The complicated and shifting set of political identities that falls under the umbrella of unionism is not immediately obvious to observers. The most visible form of unionism to those outside Northern Ireland is those who ‘supplied friends’ – at a rate of £100 million apiece – to give the Conservatives a working majority following the 2017 general election: the Democratic Unionist Party. For some in Great Britain, the prolific coverage of the DUP’s politics has provided a handy cultural shortcut to understanding Northern Ireland’s unionist population.

Hidden histories

The lesser-discussed and arguably more British (as opposed to Ulster nationalist) politics come from less dominant groups of unionists in the region. Progressive unionism is distinct from the PUP and its policies, although there are overlaps, such as broad support for socially liberal policies around women’s rights and for a well-funded, universally-accessible welfare state, strong trade unions and a fair education system that does not discriminate on a class basis. In the words of Professor Peter Shirlow, director at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies:

‘Among them [unionists] is a significant group from the liberal left who find the religiosity of the DUP and the conservatism of the UUP [Ulster Unionist Party] plainly unattractive. Their unionism is merely defined by an appreciation that Irish unification would undermine their economic status. Such persons have no desire for a unionism that does not support equality, the delivery of mutual consent and the advancement of non-sectarian values.’

When I carried out my doctoral research into progressive unionism, I found that the rich intellectual history of some unionists had been hidden away, and that the impulse to align oneself to the ‘broad unionist family’ – often the more powerful parties of the DUP and Ulster Unionists – undermined the class analysis of progressive unionists. One of the best texts for those seeking to understand the heterogeneity of unionism came from Dr Tony Novosel, who admitted that:

‘I had assumed that Unionism/Loyalism was a monolithic bloc and that, at best, Loyalists were nothing more than agents of the British State, mindless tools of Unionism, neo-fascists, Nazis and/or sectarian killers. The other image I held, like many others, is that of the Loyalist as a muscle-bound thug, without a thought in his head. In fact, the ability of Loyalism to think politically and in terms of political compromise and the creation of a “just” and “shared” society never occurred to me. It just didn’t seem possible.’

Ideological counter

During my research I uncovered numerous examples of unionist thought and organising that is the ideological counter of the politics of the more well-known DUP and TUV. These ideas have long been documented in policy and political speeches, and are socially and economically progressive. Progressive unionists are also concerned about the environment and ending violence in their communities. Their understanding of the root causes of violence are much more sophisticated than some others – who often exhibit a black and white, ‘a few bad men’ analysis of recent conflicts.

Further, in the case of the PUP, they were not only supporting a woman’s right to choose from the early 1990s, but were championing reproductive justice by demanding that women’s work in the home be paid and that childcare provision be offered for women who sought employment. Dawn Purvis, Eileen Weir and others were vocal in demanding that British women in Northern Ireland enjoy British rights, via the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.

In this instance, progressive unionists were in favour of a more radical policy than Sinn Fein, who took some years to catch up with their thinking on abortion. This may be explained by the PUP’s secular position, with Sinn Fein as a party and their voters retaining some sense of connection to the Catholic church. Both represent working-class voters, and in the interviews I conducted with PUP activists, lived experiences of class often shaped the progressive attitudes of unionists they knew.

A progressive agenda

More recently, at the 2015 PUP conference, William Ennis brought a motion to oppose the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, citing a threat to democratic processes and the perils of privatised healthcare: ‘My primary concern is for the safeguarding of our National Health and emergency ward due to your lack of a credit card doesn’t bear thinking about.’

The above gives us an insight into the progressive attitudes of some unionists in Northern Ireland. We know that a large proportion of pro-union citizens aren’t voting, because they either cannot stomach the policies of the dominant unionist parties, or they don’t believe that any of the smaller parties can break through. In some instances, former ‘unionist votes’ have found solace in the Alliance party, with 18.6% of DUP votes shifting to the centrist party in 2017.

The major difficulty in translating these attitudes into political power and policy change is the persistence of sectarianism, which shapes elections and wider political discourse. The important lesson for those on the left is that there are unionists eager for a progressive social and economic agenda.

There may be options for community-based organising, such as through the Build Back Better campaigns, or through arts and culture, for progressive unionists to find alliances with other left-leaning groups. It is abundantly clear that Northern Ireland’s electoral system lacks the space for intra-communal diversity of thought. Yet without capturing and listening to these voices, any future in Northern Ireland will be much poorer. We must find ways of supporting them.

Sophie Long’s PhD looked at the history of progressive loyalism in Northern Ireland.

This article first appeared in Issue #231, People, power, place. Subscribe today to support independent media and get your issue hot off the press!

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