Results in the local government elections and those for the European Union suggest that it will no longer be maintained by Union Flag -clad tables in Orange Halls, over-playing of the Constitutional card, ambivalence towards communal criminality and bonfire vandalism, the denial of equal rights and cultural diversity, the demonization of life-styles that do not comply with fixed prejudices and a deficit in strategic and forward-looking leadership.
A dam, holding back unionists who want to build an agreed, consensual, shared and prosperous Northern Ireland, who are not risk averse and believe that if the Union is to be maintained, then it must be based on value for money and issue-centred politics, respect for diversity, reconciliation and accountability in public life, has burst. It has been coming for some time.
Of the three unionist parties, it is the UUP which is paying the price.
The election results indicate that the old model of political unionism is unsustainable as pro-union voters, of all ages, have shifted their preferences to the Alliance party. Brexit and a desire to remain in the EU has been the catalyst but there are other factors. They have walked away from green and orange binary free-ride politics and want to see solutions to problems which impact on the quality of life of every citizen regardless of political identity or none. Many have abstained from voting. Anecdotal evidence in some areas suggest that the motivation is to show political unionism that it must change; that the future of the Union will have to be by persuasion and grounded In the inclusive British values to which Unionist parties aspire yet fail to deliver.
The existence of three pro-union parties does not offer a sufficiently differentiated choice to voters. The parties sit on a spectrum but converge where their politics become increasingly unattractive to many of the pro-Union populace. It is at a point where due to an over-developed and self-defining fear-fuelled sense of threat to the Union, they cannot look beyond a label and fail to see people as fellow citizens who can make a valuable contribution to a shared society. This is exacerbated by the remnants of a misplaced sense of entitlement and adherence to an ideology which becomes a way of not seeing the changes in a global and pluralist environment.
There are indications that the DUP senses the trend.
At a recent conference at Queen’s University a high-profile member of the DUP suggested to Robbie Butler MLA of the UUP that the Unionist Party should become a liberal unionist party. It is unlikely that this was a solo run. Clearly, the DUP which the UUP never tires of accusing of having stolen its political clothing, sees a lack of policy differences within unionism and is looking to the UUP to stop the haemorrhaging of votes for the ‘precious Union’ to a party which is neutral on the Constitution.
Such an act of communal expediency, will prove a hollow strategy but at least there is recognition that Unionist Unity is not the answer.
NI 21 had an opportunity to re-configure unionist politics but failed and not, it appeared at the time, for the most noble of reasons. Change UK is struggling to make an impact at Westminster. Does this then lead to the conclusion that it is the UUP which must rise to the challenge? If so, it will not achieve this alone and cannot afford to repeat the flip-flop politics and strategies evident under different leaders. It will not welcome the comment but to the outsider it has seemed that every time it has appeared to turn a corner it was seen to be walking around in an ever-decreasing circle.
When Mike Nesbitt MLA became UUP leader he suggested that the party might have to become smaller before becoming bigger. It might have to do so again.
There are those within the UUP who are closer to the DUP or TUV in terms of their politics and could switch parties easily. That they remain in the UUP by the goodwill of the party’s traditions of wanting to be a broad church is a barrier to much needed change in strategy and policies. This is why the UUP is often justifiably accused of being DUP-lite and this is acknowledged by members and elected representatives who choose to remain silent or inactive on the issue. The party is paying the price as too many agonise over ground lost to the DUP and fail to carve a new and forward-looking pathway for unionism. Current leader Robin Swann MLA has spoken of turning the ‘tanker around ‘. He should note that when this has been attempted in the past, it has continued to journey in the same direction. It is precariously close to running aground.
Unionism is changing.
There are civic, cultural and community organisations whose members are embracing radical ideas and strategies to promote inclusive and pluralist politics, building leadership capacity and prioritizing the creation of a reconciled, peaceful and diverse community. They are finding a voice. They want to move on and look to a future where they and their families can prosper, find employment, enjoy a good standard of living and health care. They do not want their family members demonised for their gender or denied the opportunity to shape and define their own culture.
Many, across the generations, want the same but are continually disappointed by unionist political representatives who promise much but pledge their primary allegiance to old quarrels and narrow ideology.
As it licks its wounds over its present difficulties, the UUP needs to see that within these, there is an opportunity for leadership that it has thus far failed to see.
28 MAY 2019