“You can have any colour you want so long as it’s black” – By Terry Wright



The high sales and mass appeal of his product show that limited choice did not inhibit the success of Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T. Other factors came into play that satisfied the needs of the market. Some of these still apply but it is unlikely that today’s buyers would opt to purchase a Model T.

Unionism would do well to note. The conditions that bring success in a given context may not always obtain.

Throughout its history there have been occasional if not fleeting moments when unionism has seemed conscious of a need to appeal beyond its perceived base support but these have rarely been sustained.

Of late, in the light of post- Brexit polling trends, some current and former unionist representatives have been voicing a need for unionism to widen its appeal.

Any initiative that may result needs to be based on a more radical appraisal than has been evident in past efforts.

Akin to survival strategies borne out of necessity and insecurity rather than conviction, past efforts have been less than convincing and quickly abandoned.

Too often, there has seemed to be a simmering resentment underneath political agreements viewed as progressive and positive and a too ready retreat to an obsessive and corrosive longing for unionist unity and risk avoidance.

The crisis-framed reforms of Terence O’Neill which tended to look for answers in a post-explosive moment, the acceptance of the Belfast Agreement and eloquent expressions of admiration by unionist leaders for the unionism of Carson or enlightenment of poet John Hewitt amongst others, have been forfeited to unionism’s polarising impulses.

Over time the voice of ‘oft-referred to liberal unionism’ has been silenced or has opted to remain silent in pursuit of political career survival and this has served as an impediment to modernity. This is a pattern easily recognised since partition.

In spite of recent electoral success in the Westminster election, when compared to the last NI Assembly election, a narrow view of unionism is inevitably creating an enormous number of non-unionists within large swathes of the electorate not all of whom identify as nationalist. There is fraying at the edges. This is being compounded by the impact of Brexit and, in the absence of government, a slide back to old animosities that scope down into past fears.

Apart from a few tentative voices, broad unionism continues to exhibit a need to stay where it started. The inactivity of institutional and political unionism draws criticism but there is, as yet, no dynamic or meaningful leadership to build a broader construct.

Like its main political opponents majority unionism contributes to the stench of stagnant discourse.

Growing remoteness from politics within the younger electorate and a diminishing reputation for politicians within the wider electorate mirrors, a shadow state that now exists only to reward itself and allow each party to blame the other side. Robber barons would not feel out of place. Voters are no longer the subjects, rather they are subjected to what the politicians deem strategically necessary to retain position. Unionism should not be part of this.

It should be understanding who people are, not telling them.

We have to hope that the outbreak of civility between the two MLAs and former members of the NI Executive, John O’Dowd and Edwin Poots, on ‘The View’ and Arlene Foster MLA’s speech in Killarney signal more than a strategic and tactical shift to counter the general abhorrence of the electorate arising from the dynamic produced by the antics and somewhat shallow apology of Barry McElduff MP.

For unionism to engage in this would be to live as an enemy of the Union and assist its own managed decline.

The solution, if one is possible, is for unionism to break its institutional patterns of predictability and cast aside rather than repeat past failings.

That, after almost one hundred years, unionism is still acknowledging a need to convince a large number of voters of the benefits of the union suggests that the blind loyalty of a ready made majority has not been beneficial.

Ulster Home Rule has moulded a comfort zone of power and influence that has served to shape narrow preferences and partisan practices. These, in turn, have produced a dependency on risk-free electoral compliance and supremacy that, in its limitations in governance, has delivered a democratic deficit most evident in appealing to communal labels and an unhealthy sense of majoritarian entitlement.

Rooted in out-dated understanding, too easily satisfied in spirited ritualism and bogged down by the burden of wrong choices it is carrying, unionism has failed to address its own complexity and progress much beyond Protestant British-ness.

When David Trimble was leader, the UUP tried and failed to address this. Ultimately, the initiative was not well served by a new logo, red buses and images on posters claiming that Northern Ireland is as British as any other part of the United Kingdom. Following electoral meltdown, it was soon abandoned.

In fairness, the duplicity of Tony Blair, the internal divisions within the party and delays over de-commissioning served to produce a tribal and highly charged political environment.

When speaking of appealing beyond its core support unionism implies a need to offer some form of piecemeal enticements but does so from a position of political and cultural homogeneity that is demeaning to its perceived target groups and diminishing of its own motives.

There is a failure to acknowledge the nature of the cultural hybridity that characterises most of our living.

Conforming to stereotype it exhibits arrested political development and inevitably ends up where it started. Reason and argument remain outweighed by passion for the leader of the hour and a desire to eradicate opposition.

Unionism does not have to stay where it is. The alternative to conformity is not condoning disruption but celebrating diversity and sustaining revitalisation and renewal.

Atonement for past misjudgements and the politics of the narrow terrain cannot be left off any agenda for change. This will have no value unless the politics of bigotry and prejudiced views are left behind.

The proof is in the diaspora of young people from unionist backgrounds who have left Northern Ireland for economic reasons certainly but also because of close- minded bickering and the continuous rage rhetoric in which unionist representatives have engaged.

Like many non-voting unionists in Northern Ireland they feel politically rootless and distant from unionist politicians who only seem interested in and conditioned to seeking the views of those who agree with them.

If history will not let go of unionism, then unionism, to grow, must let go of history.

Strength built solely on paranoia and narrow communal appeal will eventually prove a weakness.

If you choose not to exist behind walls or within a fortress mind-set, you need not be concerned about Trojan horses. They can be left as decaying monuments to old battles best consigned to our ‘shameful past’, to borrow a phrase, and not allowed to suck energy from the real concerns of government.

Better to expend that energy more positively.

It is not good enough to patronise the majority of the Northern Ireland electorate who voted in the referendum to remain with a simplistic and condescending stance that they are out of line with the UK majority view when the outcome is to force voters to choose between what they perceive as the benefits of European membership and remaining within the United Kingdom.

Unionism needs to be aware that this is a real choice being considered by a watchful, educated and informed electorate. It could be sleepwalking into a demographic expression of preference for which it has failed to anticipate or prepare.

This is fuelled by perceived failings of unionism in addressing equality, social justice and human rights, all too easily interpreted at being visited upon one section of the community.

Unionist leaders warn their voters that they may have to compromise and agree to changes in these areas.

Unionism should be leading and delivering the change and building the relationships that will make our community work. In failing to do this, social and community unionism is not empowered. In failing to do this, unionism isolates itself from the union of which it is desirous of remaining a part.

Anxious politics, exposed only to views and opinions that support prejudice and rationalised as defending and protecting, makes for ugly unionism.

Eventually, like the customers of Henry Ford the clientele will tire of the old and seek a new model.

One thought on ““You can have any colour you want so long as it’s black” – By Terry Wright

  1. What if the current unionist leadership does get the fact that the next phase in the end game has started and instead of thinking of us all they choose instead to fill their boots. Whoops they already have – RHI, Nama, … Is it not better to keep the £1 billion safe away from these folk.

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