Several riots which took place this month in Belfast, Lisburn and Coleraine were sparked by the decision of the Public Prosecution Service not to take action on the political leaders who attended the funeral of Bobby Storey. However, this was the catalyst in bubbling discontent within unionism following the implementation of a border along the Irish sea, as part of the NI protocol negotiated by Boris Johnson on Britains exit of the EU. Videos emerging from the unrest on social media showed that many of those participating were young people, many born after the Good Friday Agreement. Coupled with an opinion poll last year highlighted 43% of 18–24-year-olds would support a United Ireland. However, in a survey conducted by Ulster University and Queens it showed that 67% identified as unionist, though only 26% felt strong in this identity. As a future generation often marked as ‘ceasefire babies’ emerge, unionism finds itself at a crossroads with many young people from unionist backgrounds becoming disillusioned and enraged.
The issue of religion is at the centre of the problem for 20-year-old Alliance activist Scott Moore who is an atheist, and therefore “immediately ruled out any party that was unionist or nationalist”. His belief is that Northern Ireland society should move away from the ‘green and orange politics’ it’s been defined by. “I think if more young people have that opportunity or even if they have the opportunity to think through their religion or belief and don’t see it as hereditary and they still come out and say well actually my parents religion or belief is right, that’s fair enough as well but so long as they have that experience, that’s what I want every young person to have” he said.
The idea of a secularist society is echoed by 27-year-old Michael Palmer, though he believes the two can co-exist. “Most unionists are obviously quite secular, quite average, quite normal. While the DUP, have that religiosity coming through, the UUP would be more moderate, more mainstream and we wouldn’t allow it to dictate our views as much. It goes back to when the DUP took over the UUP and that’s what changed the image of unionism” he said.
Similarly, James Armstrong who started the ‘Young Unionists’ page on Facebook believes that unionism needs to be “completely separated from religion”. Though Armstrong feels that parts of this identity are being eroded with the removal of the union flag from city hall except for special occasions. “Belfast, is one of the biggest cities in the United Kingdom and it can’t fly the country’s flag on city hall which is disgraceful” he said.
Blogger and politics student Jessica Johnston, like Moore felt that how she views politics “doesn’t really match with the unionists”. Johnston believes that education plays a huge part in how young people understand politics in Northern Ireland with largely segregated schooling. “I think our education system entrenches that thought of the green and orange politics without young people realising it until the start to question the age of 16/17 then the closer you are to voting age is when you start to think of those things” she said.
Palmer acknowledges though that unionism can do more to change its image. “Steve Aiken talked about bringing in more young people, more women and more LGBT people as elected representatives as well so its about trying to get the faces up there” he said. “Unionism has a lot of work to do in terms of providing educational opportunities for young people, providing jobs for our young people as well” he added.
Loyalist commentator Jamie Bryson states that the Good Friday Agreement is to blame for failing unionism. “There’s the overarching two decades of the peace process which has been designed to incrementally ease Northern Ireland out of the union which unionism has been expected to concede more and more, and people are just fed up with that. I think the straw has now broke the camel’s back”.
“There is a political element to that because actually what happened in 1998, so if we take the, we’ll loosely term it the post 98 generation, what happened was, the Belfast agreement was sold to the unionist community at the time, as a settlement while it was sold to the nationalist community as a process. The outworking of that was that the Post 98 generation of nationalists were politically energised and politicised whilst the post 98 generation of loyalists were actually depoliticised because they thought, you know what, the union is safe, it’s all over. So, the result of that is working class, loyalist communities are totally disengaged in the political process.
Unionism may be in a midst of crisis, and some feel disillusioned from political unionism. For these young people though, the ability to shape their own identity is the positive to take from a particularly dark time. However, unionism is much more complex as many may have imagined before this month and has exposed forgotten voices in areas where the decisions made by those who represent them are affected the most.