A framed picture of Sir James Craig with the words: “United we stand, divided we fall” adorned the walls of many buildings housing local offices of the Ulster Unionist party.
Some might describe it as a blood red line.
The context for the social and political turmoil which shaped the establishment of Northern Ireland is a matter of record and offers understanding for the initial thinking which informed unionism. However the decision to remain on narrow terrain to the point of lazy stagnation, illustrates failings in relevant political development and in adjusting to the demands of a changing social, demographic and economic environment.
Unionism is living in the long shadow of Home Rule where diminishing support at Westminster with demographic and changing generational profiles in Northern Ireland, indicate that the maintenance of a pro-Union position is no longer guaranteed on the basis of a communal headcount and rests on persuasion for a preferred future.
Until the entrance into politics of the Rev Dr Ian Paisley with the electoral consolidation of the Democratic Unionist party, mainly through its ability to tap into conflict and rage politics resulting in the fragmentation of political unionism, the doctrine of unity above all else remained strong. It delivered electoral success but in appealing to the lowest common denominator of a communal headcount, unionism locked itself into the political dogma of blind loyalty, supremacy and the institutionalised culture of symbols and pageantry. No breathing space was welcomed or tolerated for diversity, inclusion or creative challenge. Those who dared to do so were cast adrift as Unionist misfits. Northern Irish politics has been the poorer as a result.
In spite of the divisions, political unionism at representative level has remained largely Protestant and one-dimensional so it remains easy, and is the option preferred by many across political unionism when elections come around, to return to the comfort zone of unionist unity. This much is evident in the clamour of indignation produced by the decision of the leader-elect of the Ulster Unionist party, Steve Aiken MLA, to rule out electoral pacts and contest every constituency in the forthcoming General Election. It is coming through loudly and clearly to cause rumblings at local constituency level.
With many members of the party at one with the DUP and even the TUV on policies and separated only by old resentments, electoral rivalry and animosity, previous leaders of the Ulster Unionist party have acquiesced but it would be foolish to do so this time around.
East Belfast and South Belfast show that the DUP has always been the party that gained most and the UUP has lost the ability to carve a distinctive course. Leaders have led the party along a zig-zag path, dismissed pacts only to agree them, shifted to the right to out-do the DUP, made claims of being radical yet, lacking any future focus, failed to reach out to pro-Union voters for whom political unionism has no attraction. It has reduced itself to petty point-scoring at the DUP.
Focused and relevant leadership is preferable.
The loss of MPs, an MEP and a reduced number of MLAs must surely serve as a wake-up call. Voters, so minded to opt for narrow sectarian politics will always vote for the real thing and not the pale imitation. Aligning closely to the tarnished and toxic image of present-day political unionism, as exemplified in the biggest party, will serve only to being associated with politics which many pro-Union voters regard as being self-serving, dogmatic and lacking a moral compass. Recent election results and the success of the Alliance party in the European and local elections are clear indication of a trend.
Unionism has moved beyond an age of single labels. Within the pro-Union constituency identities reflect diversity; pro-Union, economic-unionist, civic-unionist, liberal-unionist and cultural-unionist or a fluid combination of two or more to varying degrees. A proportion voted to remain in the EU and, in an increasingly personalised society, support the delivery of marriage equality, the de-criminalisation of abortion and the provision of choice within ethical parameters. Comfortable in a hybrid cultural environment they wish to reach accommodation and exercise perspective without bias on rights, cultural and language issues. Interested in a different type of ‘green politics’, they are concerned by the implications of climate change.
Leaders of the parties know that this is a growing constituency that will shape the future of politics in Northern Ireland. Those within the younger profile are focused on student loans, health care, equality and the impact of neo-liberal economics on employment and career prospects. Others focus on health, family needs and financial security. In a Border Poll they would vote to remain in the Union but support close co-operation with the Republic of Ireland and find much of the tub-thumping and fitful politics of unionism out-dated. They wish to see an agreed and shared Northern Ireland which is less reliant on financial support from Westminster and embraces British values as laying a foundation for meaningful reconciliation and parity of esteem devoid of labels and segregation. They have their eyes fixed on different goals and different finishing line.
Pacts, which disenfranchise voters, offer limited choice and commodify politics around entrenched communal identities to gain power, hold little attraction for this constituency. Democracy cannot be treated as disposable and in the gift of political elites.
In these circumstances, leaders need to realise that Unionism has no sacrosanct right to prevail. Endorsement has to be earned and be prepared to submit to accountability and scrutiny. Political structures which have facilitated an absence of this, contrary to the views of the leader of the DUP, need review and reform. The spirit of the Good Friday Agreement needs restoration alongside a process of sustainable problem-solving.
This will not be achieved by tokenistic changes of label from traditional to expedient grandstanding on second-hand radical liberalism if you still enable the ugly voice of sterile sectarianism, segregation and prejudice. This has been tried before and exposed as patronising and a hollow delusion.
The values and attitudes which inform actions are how unionism will be measured. It is presently found wanting by large swathes of its constituency. Substance will always be more important than style and it is the only ethical basis on which you can create the conditions for the realisation of political ideas.
Late in the day, Unionism can benefit by sharing responsibility for creating a transformed Northern Ireland and abandoning any desire to dominate the old.
Maybe a low-ebb Ulster Unionist party UUP, prepared to abandon risk averse shibboleths in favour of a cohesive alternative agenda and display patient resolve can assume leadership of a fresh alignment and become an anchor for stability.
The UUP helped to produce peace; can it now deliver a community where people may finally begin to enjoy it?