Is a ‘Unionism of People’ possible?

Seán Rainford
6 min readSep 9, 2021


In the wake of the John Hume’s death last August, many politicians and commentators rightly hailed his legacy as the redefinition of what Irish nationalism stood for. Hume was able to bring Irish nationalism away from a ‘territorial’ mindset to one which focused on the unity of people.

“The real division of Ireland is not a line drawn on the map, but in the minds and hearts of its people”

It is a fact that Irish nationalism — from the Anglo-Irish Treaty to the Troubles — was defined by a territorial mindset. The problem in Ireland was that the Irish state did not cover the whole island and that the North-East corner was occupied by a foreign power. The ‘national question’ would be answered decisively when the British walked away from Northern Ireland for good.

As someone who considers themselves a republican, the desire for the end to British sovereignty in Ireland is one I share. However, John Hume rightly pointed out that the narrowly territorial mindset was damaging both to nationalism and to the peace process in general. Partition was caused by a division of the Irish people and could only be removed by the unity of the people. Hume thereby reimagined nationalism as a project “to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland” as Bunreacht na hÉireann now outlines.

But has there ever been such a reorientation on the part of unionists? Have unionist leaders ever sought to redefine the priority of unionists as one which was concerned with the unity of the peoples of the British Isles as opposed to territoriality? Unfortunately, unionist leaders have not yet made this a significant part of their strategy.

From the Home Rule crisis right to the present day, unionists have always been defined by a territorial mindset: the United Kingdom is our jurisdiction and we are loyal to it; we can therefore never have a united Ireland. The priority of unionism is and always has been to maintain the United Kingdom’s sovereignty over Northern Ireland. To this end, unionist politicians have gone to whatever lengths are necessary, whether that be encouraging discrimination or, in recent history, going into government with former paramilitary leaders.

What would become of unionism if the sovereignty of the United Kingdom ended after a border poll? The answer from some unionists is that it would cease to exist as a political project. ‘Unionists’ would no longer exist since there was no longer a union to protect. Others like Arlene Foster have gone as far as saying that they would leave Northern Ireland for Britain should a united Ireland come about.

This thought experiment about what would happen to unionism after Irish unification is telling. It shows us that unionism is still defined by territoriality in the same way that nationalism was for so long. It is defined by an singular ideological attachment to the United Kingdom as a political entity. Should that entity cease to exist, so too would unionism.

This question may not be purely hypothetical given the high chance of a referendum on Irish unity in the coming years, and the possibility of Scottish independence. Unionists may have to give serious consideration to what the consequences of such an outcome would mean for their political position. Regardless of what anyone says, unionists and unionism would survive Irish unity. What form unionism would take in this scenario is another question.

Perhaps the lesson that unionists can take from John Hume is that a reorientation towards a unionism of people is what is needed. A unionism which is rigidly attached to the structures of the United Kingdom is unrealistic in the context of a united Ireland or a break up of the UK. A unionism which seeks closer cooperation and association between all the peoples of these islands could be a powerful political movement.

No one should argue that unionists abandon the cause of maintaining the United Kingdom. Notwithstanding Hume’s brilliance, territorial and jurisdictional matters are important. The desire for a unified Irish territory is a valid one, as is the desire for the continuance of the UK. But the possibility of constitutional change exists and people must find ways of accommodating their political beliefs with circumstances that are not their ideal choice. Hume helped nationalism do this, and unionism may have to do this too in the context of Irish unity.

With this in mind, it’s notable that Doug Beattie, the new leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, defines the core of his unionism in terms of belonging and brotherhood:

“I’m an Irishman and you know what, I can go to Scotland and feel like I belong … but still be an Irish man. I can do the same in Wales, I can feel that I belong to that club and still be an Irishman. I can go to any part of the United Kingdom and feel at home”

This is perhaps one of the core principles of unionism which is often unsaid. There is a deep sense of emotional attachment not only to Ulster but to the peoples of the other island as well. The feeling that one’s motherland extends beyond the shores of the island of Ireland alone is quite palpable and is probably something that nationalists don’t always appreciate. Regardless of the constitutional arrangements, this attachment and sense of belonging will exist.

It’s on this ground that unionism could be future-proofed. As many already recognise, Irish unification may well happen. While it would be disrespectful for anyone to expect them to vote in favour of such an outcome in a referendum, Irish nationalists have to give unionists the space to reimagine and reorient themselves should such an outcome become a realistic possibility. Only unionists themselves could do this work.

That being said, there are some important lessons from John Hume’s approach to nationalism which could lead the way for unionism too. A unionism of people — the belief in the essential unity and brotherhood of the Irish, English, Scots and Welsh, and the need for this unity to have political expression of some form — could be what unionism eventually develops into. Should the United Kingdom break up, it’s possible that this view would have widespread support.

It may also be useful for nationalists to consider what distance they would be prepared to go to protect this sense of belonging. Of course, nationalists and republicans must advocate the independence and unity of Ireland, but forms of association, alliance, or even confederation with Scotland, Wales, and England could be possible if they are based on principles of self-determination and equality. In the same manner that the British government is open to Irish unity as long as it’s on the basis of consent, the Irish government and nationalists could declare their openness to a form of confederation if it was on the basis of consent. This could give unionists the space to think about how their principles will be applied in different constitutional arrangements.

Northern Ireland’s politics today is based on the principle of parity-of-esteem between the two communities and traditions. When we consider that nationalism has had to accommodate itself to a constitutional position which would not be its first choice, it’s at least reasonable to ask what unionism would do to accommodate itself to such a scenario in reverse. A simplistic answer that unionism would “cease to exist” is not good enough. While unionists should not be expected to give up on NI as part of the United Kingdom, it’s worth considering how common bonds between the peoples of these islands could exist in a new Ireland.



Seán Rainford

MA and LLB grad, socialist. Stuff on politics mostly, some old essays from university as well.