The maintenance of the Union is no longer solely in the gift of political unionism – by Terry Wright

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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.

Terry Wright

28 MAY 2019

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  1. Kieran Devlin on

    A superb piece Terry and if I was an Ulster Unionist I would consider this as a draft policy document. The UUP have shown flashes of leg as they venture out in their progressive, summer bikini, only to be dragged back in by Mother Unionism and told to put their duffel coat back on before going out. As a former British soldier, I’ve been so turned off by what’s on offer from the so called Unionist parties, that I no longer identify as a Unionist. The UUP have a life line available to them that I don’t see the fundamentalists in the DUP reaching for, but it’s going to take courage and imagination to become actual progressive, inclusive Unionists.

  2. Gerry Mander on

    If I have to suffer hearing the word ‘progressive’ one more time, I swear you’re going to witness Olympian displays of technicolor projectile vomiting… I’m deadly serious… what the hell does that ‘p’ word even mean in actual substance, what kind of world are they wanting to ‘progress’ to, and are it’s advocates even aware of the nature of it’s founders’ views, particularly on matters of race??? As usual, like many poisonous social/political ideas, it originated from the United States of Insanity, the world’s largest lunatic asylum!

    At least when ‘progressives’ (holding back the gag reflex, ugh!) called themselves ‘liberals’ you knew what that meant, but these new breed using the ‘p’ word to describe themselves are neither liberal nor progressing toward anything resembling a pluralist, tolerant state where all views and opinions, no matter how odious some may find them, are both respected and tolerated… the only thing we’re progressing to under the current ideology of those who call themselves the ‘p’ word is outright godless tyranny.

    The traditional ‘liberal’ movement has been co-opted by intolerant ideologues who are totalitarian Stalinists in both views and methods… why the UUP and even the DUP are using the ‘p’ word to describe themselves sometimes is beyond me and they’re making a big mistake in doing so.

    For however long the union between NI and GB continues to exist – and frankly, since Brexit, all bets are off on that one! – there should be a SINGLE broad-church, big-tent Unionist party with (unashamed and unapologetic) conservative centre-right views, and if any liberal unionists don’t like it, they can leave and join Alliance or form their own party… although NI21 showed there’s no market for such a party.

    And if a united Ireland ever happens, they’ll have to get their act together pronto and expand their base by appealing to conservative traditional views across the 32 counties… there is certainly a voter base, not to mention a current vacuum, for such a party and a pretty untapped deep one at that for anyone willing to be electorally and strategically smart about it.

    Unfortunately, smart is not what political unionism does best, more often than not… merely changing the window dressing on Unionism won’t solve it’s short-term vote decline or it’s long-term survival, nor will adopting currently trendy, flavour-of-the-month policies as the author of the above article seems to advocate.

    Less so-called ‘progressive’ tyranny… more individual liberty.

    Here endeth the lesson.

  3. Ruaidri Ua Conchobair on

    The Alliance party has stolen the ‘middle ground’ clothes of the Unionist UUP and Nationalist SDLP and rebranded itself as supposedly ‘neutral’ on the constitutional dispute issue.

    If the UUP and SDLP are to survive, they must reform their social policies then challenge Alliance.

    It’s of particular note, Alliance was formed as a pro-UK Unionist-lite party. Now it claims to be a genuine Other designated party that’s now supposedly ‘neutral’ on NI’s constitutional status. However, if it isn’t just intent of serving politically savvy moderate Unionists and duping politically naïve moderate Nationalists, why does Alliance avoid proposing a genuine ‘neutral’ option to the pro-UK status quo i.e either a independent Northern Ireland or UK-RoI joint sovereignty over NI?

    • Gerry Mander on

      I’m all for joint sovereignty… BUT…

      Would unionists accept leaving the UK and no longer sending representatives to Westminster?

      Would nationalists be prepared to permanently give up their aspirations for a united Ireland and agree to fully participate in the new state without calling for a border poll every five minutes?

      Would the GB and Irish governments mind paying into the new state for national healthcare, benefits, infrastructure, etc?

      Would all sides be prepared to accept NI as a completely autonomous self-governing state in it’s own right with national status, it’s own passport, currency, and a majoritarian Parliament?

      Because all of that is really what you’re talking about in order for joint sovereignty to work…

      • You should email the Brits…I think we down here agree completely with your position.
        People just want to see you guys happy, prosperous and reconciled with the choice to be British or IRish or none.

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