Musings of a supposedly mythical creature

Big Problems, Small Minds.


I am a unicorn; this means I was born in the catholic community and yet am also a small ‘u’ unionist. ( Although that is short-hand, a pro-union, liberal, secular curmudgeon from a catholic background might be more appropriate.

If we are to build a better future it will require us to address the legacy of the past and of the hatred which rips our country apart. That is about healing open wounds.

However we must also look at some key root causes. Deprivation, disaffection and despair create a fertile breeding ground for resentment and hatred to flourish. If this place is to be fit for our children to raise their children, we must also create a sustainable economy and environment for all of our people.

Unfortunately, while the UK’s economic performance is poor, we were at the back of the class in the good times and are getting worse in the recession. Economic inactivity, productivity, child poverty, NEETs, you can take your pick, but on any objective measure Northern Ireland is failing its exams.

In any normal democracy the governing coalition would be addressing these issues as an existential threat to the state and to its own political future.  The opposition would be having a field day picking apart the failing policies and also preparing its own solutions for implementation when it wins power.

Here our parties, too often devoid of ideas or policies, and safe in the absence of a proper opposition default to the politics of paranoia.

The Australian spin guru Linton Crosby coined the term ‘dog whistle’ politics and the sad fact is in Northern Ireland we all find it too easy to prick up our ears at the barely disguised code words which make us angry or defensive. It appears to this unicorn that it is a perfectly rational strategy for parties only interested in the short-term political advantage.  The problem is that such politics are contributing to a downward spiral that can only make things worse for the population.

At some stage, and I suspect we are getting there, the ‘ballot fodder’ starts to question what it is being told; perhaps because the remedies promised don’t happen such as “United Ireland by 2016”; or else people are called out on to the streets and then disowned by their political ‘leaders’ . And, of course, our biggest parties are all in the Executive, so they can’t blame them’uns as easily because they are also collectively at fault.

In short, we face big problems that will not be solved by small minds.

(I am aware that this is all very negative, but I will blog soon about a few things that could make a difference)


Are we living in an Orwellian Delusion?

I am a unicorn; this means I was born in the catholic community and yet am also a small ‘u’ unionist. (

We are highly attuned in Northern Ireland to the nuances of language and terminology. The old tell-tales such as how you pronounce ‘h’ are taught to us as kids by peers as a way to identify ‘us’ and ‘them’. (Oh I say ‘aitch’ by the way.)  Yet we are stuck with tribal names which often do not accurately reflect identity.

For example, I am pretty agnostic on the Royal Family, but on balance would class myself as a republican (small r) yet on the constitutional position I am a unionist (small u). In Northern Ireland terms I am classed a Catholic because of my parents community background and my schooling and yet I am a secularist.

And from this unicorn’s perspective, political Unionism (big ‘U’) is too often a bland coverall for a form of Protestant Northern Irish Nationalism rather than a genuine embracing of  the real United Kingdom.

I’ve been reading George Orwell lately:

“A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. He may be a positive or a negative nationalist — that is, he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating — but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade. But finally, it is important not to confuse nationalism with mere worship of success. The nationalist does not go on the principle of simply ganging up with the strongest side. On the contrary, having picked his side, he persuades himself that it is the strongest, and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him. Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right.” George Orwell, Notes on Nationalism, 1945.

One toxic addition which we have added to George’s definition is the ability to also assume that if ‘they’ are happy then ‘we’ must have lost. And if ‘we’ are happy then ‘they’ must have lost. The Unionist Forum looks to this catholic unionist like a retreat to where Unionism is synonymous with Orangism and a solely white, male, fundamentalist protestant identity. That is not a recipe for leading us anywhere except into a spiral of decline which may lead eventually to greater violence. If we accept Orwell’s definition we need a post-nationalist solution which is based on patriotism and mutual respect.

We need a genuine shared future – not greater division and separation and, frankly, we need many in our political class to grow up and start to show real leadership.

So what have we learned after two weeks of protests?

I am a unicorn; this means I was born in the catholic community and yet am also a small ‘u’ unionist.  ( That has made the last two weeks interesting and frightening. So after, nearly two weeks of protests, arson, death threats and disruption what have we learned?

Death Threats and Intimidation are self-defeating

Nothing can ever excuse threats being made against the lives and families of elected representatives. Such threats are a direct attack not just on the political process, but against every one of us regardless of how we vote. They also destroy any chance of those making the threats winning the argument. You cannot murder and bomb people into agreeing with you. It has also been remarkable the degree to which the protests have hardened opinion across society against those who are protesting. The blocking of roads with its accompanying intimidation and violence has seriously damaged any chance of an agreed reversal.

You can’t stir up an argument and then try to wash your hands of it.

It is heartening to see that despite lots of “I condemn this, but…” utterances the parties who have played a role in increasing tensions – and yes that does include Sinn Fein and SDLP as well as UUP and DUP, have not been able to shrug off their responsibility. The local media, who have sometimes been too quick not to ‘rock the boat’, have not held back and the Belfast Telegraph, in particular, deserves credit for having the courage to speak out.

Our Nationalist and Unionist political parties are singing from a hymn sheet dated 1968-94

If there has been one seminal moment for me in the last two weeks it has been to see in the census a reflection of the world that we live in rather than a narrow orange vs green analysis that too many of our politicians perpetuate through their words and deeds. We, the electorate, are also to blame as we have allowed narrow sectarian interests to plough their own furrows without sufficient challenge. We are much more complex as people than many of our political leaders have been prepared to acknowledge. 28% of us class ourselves as Northern Irish, 40% class ourselves as solely British, 25% class solely as Irish and the current political playbook cannot cope with this.

Far too many of us do not vote and then complain about politics. If you don’t like the shape of politics you can change it either by joining a party and trying to change from within, set up a new party (I will watch the Progressive Party with interest), but always  vote, if only to  make sure your voice is heard.

There are long-standing problems and genuine grievances in working class areas which do need to be addressed.

Anyone who has worked in the Shankill, Creggan, Ardoyne or Albertbridge Road (and many others) can see that the peace dividend largely passed those areas by. I remain an optimist that we will grow the local economy again, but, if and when we do, it will be one more focused on exporting than retail and construction. It will be higher skilled and require a well-educated workforce. The failure of our parents, communities and our secondary education system to help too many of our young people develop the skills they require, and a better expectation of what they could achieve is not just a social issue, it is a security issue as well and should be treated as a national emergency.

And there is hope

The quiet dignified peace vigil yesterday morning was step in the right direction. I hope this morning’s gathering at the City Hall will be bigger and will make an important statement “We are a moderate, peace loving community which detests violence and the trappings of the past. Let us build and country we can all be proud of.”

Identity (and Flags)

I promised to blog on identity, so here is part one of what I fear may end up the length of a PhD.

I am a unicorn; this means I was born in the catholic community and yet am also a small ‘u’ unionist.  (


To many a flag is a symbol of pride and allegiance. People across the world and for centuries have died for their flag and killed in its name. It is a symbol of belonging to those in favour and, to those opposed, a symbol of the enemy.

To some of those who spoke and protested in recent weeks the Union Flag is “the flag of our country, of freedom, of democracy. The flag for which our fathers and grandfathers died”, to others it is the detested symbol of “imperialist British oppression across the world”.

Similarly to some nationalists and to our southern neighbours the tricolour is “a symbol of unity between green and orange, a flag of tolerance and respect” and yet to some of us it is also “the flag of murderers and of rebellion”.

I hold a British passport and I am also Irish. I am a proud Ulsterman (nine counties by the way), but, first and foremost, I am a citizen of Northern Ireland which is both British and Irish – like me.

When I see the tricolour flying in Dublin, it is simply the flag of the Ireland. When I see a Union flag flying in London, it is simply the flag of the United Kingdom. And like a good unicorn I see nothing wrong or offensive about either. In Northern Ireland, however, this unicorn feels that flags are too often used for much baser purposes.

My beloved phoenix comes from a border town which is, at certain times of the year festooned with tricolours. I grew up on the edge of a small town where every July, despite being mostly mixed, the local loyalists made sure every lamppost had a flag (often paramilitary) and every kerb a good coat of red, white and blue (to be fair the paint work was very neat). The message both of us received was clear:

“You are not one of us, if want to live here, keep your head down. This town belongs to us, not you.”

A large part of the problem here is that we have never properly mixed. We have predominantly protestant towns surrounded by catholic countryside and vice versa. We have ghettos and postage stamp estates surrounded by or interfacing with ‘the other’.  So how do we make it clear that “I am here to stay! This is my place and not yours.”?

Stick up a flag.

The problem is that act debases the very flags to which those hanging them profess allegiance. To me the need to festoon an area with flags and fly them every day (my council proudly flies the Union Flag at the dump) is a sign of insecurity.

When the Union Flag is flown on designated days in proper civic settings I see it is a sign of civic pride and of belonging. Where this is done I tend to notice the flag and will often do a quick check to find out what is the occasion. This has increased this unicorn’s knowledge of royal birthdays and my Dad’s mortification at my politics.

This Northern Ireland we inhabit is a shared space. I have no wish to abuse or show disrespect to my neighbours. That is why I found the City Hall row both painful and sad.

Belfast is the capital city of Northern Ireland. It is a shared city in a shared country. Unionist, loyalist, protestant, nationalist, republican, catholic, Hindu, Muslim, atheist and others share this city which has moved so far in recent years. I want to see the flag fly at the City Hall in a way which can be respected and also be respectful of the fact that this country will remain part of the United Kingdom for as long as the majority of all its people (and, yes, that includes many catholics) wish it.

To fly it on designated days, and possibly at the cenotaph all year, would seem an honourable way to treat the Union Flag and also show respect to all of our citizens.

‘3 Es’

Bill Clinton’s campaign team of 2003 had a famous mantra “Its the Economy Stupid!”. We are faced with a range of societal challenges and weaknesses that are structural in much of our community. From this Unicorn’s perspective, instead of fixating on identity and “who said what” we need a focus on three Es


We still have many good schools and our top exam results are really good, but is this at the cost of a very significant number of kids who are simply failed by our education system and leave with nothing? No qualifications, no expectations and no realistic chance of turning their lives around. And as for segregated education, well are we surprised that so many of our kids turn out so ignorant of the other side?


We have some really bright sparks in the Northern Ireland economy. Some of our tech companies are as good if not better than any in the world, but they are too few. Instead an unsustainable proportion of the local economy is propped up by our public sector and grant culture – a huge subsidy from the rest of the UK. This is incredibly unhealthy. It is like a thirty something who is still expecting handouts from mum and dad so he can pursue his dream of being the great novelist. We need a reality check and we need to start paying our way. That will not be overnight I accept, but we need to start. and yes it does start with education, but it needs something else.


Our young people and particularly our children need to have an expectation that their future can be better than their parents and grandparents endured. A peaceful, shared future where every child has an expectation that they will be equipped for work with a strong education and job opportunities in a vibrant export driven 21st century economy.

Now if any of our political class genuinely subscribe to this I may lend them my vote, but a fixation on flags and the past leaves me with low expectations of too many. In the words of Paul Brady too many are

“Still trying to reach the future through the past,
Still trying to carve tomorrow from a tombstone”

I am off to work this morning determined to play my part to change that.

How do Unicorns Vote?

I am sorry to say that the answer for most unicorns is that they don’t vote or, if they do, its with a heavy heart.

Unicorns don’t ‘do’ tribal very well. Wrapping ourselves in tricolours or union flags and engaging in sectarian slagging is anathema. The result is that many thoughtful unicorns, whether they be in business or  professions, do not vote and do not engage politically. To me that is an understandable, but futile position.

This unicorn came of voting age just in time for the Anglo-Irish Agreement to unleash into a maelstrom of rage and violence. And like many good unicorns I trotted behind my Dad to the polling booth and voted SDLP, because that’s what nice middle-class catholics are supposed to do. Because I was a bit of a sad individual even then, I took it as my civic duty to read and immerse myself in politics reading the Newsletter, Irish News and listening avidly to Talkback. I soon realised that it was making me despair of this place. By the 1986 General Election I was arguing with Dad and told him that “I refuse to take part in a sectarian headcount” – looking back now I do understand why I said it. But it was dumb.

We are complex folk in Northern Ireland, much more nuanced and mannered in our ways that it can appear at first but there are some truisms. And one of those is that in the absence of politics the violence flares and once it does its very hard to put it out. So I started to vote again, but this time as a political anorak I was heavily influenced by developments in Great Britain, where this concept of tactical voting was much discussed in relation SDP/Liberal Alliance. As I didn’t feel part of one tribe in Northern Ireland, why should I be limited to voting for one party?

That is still my position. I lend my vote to parties at elections and if they abuse it, they lose it. Mike Nesbitt take note.

So in the 90’s I flitted across SDLP, Alliance and Workers party, but the elections to the 1996 forum was a watershed – I lost the last vestiges of my nationalist virginity and added UUP to my vote. Why? Because for me it was a vote for peace and, if strengthening David Trimble made that more likely, then I was happy to do so. In fact, I was proud to do so. My wife also found herself voting SDLP for the first time for the same reason (I wonder does that make her a Phoenix?).

In the intervening years I have become ever more convinced of the need to use my vote in the way that will give the best outcome at all elections. I don’t just vote on party lines – policy and personality also matter. Policies matter because frankly many of our parties haven’t historically had much beyond”Do you consider yourself British or Irish?” To be fair they are mostly getting better – slowly. We now see policies on education, economy, environment, water charges etc. Those too often tend to be populist and aimed at ‘the core vote’ rather than carefully researched and argued positions of principle. Our politics are still very immature.

Personalities also matter – come across as untrustworthy or a hatemonger and Hell will freeze over before you get my vote. In fact I will tactically vote to stop you and so will other unicorns and phoenixes.

How does this unicorn vote?

I am a social liberal, secularist, unionist and Northern Irish catholic (lapsed) in a mixed marriage and committed contributing to a better future for my children – which in my case means growing a vibrant private sector and a genuine shared future for all regardless of class, religion or race.

Alliance is a natural home and one I do feel comfortable with up to a point, but sometimes it is too woolly and socially sometimes disappointing. The recent vote in the Assembly on  gay marriage, for example, could be taken as indicative of a broad church or a lack of courage. I am afraid it looked like the latter.  At the moment it is the best vote for me IF the local constituency patterns justify it. However the attacks on the party and its courageous response does strengthen my affections and respect for the party and its members.

SDLP, oh dear, the party of Hume, Devlin, Fitt and Mallon is a shadow of itself. While it had a chance to become a post-Nationalist power , its laziness on the ground in working class districts and fear of the rise of Sinn Fein has taken it back down a darker green route than I care for. I suspect it has plenty of unicorns holding their noses and voting for it. I still will vote if it stops me having Jimmy Spratt as my MP, as will my wife (yes, phoenixes vote SDLP if provoked by the unspeakable). But these days SDLP is never my 1st preference and increasingly 3rd, 4th or even 5th.

What about the Ulster Unionists? I like and respect John McCallister and Basil McCrea, but Mike Nesbitt, Tom Elliott and Michael Copeland are clear that they do not want ‘my sort’ about the place and, to be fair, the feeling is mutual. That is a pity because a party of small business with more roots and social conscience than the NI Conservatives might have had a chance with me. Although my father-in-law is a life long Ulster Unionist activist and he feels that I may be being generous to the current leadership.

Sinn Fein fascinate this unicorn in the way that watching a tiger in the zoo does. Interesting, but I would not want to get any closer. I do not forgive or forget what was done notionally in my name as a Northern Irish catholic. It sickens me to my core. Even if time was to heal or detoxify, I have a fundamental problem with a party that is still ‘The Movement’. The degree of central control and the ill-considered dogma that is spouted as fundamentalist truisms is depressing and damaging for Northern Ireland. There are bright committed people in Sinn Fein and many who I am sure vote for them with clear conscience. I cannot see me ever doing so.

Which brings me to the riddle that is the DUP. If you had asked me even five years ago I could not conceive of even considering voting DUP. But two things could change that. Their policy documents are better than those of most of their opponents and, crucially, Peter Robinson’s claim to want to reach out to the likes of me did strike a chord. Afterall even unicorns like a hug.

But do I belive that the party can move? yes I do think that they could.

Do I think that they will? No sadly not, I cannot conceive of Nigel Dodds, Gregory, Edwin et al moving as it would mean eventually rinsing off that dark orange hue and moving away from a fundamentalist approach that rages against the modern world. It would mean them accepting the values I hold dear – tolerance, secularism, rationalism, equality (of race, religion and sexual orientation); values which I believe are essential if Northern Ireland is ever to be properly at peace with itself and find its place in the United Kingdom.

I want to help create a modern secular peaceful Northern Ireland which is secure in a United kingdom that values it as a truly modern, moderate constituent nation. I do not believe what, too often, passes for Unionism can ever deliver that, but together we could make something special.

(I have found expressing myself a cathartic experience, I hope I haven’t bored you, but in the next blogs I want to explore identity and flags)

post script: I have read Stephen Agnew’s blog this evening with interest and then followed with reading the record of this morning’s debate. So for completeness I thought it was a good honest speech from the Green Party’s leader and one with which I would largely concur – certainly in terms of identity, symbols and the right to peaceful protest.

As for TUV and UKIP, well I really don’t think they would like me and my politics, so I won’t waste your time or mine or either.

Please feel free to comment.

|What is a Unicorn?

Well in the strange world that is Northern Ireland it seems a ‘unicorn’ is a term that was coined to describe a catholic unionist (please note lower case ‘u’ – that matters!)

I’m a pretty typical unicorn. My parents were from working class backgrounds, but well-educated and upwardly mobile. They have left me and my siblings with what, I suppose, is typical unicorn stock. That is generally middle class, graduate in a profession.

Politically, I must confess I was an obnoxious teenage unicorn. I remember telling my Dad “I refuse to take part in a sectarian headcount” when asked if I would vote when while I was an A level student. But I’ve grown up to realise what a stupid arrogant thing that was to say.

As an adult, a husband in a mixed marriage and a father to 2 great kids I came to see that avoidance of politics isn’t a sane or defensible position to take if I want my kids to have a chance to stay here.

 So why am I a unicorn?

Well, my parents are both nationalists, my Dad especially, and they will, if asked, still tell of personal experiences of overt discrimination and bigotry which makes their stance perfectly understandable. They are also the son and daughter of parents who lived through partition and felt a sense of betrayal and entrapment in what they saw as a foreign state.

As I went though our segregated schools system it was not until I was in my 15th year  before I had regular contact with protestant kids my age. And surprisingly they didn’t have horns, in fact some of the girls were really nice.  I had never liked my Grammar school, but by the end of my time there I felt it incredibly restrictive and conservative. I also had a strong sense that we were getting a very one-sided view of the Northern Ireland situation.

University was a great freedom for me. I formed close friendships across religious, class and ethnic boundaries. Despite it being shortly after the Anglo-Irish Agreement and with several major flashpoints and atrocities, I relished the chance to debate and explore the issues of the day. I also was lucky to meet my girlfriend and now wife, a border protestant. We share a love of folk music, film, history, food, each other and our wonderful kids.

Work also was a mixed environment where I could find my own way. It is a neutral working place but not unpolitical. We are allowed to discuss and explore the issues of the day and there have been plenty of those. Over those years I have seen a large proportion of my friends and colleagues who have simply opted out of politics and even voting. They are sickened by the language and childish behaviour of our local politicians and frankly their ignorance and, in too many cases, the downright lack of intellect.

Identity is usually described by politicos and commentators in NI as ‘them and us’, ‘orange and green’, ‘Prods and Fenians’. The truth for me, my wife, my friends is that it is far more complex and multifaceted. I am Irish. I am British.  I am European. None of these identities are mutually exclusive. I enjoy the wealth of culture and warmth of a pint with my brother in Co Clare. I love the history and mannered environment that is home to my brother-in-law in the Thames valley. I relish the multi-cultural ‘world city’ that is London and my default radio station is Radio 4.

In the end I am Northern Irish first and the other identities second. But Irish or British? I don’t think it is either or – that is why the flag waving incoherent mobs on our streets sicken me as do their incompetent petty, political ring-masters.

My Northern Irishness is rooted in a sense of home and family, but also in the knowledge that there are so many good people here who do the right thing and keep their heads down.

My experience of Britain is that it is, by and large, moderate, polite, multi-cultural, intelligent, mercantile, and full of humour. That is a nation I am happy, indeed proud, to identify with. That does not diminish my Irishness, but instead enriches it.  Whereas so many of the baying mob last night are to me the antithesis of what it means to be British.

I will blog later about how this unicorn votes (and yes, I ALWAYS vote)