Unionism without vision sucks the morale and hopes of a disillusioned electorate like a political vacuum.
Once again leaders of mainstream unionist parties in speeches and from Conference platforms urge a re-think on ‘siege mentality’ and speak of a fresh ‘covenant’ that is ‘inclusive’ of all.
Over 100 years since the Solemn League and Covenant and some 90+ years since the establishment of Northern Ireland it still seems that political unionism remains ensnared in the value-system and politics of its own failings. Not for the first time, this is the clear message but can or will it be heeded anymore than in the past? Can the inferred vision be delivered?
This is unlikely to result without leadership that begins from the inside out and is prepared to challenge and take risks. Too often previous leaders have spoken of turning the boat around only for it to float on the same turbulent course.
The result has been characterised by a lack of a steady direction and a diminished sustaining purpose.
It was and may still continue to be the view of one recent leader of the UUP that ‘Unionism is at its best when it has something to oppose.’ To judge by all the evidence it is a view not dissimilar to that of the DUP.
If indeed this strategy shows unionism at its best, it also serves to bring out some of its worst failings. Its legacy is a fear-fuelled unionism that has sought to solve perceived problems rather than prevent them.
Where there is an over-emphasis on fear you become fearful and shape a union wherein you fail to build unity. Such is a contradiction in terms. In the case of Northern Ireland, the community that should be your constituency slides into tribal blocs.
Unionism has not produced this on its own but it has been too comfortable in appealing to division, embracing partisan symbols and slogans and accepting its mandate. Education and religion have served as leverage to power. Culture has too often masqueraded as communal assertion. It is an escape route for weak leadership lacking the self-trust to meet uncomfortable challenges. One result is that groups and their issues become marginalised and peripheral.
In spite of the rhetoric, political foundations have been built and maintained on what unionism is against rather than on what it is for.
In mirroring the anger, rage and closed nature of nationalism and republicanism shaped by sectarianism, dogma and strident political orthodoxy, unionism has wasted energy on futile entanglements. This is an uncomfortable truth but it is where unionism must start for it is only through the admission of such failings that effective and meaningful change will occur.
Actions, policies and strategies must go beyond speeches and platform aspirations. It will require leadership that prioritises bridge building and reconciliation. Recent signs are not encouraging if Peter Robinson’s recent U-turn is any indication. No less the case is the determination of the UUP to claim credit for forcing the DUP leader’s actions when to observers it seems more the result of Sinn Fein’s less than repentant remembrance at Castlederg and the co-ordinated campaigning of Victim groups who are politically unaligned.
This is merely going through the motions of leadership and sucks the morale and hopes of a disillusioned electorate like a political vacuum. It fails to build trust and confidence.
Within Northern Ireland religion, education, cultural and social life is closely aligned to political allegiance. This has contributed to division and social tension. Too much is contested and addressed through rage and confrontation. Unionism has played its part and must correct its failings.
Where does it want Northern Ireland to be in the future in terms of economic, educational, social and community life? If it is not to be more of the same it must change and be a persuader for peaceful and sustainable progress.
It is doubtful if the mainstream unionist parties can deliver this agenda.
Their imagery is increasingly archaic to a younger generation. Their actions are opportunistic and without direction. Their quarrels are tedious. Their attempts to build a future on the past invite only ridicule and disbelief. Their blinkered view of justice and morality is toxic. Their unionism is un-British.
It is at a different level that progress is being made. At community level, local leadership is reaching out with confidence to build understanding and better relations. It is not the ideal but an increasing number of pupils, parents and teachers are working and sharing together. Some church leaders are distancing themselves from traditional political blocs to bring healing and reconciliation.
Activists are seeking through politics to eventually provide governance with a focus on economic, health and educational issues and nurture consensual ethical and moral levelling on matters that concern and challenge. There is a determination and motivation to find a better way and this will not be sacrificed on the party -political interest pyre of parades, protests and flags.
Perhaps it is this reality that prompts the leaders of the two main unionist parties to articulate a fresh vision, again.
Merit where it is due but past experience over forums, protests and parades is not encouraging. To often adherence to the vision is provisional and manipulated to provide politicians with position and power.
There is a growing constituency no longer content to settle for this type of politics. To borrow a phrase: ‘ It is not right for Northern Ireland.’
Reading the speeches from the weekend’s UUP conference one would never think that Tom Elliott and Reg Empey belonged to the same party as Mike Nesbitt.
Nesbitt’s words certainly sounded more hopeful, but were so at variance from his previous thinking that I wonder were they his, did he believe what he was saying, or was he afraid of being out-manoeuvred by Pete Robinson’s efforts of the previous few days.
On the subject of the UUP possibly admitting to having made mistakes, this would be very difficult for such a macho, male dominated party and would be viewed as showing weakness – so I don’t hold out much hope on that front.
If we’re to live in hope of any progressive unionism the only hope on the horizon seems to be that NI21 starts to make progress, possibly in the next elections.
Until then, don’t hold your breath!