To be a unionist politician in Northern Ireland in 2021 is to face the question posed in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “Is it better to shout and thereby hasten the end, or to keep silent and gain thereby a slower death?”
The demographic trends are inexorable. In the 2011 Census, Protestants were 48% of the population and 45% were Catholics, but the Protestant population was ageing. In the 2016 Labour Force Survey, 44% of the working population were Catholic, 40% Protestant and 16% other. More starkly for unionism, in 2018, 51% of the school population was Catholic, 37% Protestant and 12-13% other.
How does the DUP respond does it shout and hasten the end or keep silent in the hope of gaining a slower end? Does it respond with militancy or passivity? There are no clues from the past upon which to draw.
Pondering militancy or passivity in the history of his own country, Kundera, who wrote The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in 1984, saw history as providing no lessons for the Czechs in 1968:
And again he thought the thought we already know: Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision; we are not granted a second, third, or fourth life in which to compare various decisions.
History is similar to individual lives in this respect. There is only one history of the Czechs. One day it will come to an end as surely as Tomas’s life, never to be repeated.
In 1618, the Czech estates took courage and vented their ire on the emperor reigning in Vienna by pitching two of his high officials out of a window in the Prague Castle. Their defiance led to the Thirty Years War, which in turn led to the almost complete destruction of the Czech nation. Should the Czechs have shown more caution than courage? The answer may seem simple; it is not.
Three hundred and twenty years later, after the Munich Conference of 1938, the entire world decided to sacrifice the Czechs’ country to Hitler. Should the Czechs have tried to stand up to a power eight times their size? In contrast to 1618, they opted for caution. Their capitulation led to the Second World War, which in turn led to the forfeit of their nation’s freedom for many decades or even centuries. Should they have shown more courage than caution? What should they have done?
If Czech history could be repeated, we should of course find it desirable to test the other possibility each time and compare the results. Without such an experiment, all considerations of this kind remain a game of hypotheses.
Einmal ist keinmal. What happens but once might as well not have happened at all. The history of the Czechs will not be repeated, nor will the history of Europe. The history of the Czechs and of Europe is a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind’s fateful inexperience. History is as light as individual human life, unbearably light, light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow.
Kundera’s anticipation of the future is based on a history where both resistance and submission had proved futile for the Czechs. In Northern Ireland, the DUP may find both active resistance and passive submission are paths to the end of unionism.
Yet Kundera’s anticipation that the Czechs had suffered “the forfeit of their nation’s freedom for many decades or even centuries” simply confirms his maxim that “what happens but once might as well not have happened at all.” History did not turn out as anticipated. No reading of the past gave any clues that Communism would simply crumble away in the extraordinary months of 1989.
If unionism is to survive, the DUP need to detach themselves from historical processes, particularly inexorable ones, and need to discern a middle way that is neither militancy nor submission.