Pearl of Tyburn: Now we have with us Mr. Paul Watterson, media deputy of "Open Unionism", coming to us from Eastern Europe. Welcome, Mr. Watterson.
Paul Watterson: Hello, Pearl.
P.T.: Please tell me a little bit about your background and upbringing.
P.W.: I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to an apolitical family. I have lived and studied in the North of England and London, and am presently working as an English teacher on mainland Europe.
P.T.: You say your family was “apolitical”. Does this mean that you saw yourselves as outside the sectarian stereotypes of Catholic/Protestant, Loyalist/Republican, and “Gaelic”/Ulster Settlers?
P.W.: My father came from a strongly working/class background and he remains pretty left-wing and certainly non-sectarian in his outlook. Actually, my brother and sisters would today also probably identify more as socialists than Unionists. My father came from a loyalist generation (pre-Troubles) that was also comfortable in describing themselves as Irish first and foremost- his church (in east Belfast) in the 60’s would organize trips to Dublin and Galway.
So, he and I certainly don't regard ourselves as "settlers"; our family has been on the island of Ireland for near enough 400 years now and I think that probably qualifies us as being as much Irish as Gerry Adams may or may not be!
P.T.: What was it like being raised in an apolitical, “Irish” household during The Troubles? Did it have any lasting effect on you or on those around you?
P.W.: I personally was "lucky", I guess, in that I wasn't directly affected by The Troubles as such; our school bus would regularly be attacked as it went through a "Catholic" area, but I don't put that down to political violence. It was more like plain sectarian vandalism.
My father lost two colleagues, both of whom were shot by Republicans, and his family on the maternal side was an isolated Protestant one living in a republican part of South Derry. They literally slept with their guns under the bed, so sure were they that ethic cleansing was on the local IRA's agenda.
But really in comparison to others, we were relatively lucky. You kept your political views to yourself in those times, and as a result, my father's more "laissez faire" approach to his identity never caused him many problems. It's interesting that the vast majority of families in the UK were not affected directly by The Troubles, but the psychological effect and its continuing influence on our politics can't be underestimated.
P.T.: Aside from statistics, it sounds as if you and your family were quite blessed to remain safe during a dangerous time. Online Unionism is certain all the better for it with regards to your work on “A Pint of Unionist Lite” and “Open Unionism.” I personally would never have gotten involved in all this if not for you.
What first encouraged you to become active politically?
P.W.: The main thing which persuaded me to take up politics actively was the possibility that NI politics would become more UK based with the entry of the Conservative Party into the equation as a coalition with the UUP.
P.T.: Are there any political parties in particular that you belonged to and/or associated yourself with?
P.W.: I have been a member of one party for only a short-time, and that was the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). At that point, the UUP was working very closely with the Conservative Party in an attempt to develop a form of all-UK Unionism. However, that concept was never really bought into being by the majority of the UUP, and when the more "traditionalist" wing of the party started to predominate again, I left.
P.T.: Could you explain the different "mission statements" of the Conservative Party and the Ulster Unionist Party and what brought about the possibility of a coalition between them?
P.W.: The UUP traditionally has been a socially and economically conservative party. But the Conservative Party link-up was supposedly built upon a modern, UK-wide, non-sectarian form of Unionism. It didn't work, as there were too many within the UUP who weren't prepared to take a risk.
P.T.: Am I right in supposing you would identify yourself as leaning more towards the left of the Unionist spectrum?
P.T.: In social matters (abortion, LGBT rights, relationship between church and state, etc.), I would regard myself as a secular (or atheist?) libertarian. In economic matters, I lean towards socialism, or at least the European version of social democracy.
Within the political establishment of Northern Irish Unionism, that would be very much a minority viewpoint. One of the reasons that there has been quite a bit of conflict in working-class Protestant/Loyalist areas recently is that there isn't really any political representation for these disadvantaged communities.
P.T.: I am unfamiliar with the term “atheist” being applied to a worldview encompassing the social issues you have mentioned, since I would think atheists might take any number of stances about abortion, homosexual “marriage”, etc. Could you please explain?
P.W.: Atheists do, of course, have a wide range of views on social topics, but by and large in NI, the various churches and their political advocates "guide" or dominate the debate in this regard, and non-church people, almost by default, take a more liberal attitude on abortion, same sex marriage, etc.
P.T.: How did you first come to identify yourself as a Unionist, and what inspired you to take up blogging?
P.W.: Having lived, worked, and studied in various parts of the United Kingdom, the awareness of my Britishness developed. I guess my Unionism is more of a pragmatic or logical belief rather than an emotional one. I quite liked the fact that Carlisle or London or Glasgow is much my nation as Belfast.
Blogging offered a good opportunity to get things off my chest, and its explosion as a medium of expression coincided with my having quite a lot of free time on my hands to do proper research/analysis before posting.
P.T.: You say that your affinity with Unionism is more-or-less based on pragmatism. However, quite a few of your articles, particularly your famous "Liberty and Union" adaptation, reveal a very emotionally connective element. Do you believe that there is a certain balance between the head and heart in Unionism that should be met?
P.W.: Most people feel an emotional connection with their nation. That's patriotism, and as distinct from nationalism, perfectly morally acceptable. I am no different. However I don't see any inherent superiority in, for example, British literature or music as opposed to that which is enjoyed in Germany, South Africa, or Brazil.
Unionism needs the continuance of the Union that will not result from purely an emotional argument. Our opponents (certainly in Northern Ireland and to a lesser extent in Scotland) rely almost completely on an emotional, "heart" argument at their foundation. But a large minority, or even a small majority, in both countries is not attached one way or the other regarding the constitutional future of their nation. They need a more objective argument to vote for the continuance of the Union.
P.T.: I agree for the most part about the danger of emotional extremism, especially considering the damage done by mindless Nationalism that views other cultures as somehow inferior. It seems that Alex Salmond has played that card any number of times in hopes of making the Scots preen their feathers and look down on their southern neighbors. What do you think is a good way to combat this divisive and glaringly inaccurate attitude?
P.W.: The best method would be objective arguments. It is impossible to beat nationalism using a political theory which is based on emotional subjectivity. We should keep asking questions rather than letting them push meaningless platitudes devoid of proof.
P.T.: What are your hopes for Northern Ireland, as well as Ireland as a whole? Do you think the division of the island can be maintained, or is it likely that it will eventually reunite and sway one way or the other?
P.W.: The best thing which I can hope for N. Ireland is stability and a political system which is no longer based on ethno-sectarian lines. The Republic and The North are much closer than they ever were because the Republic and the UK as a whole are closer than they ever were. The future will see those ties strengthen even further, which is good news for Northern Ireland from all points of view.
P.T.: What do you think would be a potentially stable political system for Northern Ireland?
P.W.: I think a governing system which is integrated more with the rest of UK would help in that it would take out the cultural and social decisions which the politicians in NI are not presently capable of dealing with.
P.T.: Do you think Northern Ireland will ever get her own flag or home anthem? If so, what type of flag and what anthem would you favor?
P.W.: I can see NI getting its own flag and anthem. There is quite a strong pressure from a number of NI football supporters for that to happen. Whether or not it would be acceptable to a wider audience in Northern Ireland or even a majority, I don't know. As for my personal preference, I would take the Cross of St. Patrick for the flag. Don't mind about the anthem, as long as it isn't Danny Boy!
P.T.: What’s your opinion on parading and Orange Order functions in general?
P.W.: The Orange Order and parading makes little to no impact on myself and my family. To a large extent the whole question has nothing to do with the Union, but is more of a social/cultural question. I do suspect that if nationalists “win” against the Orange Order, then they will move onto other British/Unionist/Protestant targets. Republicans in South Derry have in previous years complained about an annual church Boys' Brigade march.
P.T.: Do you believe it would ever be possible for a political “reunion” to reconnect The British Isles, Ireland included, and do you believe that would theoretically desirable from a unionist perspective? Failing that, do you think The Republic of Ireland might ever rejoin the Commonwealth?
P.W.: There won't be a political reunion of the British Isles, even though I would agree it would be theoretically desirable for a Unionist. In the end, I am not sure if it really matters if, on a cultural/social and economic level, unity between the ROI and the UK already exists. Would the ROI rejoin the Commonwealth at some point? Can't see it happening in the short term.
P.T.: Switching gears, what’s your prediction as to the outcome of the Scottish Independence Referendum, and what are the polls showing opinion to be for and against Scottish independence at this point?
P.W.: With not living in Scotland, hard to say. Currently, the latest opinion polls on the referendum show the "yes" 6 % behind, but increasing.
P.T.: Do you feel at all apprehensive about this increase for “Yes”, after such a long stretch where the numbers were pretty much stagnant?
P.W.: I do not feel much apprehension about the “Yes” increase at the moment. Another couple of months of consistently rising figures, of course, would be a different matter.
P.T.: Should a No vote be turned out, what are some ways in which to make the most of that victory?
P.W.: Anything below 35% for the Yes campaign, and the concept of separation will be buried for a generation or more. I am not sure we need or should do anything in the event of a "No" vote.
P.T.: You highlight the 35% mark. What might happen if “Yes” gets more support than that, and gains the vote of just under 50%?
P.W.: If just under 50% votes for independence, and just over 50% votes against it, quite obviously, we've still won! Nevertheless, we may see the issue resurface regularly, as is the case in Quebec.
P.T.: Should a Yes vote be turned out and Scotland becomes independent, where do you think Unionist activists will go from there on a broad scale?
P.W.: If the vote goes that way, Unionists should regroup and do everything possible to help and protect the British people in Scotland. The workings of the Union have always been haphazard and flexible. That's it greatest strength.
P.T.: What exactly do you mean by protecting the British people in a potentially post-independent Scotland? And what do you think might become of the Union Jack in such a situation?
P.W.: With regards to protecting the British people in a potentially post-independent Scotland, I mean their cultural and social rights, the right to learn British history, the financial benefits from the UK state (unemployment, pension), etc. And be assured the Union Jack would still be flown unofficially in many places.
P.T.: Regardless of the outcome, I’m glad to hear that the Unionist camp will continue to support the rights of “British” people and make the best out of whatever situation arises.
While on the subject of referendums, do you think an independence referendum will ever be held in Northern Ireland? If so, what do you think the result would be?
P.W.: In Northern Ireland, I don’t think there will an "independence" referendum, but perhaps more of a border poll. At the moment, if such a poll were to be taken, the Unionists would win by more than 30% of the vote.
P.T.: As a native Northern Irishman yourself, can you highlight some of the benefits you believe Northern Ireland has remaining a part of the UK?
P.W.: The UK has a much larger economy and is a much greater power within the world politically than the Republic. Put bluntly, it is in a much stronger position to support NI than the Northern Irish.
P.T.: What do you consider your own identity to be: strictly British, or British/Irish, or British/Northern Irish? Do you feel that the “Northern Irish” identity is distinct from the general “Irish” identity, and is it possible for someone to feel comfortable holding all three of these identities at the same time?
P.W.: I would be a mixture of all three, also with "European" thrown in. It is up to the individual how comfortable they feel holding all three. Again, there isn't a strict definition of Irish or N. Irish, so both can exist as separate or united identities.
P.T.: What are some of your plans for the future, politically and otherwise? What do you think you will be doing as the referendum heats up?
P.W.: Unfortunately due to my career responsibilities, I seem to have less and less time to even plan for the future! My personal target is better time management and creating a stronger political presence on our “Open Unionism” Facebook and twitter accounts. As the referendum heats up, I would like us to be pumping out as much material as possible online.
P.T.: What are some of your other interests, hobbies, and goals in life?
P.W.: I enjoy running and have already run two marathons and countless half marathons. I would like to break three hours thirty for my next marathon, and one hour thirty for the half. Other than that, I walk my dog, feed my fish, and try to keep healthy and sane!
P.T.: Well, do extend my best wishes to your canine and aquatic family members! Thank you very much for taking the time out for this interview, Mr. Watterson.
P.W.: Thanks for showing the interest, and keep up the good work on our own blog, OU, and here on UJC.