On Sunday, after I had read the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee statement, I thought “I wish unionists had the sense to learn from her how to modernise”.

Published: 8 February 2022

What a brilliant politician is this unassuming woman of limited education who took on an appallingly difficult job she didn’t want, and through patience, humility, grace and selflessness, made it a triumph.

She has found exactly the right moment and the right words to ensure that when she dies there will be no trouble over Camilla’s title despite the best efforts of muck-raking media. And at a time of political turmoil, she sent out perfect message.

Having read innumerable articles since last week about what to do about the protocol, I have no idea whose approach is likely to work best in the short term.

However, reading the upbeat message from a 95-year-old who in the last couple of years has lost her husband, been isolated at his funeral, endures the unfolding disgrace of her second son and the constant sniping and whinging from a beloved grandson and his narcissistic wife against her family and the institution to which she’s given her life, I am more in awe of her than ever.

What this wise woman knows is that while tragedy can secure sympathy, self-pity does not, and people need leaders who accentuate the positive.

So with politics in turmoil, her statement is full of words like ‘hope’, ‘optimism’, ‘progress’ and ‘goodwill’, and her desire that her Jubilee “will bring together families and friends, neighbours and communities — after some difficult times for so many of us — in order to enjoy the celebrations and to reflect on the positive developments in our day-to-day lives that have so happily coincided with my reign”.

Republicans have been brilliant at representing their failures as triumphs, while unionists represent their triumphs as failures.

Irish republicans manage to find the right duplicitous language to market their ancient ethnic hatreds as edgy and modern. But unionists are almost proudly useless at public relations.

Yet as Professor William J.V. Neill writes in The Idea of the Union, an invaluable collection of contributions from a wide range of unionist writers: “A narrow-minded, constipated, socially conservative image so often projected by political unionism in uncompromising rhetoric and backward-looking policy has no future. It is an image to which unionism must react soonest and lay to rest for good or face extinction.”

William Beattie Smith, civil servant turned academic, makes the case that unionists need to rediscover their self-confidence “and reconnect with the Idea of the Union as an honourable cause rooted in the principles of equal citizenship, national sovereignty, the rule of law, and upholding the constitution; to counter the defamatory narrative peddled by imperious republicanism”.

He uses the words of David Trimble, calling for a new Northern Ireland “in which pluralist unionism and constitutional nationalism can speak to each other with the civility which is the foundation of freedom”.

I’ve never forgotten what Professor Paul (now Lord) Bew pointed out decades ago in a review of Joseph Lee’s Ireland: 1912-1985: Politics and Society. Lee was highly impressive, he said, except where it came to his ignorance and prejudice about Ulster unionism: “He is scathing about the ‘sterility’ of the Protestant Ulster Protestant ‘imagination’ — this is the very period when C.S. Lewis, E.R. Dodds, Louie MacNeice and Ernest Walton were flourishing: everything from Narnia through brilliant Greek scholarship, outstanding poetry to Nobel prize-winning work in Atomic Energy.”

Unionists — like some of those eloquent voices on the website https://letstalkloyalism.co.uk — need to fight back against those who denigrate their culture.

The schools are letting the children down: grown-ups have to inculcate pride in their community’s courageous history.

It is time to start reading and discussing books and articles on- and off-line so they have the arsenal to combat nationalist ignorance and republican vitriol.

There is enough readable and well-informed material just in The Idea of the Union to start many debates.

Unionists should remember that many nationalists — like Taoiseach Michéal Martin — loathe republican venom and mean-spiritedness.

Last week, social media were awash with republican activists rejoicing in the vandalising of a wall in Glasnevin cemetery which named all those who died in Irish conflicts between 1916 and 1923.

It’s the third time this has happened, and the cemetery trust has given up and ended the project.

“Today’s news is not only very sad but in essence a victory for bullying and intolerance”, said Charlie Flanagan, a previous Minister for Justice and an enemy of bigotry. “The Glasnevin wall recognised the many different experiences of the tumult of early 20th Century Ireland, a country of diversity with many different backgrounds, beliefs and aspirations. Sadly today’s decision demonstrates that we have some road to travel towards real respect for the different traditions and multiple narratives of these islands.”

We do indeed and unionists need to be taking the lead.

As W.B. Smith says, the message from all unionist parties should be: “Northern Ireland has grown beyond a squabble which republicans seem determined to perpetuate, and that unionism is confidently leading the way towards maturity.”

God save the Queen.

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