Judging from the tone and number of comments and shares on social media, political unionism is drawing comfort from recently published research based on the response of Northern Ireland voters in the last General Election. Unlike other polls which straddle the island, they indicate sizeable majority support for the maintenance of Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.
Coming hot on the heels of Sinn Fein’s success in the General Election in the Republic of Ireland and the extent to which this is being claimed by civic and political uber -nationalism as a mandate for a new and agreed Ireland, the response is predictable. If anything, the research data points to any such nationalist claim as over-heated and premature.
Unionism would do well to draw lessons from this and dismiss any tendency towards complacency. The recent assertion by First Minister Arlene Foster MLA that she does not anticipate a Border Poll or a United Ireland in her lifetime is but one example.
Support for the maintenance of the Union does not lie solely within the main Unionist parties. Unionist and pro-union voters are a collection of minorities within a majority. There is a significant percentage who do not identify as Unionist and vote for other parties. They would vote in a Border Poll to remain in the United Kingdom but are more accurately seen as pro-Union or civic unionist in that they desire a different and better type of Union to that being offered by political unionism. Generationally, this constituency is likely to grow as older traditional constituencies decline.
Judging from recent remarks by former leader of the UUP Tom Elliott that unionism needs a fresh strategic outlook, the comments by former leader of the UUP, Mike Nesbitt MLA that he was driven from the leadership by sectarianism and the imperative identified by First Minister Arlene Foster MLA for unionism to appeal to everyone and all of this almost 100 years after unionism assumed responsibility for the governance of Northern Ireland, the research data masks deep-seated problems within political unionism. Unionism is resilient but the only inference to be drawn form the remarks of the respective leaders is that it is also contaminated, inclined to silo politics and flawed.
For many, unionism rests on history, internalised identity, tradition and family loyalties. The comments of political unionism, as exemplified by the First Minister, present as tactical rather than strategic; as accidental rather than purposeful reflection.
However, putting what tastes bitter into a different bottle is not a strategy for sustainability. Co-operating only to overcome and establish supremacy is not governing for everyone and represents inappropriate selectivity. Inter-locking pro-union with culture and religion undermines inclusion, diversity and the common good. This does not represent the many within the pro-union constituency, as shown by evidence gathered, who wish to see leadership which addresses and delivers a shared Northern Ireland, truth and reconciliation.
This needs to be addressed for it is likely that large swathes of pro-union voters support the maintenance of the Union not because of political unionism but in spite of it. Many have family members living in other regions of the United Kingdom and are acutely aware of how the tarnished Britishness of Northern Ireland’s unionism is viewed as an anachronism externally; that the concentration on narrow communal agendas, combative dogmatism and labels as opposed to issues like health, employment, social justice and the creation of a shared community is deemed irrational and a costly self-indulgence characterised by stagnation and trepidation. The financial wheeler-dealing of the DUP, thinly disguised as negotiation, did not serve unionism well.
This did not drop from the sky. It is the handiwork of previous and current generations of unionism and is too much revered as we wait for the past to pass.
At present a majority favours retention of the Union but nationalist-republicanism and unionism stand at the same crossroads.
The growing number of the electorate who identify as ‘other’ and are not wedded to traditional unionist or nationalist religious or political ideology indicates that choice will be informed by and convinced by issues-centred politics which enable individuals and the community to move beyond polarization and populism. Voters will be persuaded on the basis of how issues are addressed and the quality and equality of life that results.
The research maps the electorate sufficiently to show that unionist leaders face challenges in promoting a more enlightened unionism. Some attitudes are hermetically sealed against change. Tub-thumping has been too well rewarded and has served to reinforce what Mike Nesbitt MLA identifies as sectarianism and Arlene Foster MLA as lack of cross-community appeal. It would appear that what gains support for political unionism, is toxic to pro-Union voters who avoid the use of the term unionist. Former First Minister Peter Robinson recognised this some years ago but failed to address it and instead retreated to circling the wagons.
In spite of the polls and the clear majority in favour of the Union, Unionism cannot afford to allow Northern Ireland to continue as a divided community. Where it once seized the initiative to de-commission guns it must now move to de-commission destructive sectarianism, segregation, inequality and promote genuine reconciliation within an agreed and shared Northern Ireland.
Solutions will not be found unilaterally. Political unionism needs to reach out to the pro-union constituency and beyond to start connecting the dots.
The reluctance of political unionist leaders to engage on discussion focusing on the future of the island betrays a preference to survive rather than thrive; for monologue rather than dialogue. This is an approach bound by its own limitations and applies the wrong remedy to the problem. Engaging to persuade should be the anchor point of strategy. Turning backs and putting hands over one’s ears is akin to abandoning any pursuit of a solution because you do not expect to find one.
Mike Nesbitt MLA, who recently pulled out of a discussion in Cookstown and an opportunity to engage with those who are convinced that a Border Poll and Irish Unity are imminent, has correctly identified why unionism needs to learn from the past. Beginning to sound like some of those former members of the UUP who left the party during his tenure as leader, he is urging that unionism needs to engage in debate and dialogue.
Beyond that passionate intensity of Sinn Fein as it seeks to interpret every event it organises as a further milestone towards the achievement of its long-term goal there are issues of human rights, cross-border Bodies, co-operation and trade which will impact on Northern Ireland on different levels. Unionism needs to engage and change the approach that led to its absence from the All-Ireland Dialogues and the Good Friday Implementation Committee in Dublin.
This will reflect a more positive and constructive unionism and build a better understanding with politicians in Dublin who do not share what is, on the basis of the polling figures, the shallow optimism of republicanism. Those figures instead point to an opportunity to focus on how Northern Ireland can work better for all, consensually; not to agree on everything but to resolve differences.
Pro-union voters wish to sustain the Union and believe to achieve this it is imperative that unionist politics moves away from insulating against relationship problems, scandals, scams and exposures to re-visit and drill down into its core values and ethos.
They can provide politicians with a voice rooted in civic life beyond that reflected in the sometimes-small membership of political parties and provide input on how unionism can be an enabler to growing the percentage currently in favour of the Union.