My purpose in the first section below is to explore the alarming premises and disturbing implications of some of James Dingley’s recent work. In the second and final section, I examine the problematic views of John Wilson Foster. Throughout the paper, I relate what these authors say to the developing debate about the future of the north involving civic nationalism, civic unionism and others.
James Dingley is a political sociologist and prominent unionist who is Chair of the Francis Hutcheson Institute, a Belfast-based think tank providing policy advice on conflict situations and related matters. He has taught at the University of Ulster and Queen’s University, Belfast, and has written extensively about contemporary conflicts, including the Irish one.
When I first came across Dingley’s work, I quickly determined it was so preposterous that I would not waste my time reading much more of it. I’ve revised my position, for a number of reasons.
First, I’m reminded every day of the damaging consequences of the politically absurd, fuelled by noxious fantasies and intolerant doctrines. I’m under no illusions that simply pointing out the absurdity of Dingley’s work will temper the deleterious impact it might have on those who are receptive to its “logic”. The absurd in politics seems much too resilient for any lofty expectations of its weakening. But I think I should try and I should hope. And perhaps I can alert others to the ludicrous but divisive nature of Dingley’s views.
Second, Dingley has been in the news lately. He was one of three speakers who hosted a series of talks in Belfast in November on “Ulster, America and the Enlightenment.” [see reference 15 below] It might then be an opportune time to look more closely at his thought and how he applies it to contemporary northern politics.
Third, now that the public discussion of alternative northern futures is starting to be fully joined, it might also be an appropriate time to reflect on Dingley’s place in the distribution of opinion within unionism generally. In February 2018, 105 civic unionists and others signed a statement issuing “A Positive Challenge to Northern Nationalists.” The statement was in response to civic nationalism’s open letters to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar urging him to protect the rights of Irish citizens in the north, help in the struggle against Brexit, and ensure that Britain lives up to its peace-process commitments. [16, 17, 20]
If we’re about to enter a phase of intensive cross-community discussions, we should recognize that unionism is a large tent encompassing commitments to a diverse array of values and views. One purpose of the February statement was to voice frustration that civic unionists and others “have been rendered invisible in many debates focused on rights and responsibilities.” The statement pointed out that its signatories too are centrally interested in equality, full citizenship, civil liberties, fairness, tolerance, and truth and reconciliation. [16, no page number (n.p.)]
Likewise, John Wilson Foster insists that unionist culture and politics are more expansive than some sections of the public allow. Unionist culture should not be reduced to bonfires; nor should unionist politics be reduced to DUP opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion reform.  And Peter Shirlow is exasperated that the fascination with regressive loyalism has hidden the contributions of “peace-process loyalism,” which removes contentious flags, stops riots, creates jobs, undermines racism and sectarianism, and promotes inclusion and compromise. [19, n.p.]
If we appreciate that there are many divergent values inside the unionist tent, we should also acknowledge who holds which values. James Dingley’s published work stands in stark contrast to the February statement’s recognition of the need for equality, full citizenship and tolerance. He seems anything but supportive of such laudable pursuits. Unfortunately, certain unionist commentators share parts of Dingley’s questionable approach, even though they may frame their work in less overtly absurd terms than he does. Their views, like his, are inimical to equitable dialogue across the constitutional and social divides, and they need to be challenged.
The Science of Good vs Evil
A key to understanding Dingley’s work is the rigid binary of good and evil that he sees in different forms of nationalism. What he calls unification nationalism is the epitome of good: it’s associated with the Enlightenment, science, reason, the peaceful integration of peoples, universal cooperation, dissenting religion, individual freedom, an open-ended society, and a concern with change and progress. Ethnic-separatist nationalism is the polar opposite. It’s the incarnation of evil, characterized by the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, an antipathy to science, a preference for emotion and passion over reason, an atavistic attachment to violence and blood sacrifice, social division, traditional religion, limitations on individual freedom in deference to group norms, resistance to change and modernity, and social stagnation [5, 6]
Dingley mechanically applies his analysis of nationalism to the situation in the north. For him, the north is “a fairly standard problem of nationalism and when seen in this light there is little to surprise anyone.” That is: “If one simply appreciates that Catholic Nationalism is about ethnic-separatism and all that went with it and the Ulster Unionists, as their name implies, were about remaining part of a unification state, one goes a long way to explaining the divisions in Ireland.” [5, at p. 265]
In a review of Dingley’s 2012 book on the IRA, Donnacha Ó Beacháin of Dublin City University rightfully draws attention to the provenance of Dingley’s interpretation:
There is nothing intrinsically new in this depiction. It simply echoes the caricature of the wild, unstable, emotional Irishman that justified repression and camouflaged a coercive strategy rooted in dispossession. Scientific racism flourished in Victorian Britain and was applied liberally to explain the impoverished rebellious people on the periphery of the United Kingdom … The stereotype is not new. The only surprising thing is that it resurfaces in a book published in the 21st century by a mainstream academic publisher. [18, at p. 72]
These contrasting views of Catholic Nationalism as evil and Ulster Unionism as good are the ugly sectarian premises of Dingley’s thought. And almost every major conclusion that he draws about the north follows automatically and axiomatically from these disquieting foundations.
While Dingley notes that Protestants in the north “are almost totally Unionist,” he recognizes that Catholic opinion on the constitutional question is more fragmented. He constructs what I would call a scale of deserving and undeserving Catholics based on their position on Irish reunification. The most deserving Catholics are those who are “avowedly Unionist,” followed by those who accept the Union for economic reasons, and then by those who are soft nationalists in that they accept Irish unity as a “nice idea” or aspiration that may not be realizable. Undeserving Catholics are republicans and hard nationalists who have “an absolute commitment to Irish unity”. [3, at p. 367] The unionist majority should work and cooperate only with deserving Catholics. [4, 5]
Since “Unionism actually represents something more progressive than Nationalism,” Dingley demands that nationalists change. [5, at p. 269] He simply does not accept nationalists as nationalists or republicans as republicans. He requires instead that these groups consent to the permanence of the northern state and the immutability of its boundaries, and that they drop their pursuit, even peaceful pursuit, of Irish unity. [3, 5] If nationalists and republicans refuse to alter their constitutional preference, there should be no power-sharing or parity of esteem. [4, 5]
Using the scientific precision that Dingley so admires, I can express his proposal succinctly as nationalism = 0.
The resolution of the northern problem, the key to peace and stability, is to remake nationalists and republicans as unionists, or to convert undeserving Catholics into deserving Catholics. As he chillingly puts it, the nationalist minority simply disappears as it is absorbed into the majority:
Genuine equality can then be asserted and the majority can be freed from the haunting spectre and threat of minority-induced instability whilst the minority ceases to be as it becomes part of an integrated polity. [4, at p. 18]
As nationalists transform themselves into unionists, the very notion of majority opinion on the constitutional issue is rendered meaningless, and the north becomes a single, cohesive community with a common narrative. [4,5]
Short of the emergence of that single community, Dingley’s analysis is tied to the unchanging nature of compound Manichean pairings: unionist-majority-good on the one side, nationalist-minority-evil on the other. But not every element in the pairings is unchangeable. Let’s accept for the sake of argument Dingley’s dogmatic assertion that unionism is as inextricably linked to good as nationalism is to evil. Even he must admit that the other element in the pairings, majority or minority status, is not fixed but variable. In fact, changing demographics and shifting allegiances introduce fatal complications to Dingley’s neat categorizations. What happens when unionists lose their majority status, either because no single group commands majority weight in a northern polity of multiple groupings (the current situation?), or because nationalists become the majority? These possibilities reveal the utter nonsense of Dingley’s position. Presumably, he is left arguing that the imperative remains essentially the same: good must still overcome evil and unionists must still absorb nationalists, whatever the relative size of groups. Not even a democratic majority will save nationalists; they are doomed in any case.
Many readers will no doubt see the dangerous politics of assimilation in such a proposal; they will also understand that the proposal cannot form the basis of serious and sincere cross-community talks about the way forward.
Too many unionists, even of liberal reputation, share parts of Dingley’s perspective on the unacceptable political core of nationalism and republicanism. They are not as extreme as Dingley in suggesting that the minority “ceases to be.” But they essentially propose that nationalists and republicans need to drop altogether their objective of a united Ireland, or relegate it to the immaterial realm of aspiration, or defer indefinitely (permanently) their advocacy of it. For many such unionists, Irish nationalism needs to be stripped of its political dimensions and confined to a cultural domain of “non-political Irishness.” In previous posts, I’ve noted that unionists who hold these kinds of views include Arthur Aughey, Richard English, Dennis Kennedy, Arthur Green, Patrick Roche and Brian Walker. [1, 2]
Keeping on the scientific path, I might characterize these positions as setting nationalism approximately equal to zero, or nationalism ≈ 0.
This view is more generous than that of Dingley. But perhaps I’m not being fair to these other unionist writers. They might accept that nationalism can be set at some value above zero, as long as it never reaches the same magnitude as unionism. So let me allow that 0 < nationalism < unionism.
In sum, these views are steeped in a fundamental inequality that ranks unionism above nationalism. And this inequality helps to explain the ongoing difficulty in realizing parity of esteem. Seeing nationalism as subordinate to unionism translates too easily into conferring lesser rights and opportunities on nationalists.
From Inequality, Failure
In the rest of my remarks, I’ll examine the position of John Wilson Foster, keeping in mind the unequal ordering of unionism and nationalism expressed in the formula immediately above. Foster has written extensively and recently on the kind of dialogue that needs to take place on the future of the north of Ireland. His comments deserve more attention than they’ve received.
Foster is a prolific literary critic and cultural historian who taught for many years at one of my former schools, the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He is currently an honorary research professor at Queen’s University, Belfast.
The premise of Foster’s political interventions is the by now familiar one that unionism is superior to nationalism; his conclusion, that the Union must prevail. For him, the mere advocacy of Irish unity is tantamount to harassing or harrying unionists [10, 11, 14]. He suggests that if a united Ireland is to have any chance of social and political success, it would need fundamentally to remake itself “to resemble secular and Protestant-shaped Britain”. And he wonders why nationalists persist in such a pointless exercise. [9, n.p.]
Foster seems to have a thoroughgoing commitment to inequality. He denies to nationalists the very right he demands for himself as a unionist: “I am a unionist … because my culture demands a political framework for its expression at the very least as large as the United Kingdom.” [7, at p. 61] But what of the corresponding right of nationalists who demand political expression in the framework of a united Ireland? If these two sets of demands represent a constitutional impasse, why not reach for a democratic resolution? Why should any resolution have to satisfy Foster and his brand of unionism? It must be that way, I suppose, because unionism is superior to nationalism. And the circle is complete.
Generally speaking, Foster is more eloquent in his inegalitarianism than is Dingley. But sometimes Foster resorts to cheap and disparaging social stereotypes, using, for instance, subhuman imagery to refer to republicans as pack-leaders, meat-smellers and spiders. [8, 9, 10] As Ó Beacháin said of Dingley’s work, we’ve heard such insults before and know their origins and their purpose. They contribute nothing of substance to the debate; they do raise questions about the reasoning of those who employ them.
These are highly contentious, provocative claims that Foster seems to accept as articles of faith. Equally controversial is his radical geographic revisionism that places Ireland and Britain in completely different and noncontiguous bodies of water, with the latter apparently untouched by the swell of bigotry and intolerance, notwithstanding the “hostile environment” and the Windrush scandal, the little-Englander and anti-immigrant elements of the Brexit campaign . . .
One obvious effect of such claims is to whip up unionist fears and anxieties. On reading Foster, unionists may be left wondering how long Ireland will remain a mild backwater before joining the rising tide, or how many of them will feel compelled to leave Ireland and traverse the new sea to find shelter on the other island. Foster’s tactics here approach Dingley’s absurd dichotomy of good and evil.
Substantively, Foster’s frequent interventions in the ongoing discussion involve at least four main matters. First, his contributions are meant to furnish political arguments that unionists can put into play. His edited book on The Idea of the Union (1995):
… is intended … as a timely contribution to the debate now being conducted on the future of Northern Ireland. It is offered as a ready compendium of arguments against political positions, documents and agendas hostile to the maintenance of the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and as the basis of a pro-Union manifesto. [7, at p. 4]
Second, they involve the political mobilization of the unionist community, especially the upper and middle classes, whose disappearance from unionist politics has weakened the north’s place in the United Kingdom. Foster urges this moderate, liberal and silenced centre to re-enter politics to promote and reaffirm the Union. He also makes a special appeal to Catholics who don’t support a united Ireland to speak publicly about why they wish to remain in the UK. [8, 10, 13]
Foster’s attitude toward nationalist political mobilization is a little different While he kindly allows that nationalists are entitled to tell their story, he thinks they really shouldn’t tell it in a way that makes it a political demand.  Instead, they should “soft-pedal unification, cease clamouring and plotting for it, since not to demand unification is obviously the only chance for it some day to happen by consensus.” [7, at p. 63]. In other words, he believes “that the road to a united Ireland should not have a signpost and that who desire it should trust in cultural evolution and the fullness of time.” [10, n.p.]
There is a striking asymmetry in the language and substance of Foster’s argument that reveals his presupposition of unionist superiority and his fidelity to the inequality formula examined above. It also reveals his distance from the sentiments of the February statement. According to Foster, unionists “promote’ and “reaffirm” the Union; nationalists “clamour” and “plot” for unity. Unionists need to end their political absences and silences; nationalists need to take an extended leave of absence from politics and discover the virtue of silence. Unionists should step out and speak up; nationalists should step back and shut up.
Foster’s views on mobilization take us to the final main matter with which he’s concerned. He suggests explicit structures for inter-community dialogue. He is by no means alone in this enterprise. All sorts of proposals are in the air. Foster supports Liam Kennedy’s recommendation that Strand Three of the Good Friday Agreement (on east-west relations) be reinvigorated to examine the close cultural bonds and affinities between Britain and Ireland. [12, 13] He offers an alternative to Fianna Fáil Senator Mark Daly’s idea to convene a New Ireland Forum 2. Instead of discussing a united Ireland, as Daly would have it, Foster wants the Forum to explore “the intimate mutual relations between the Republic and the UK,” much as the renewed Strand Three discussions would do. [14, n.p.]
Foster’s most telling proposal, consistent with his interest in civil mobilization, is to resurrect the moribund Civic Forum provided for in the GFA. Foster’s Forum would require “a prior agreement by all involved that the forum is in sincere aid (at least for now) of a successful Northern Ireland.” He believes that “unless and until Northern Ireland can be made to work, and peacefully, there is no prospect of a united Ireland anytime soon that would not involve coercion and tumult.” [13, n.p.] Many people share his desire that the arrival of a united Ireland, should it come, be accomplished without social unrest. But we may not need to worry about any tumult accompanying arrival because the likely effect of his Forum proposal is to help prevent arrival in the first place.
Foster describes how his Forum would work:
… we vocally prioritise what we all share and try to achieve the highest common factor of our mutual interests. Only then can we agree to differ civilly on our divided aspirations, with the future open to persuasion and debate (without sound and fury) and possibly evolution to constitutional change through broad consensus. [13, n.p.]
There are at least two glaring problems with this structure. The first is the order in which topics are discussed at the Forum. The initial item on the agenda is to achieve the highest common factor of mutual interests between Ireland and Britain. It’s not hard to see that this agenda item really represents multiple, almost limitless, items for unionists eager to engage on such terms. And, for them, it entails a kind of discussion that is very nearly without end. It’s only when this potentially endless discussion actually ends that constitutional change can be addressed. In effect, Irish unity is pushed so far down the agenda that it’s highly unlikely it would be discussed at all.
Foster seems determined to ensure that any talks on the future of the north marginalize if not eliminate discussion of a united Ireland. All the bodies he endorses—Strand Three, New Ireland Forum 2 and Civic Forum—have mutual relations and cultural affinities between Ireland and Britain as their first (only) order of business. There is no seat at Foster’s exclusive table for nationalism’s interest in constitutional change.
The second problem with Foster’s Civic Forum is the decision rule. Even though the Forum is a consultative body that does not make final decisions, it still must decide what kind of advice to proffer to the northern Executive. Decision rules still matter. If the improbable were to happen at the Forum — that the constitutional issue reaches the stage of discussion and decision — Foster requires that agreement on the nature of any change be by broad consensus. Consensual decision-making may seem fine in theory but it has some serious drawbacks in practice.
Consensus works best for like-minded people who are predisposed to agree in any event. It may, for instance, work fine for the rarefied group of unionists Foster is trying to mobilize, made up of business leaders, solicitors, barristers, physicians, academics, and other highly educated or successful people. 
But if there is a real diversity of opinion, even a sharp polarization of views as there surely is on the constitution, the requirement of broad consensus breaks down. To require consensus in this situation is to hand out multiple vetoes over change. This arrangement would no doubt please those people who are content with the current constitution and desire no change. In fact, the most contented have the biggest incentive to invoke their veto over any Forum proposal to alter the constitution. As the prospect of significant change recedes or vanishes in the face of this formidable blocking power of veto, those counselling such change face two unpalatable choices. They can make huge concessions to get the Forum to agree on a recommendation that closely resembles existing constitutional arrangements; or they can refuse to compromise, in which case there is no agreement, and the Forum advises that there is no consensus to change existing constitutional arrangements. Either way, we’re left with something that is indistinguishable from existing constitutional arrangements. Who says broad consensus, says status quo.
Let me review Foster’s position on the debate about the future of the north: He provides unionists with pro-Union and anti-unity arguments.
➧ He urges unionists to speak up and mobilize politically
➧He proposes a structure for civic debate that will effectively shut out nationalists from engaging with and advancing their constitutional preference.
Foster has proposed a way forward that very probably guarantees failure for the constitutional outcome he opposes. If you’re determined to impede movement toward Irish unity, constraining nationalist advocacy, placing constitutional change at the end of a jam-packed agenda and requiring agreement by broad consensus is certainly the way to go.
In virtually every nook and cranny of Foster’s thought we encounter obstacles to Irish unity. How could a fair and meaningful dialogue on the road ahead ever conceivably emerge from such partisan, inequitable cant?
The February statement by civic unionists and others offers a possibility of inclusive and constructive discussions. As do the many cross-community exchanges that are taking place throughout the north in a context that doesn’t privilege or marginalize the concerns of any one side. The views of Dingley and Foster offer no such possibility.
 Burke, Mike, “A Hierarchy of Comfort: The Asymmetries of Richard English,” The Pensive Quill, 17 August 2015, http://thepensivequill.am/2015/08/a-hierarchy-of-comfort-asymmetries-of.html.
 Burke, Mike, “Deepening the Unionist Veto,” The Pensive Quill, 1 November 2017, http://thepensivequill.am/2017/11/deepening-unionist-veto.html.
 Dingley, James, “Peace in our Time? The Stresses and Strains on the Northern Ireland Peace Process,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 25:6 (November 2002): 357-382.
 Dingley, James, “Constructive Ambiguity and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland,” Low Intensity Conflict & Law Enforcement 13:1 (Spring 2005): 1-23.
 Dingley, James C, “The Road to Peace? Northern Ireland after the Belfast Agreement: Causes of Failure,” Democracy and Security 2:2 (December 2006): 263-286.
 Dingley, James, The IRA: The Irish Republican Army (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2012).
 Foster, John Wilson, ed. The Idea of the Union: Statements and Critiques in Support of the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (Vancouver: Belcouver Press, 1995).
 Foster, John Wilson, “So, who will speak up for the Union?” Belfast Telegraph, 11 August 2017, obtained from the Factiva (Dow Jones) electronic database of newspaper articles.
 Foster, John Wilson, “Memo to Michelle O'Neill: we're all 'west Brits' now,” Belfast Telegraph, 5 October 2017, Factiva.
 Foster, John Wilson, "United Ireland campaign is based on a delusion: Unionists who voted for Remain were not voting for Irish unity in the event of Brexit," Irish Times, 19 March 2018, https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/united-ireland-campaign-is-based-on-a-delusion-1.3431695?mode=amp.
 Foster, John Wilson, “It is a mistake to confuse the essence of unionism with the practice of the DUP ... but the narrative of impending Irish unity just doesn't ring true,” Belfast Telegraph, 23 May 2018, Factiva.
 Foster, John Wilson, “The extent of Irish economic dependence on the UK is about to be exposed ... Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney have been playing very foolish hands,” Belfast Telegraph, 6 August 2018, Factiva.
 Foster, John Wilson, “Until the silenced centre, unionist and nationalist alike, can have a conversation about what sort of future they want, a border poll will remain the ultimate polarising catastrophe,” Belfast Telegraph, 17 September 2018, Factiva.
 Foster, John Wilson, “The United Irishmen, the famine and Easter 1916 provide the narrative of Irish history,” Belfast Telegraph, 24 September 2019, https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/professor-john-wilson-foster-the-united-irishmen-the-famine-and-easter-1916-provide-the-narrative-of-irish-history-38527303.html.
 McGonagle, Suzanne, “Historians to host series of talks at Ulster Historical Foundation event in Belfast,” Irish News, 21 November 2019, Factiva.
 “Nationalists leaders welcome letter from civic unionists,” Irish News, 28 February 2018, Factiva.
 Ó Beacháin, Donnacha, “From Guns to Government: The IRA in Context.” Studies of Transition States and Societies 6:1 (2014): 68-74.
 Shirlow, Peter, “Loyalists stop riots, create jobs, challenge racism and promote inclusion … so why do we only ever hear about regressive elements who want to turn the clock back?” Belfast Telegraph, 24 October 2019, Factiva.
 Wilson, James, “A Positive Challenge To Northern Ireland Nationalists,” The Pensive Quill, 27 February 2018, https://www.thepensivequill.com/2018/02/a-positive-challenge-to-northern.html.