Approached by a local member of Sinn Fein to engage in ‘difficult conversations’, I queried the term ‘difficult’: why not conversations?
“Maybe they are difficult for Sinn Fein?” was the reply.
However difficult, the different and often contesting identities of Unionism – political, cultural, economic, civic, protestant – to name just some -can gain by initiating inclusive, transparent and strategic dialogue across the spectrum of unionism. Time to move beyond old electoral wounds and jaundiced perceptions to view each other as someone and not something; build capacity and relationships as an alternative to self-limiting and self-destructive division.
There are different ways of thinking about and valuing Unionism; it is not an homogenous political, religious or social grouping and too often self-interest produces an unwillingness to stretch beyond boundary maintenance. The benefits of a re-focus to establish common purpose is self-evident.
There have been forums. They draw mixed reports. One former leader of the UUP, even as a forum was starting said: “Everyone knows it is not going to work.” They seem to fail.
We have seen at election time, in the midst of persistent calls for Unionist Unity, least necessary where proportional representation is in place, pro-unionism shows a propensity to narrow into a circular firing squad, with a scatter-gun approach that inevitably results in metaphorically ‘shooting everyone in the foot’.
In electoral terms it rarely delivers. North Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone are a clear indication that building pro-Union consensus and common purpose needs to move beyond electoral horse-trading. It is not a successful formula.
What results is a combination of frustration, non-voting, communities disenfranchised and lacking empowerment, fragmentation, disengagement, a sense of isolation, unaccountable leadership, flight and a brand so compromised that many avoid its use.
The quick and shallow fix does not deliver in the long-term.
Viewed from the outside, it seems political Unionism prioritises partisan electoral success by following traditional routes flanked by a diminishing support base, appealing to unchanging often mixed messaging and fears, whilst pursuing a reactive response to the agenda of its constitutional opposition.
Demographics and research indicate that this can only offer short-term respite from tests ahead.
Reliable research undertaken by various universities indicate a positive picture in support for remaining part of the UK however there is a need to drill down further.
It is clear for all parties that an already high and increasing number of younger voters and non-voters are not identifying along hardened binary lines. The clear implication is that voters and non – voters in this demography are interested in politics other than those defined by traditional communal identities and likely to be on issues relevant to their current and future prospects
A significant proportion of contemporary support is conditional and therefore needing to be persuaded by debate and analysis grounded in evidence, principled leadership, strategies and relevant policy related issue-centred decision-making which delivers Northern Ireland as a better place for all, regardless of creed or none, ethnic background, entrepreneur or public service, free of sectarian affiliation and culturally diverse.
In interface areas in 2018, young people were asked to rank issues which they prioritised as relevant to their future lives. Where, at one time, sectarian violence and fear of attack was the main concern, it has now moved well down the list which is topped by drugs, alcohol, family conflict, lack of employment and educational qualifications and violence within single identity communities.
Aside from the implications for programmes which have concentrated on improving community relations, a valid conclusion is that sectarian violence is not as prevalent an issue as before and priorities have shifted to socio-economic and welfare concerns. Who then is keeping the concentration on this in place and for what purpose
Shared and collaborative pro-Unionism will not pre-determine the sustainability of a favourable constitutional model but it has a better chance of winning support if it replaces slavish adherence to old orthodoxy that is beginning to wane.
This calls for an honest issue-centred and thematic conversation within pro-Unionism focused on the future. There are better alternatives than blind loyalty to blinkered vision and dated ideology displaying signs of decay. A shift in emphasis and focus is required.
Anyone skilled in the kitchen will know that it is wise to determine what sort of meal is preferred, what ingredients are necessary. These days you have to bear in mind catering for pluralist taste buds and adopt ideas from across the global world in which we now live. Equally Important is the process necessary to avoid spoiling the meal for everyone.
Proper standards will ensure that the dish on which the meal is served is unlikely to contaminate the food. Curried yoghurt would definitely not appear on the menu.
Produce a bad meal or continue serving the same one with stale ingredients and it will lose popularity. There will be less demand for what you have on offer.
This is a trend within Unionism as its constituency profile alters and this being the case there is an urgent requirement to address the implications in the interests of sustaining Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom, the whole structure of which is coming under strain as a result of Covid-19 and Brexit.
We see divergence in the manner in which different areas of the UK have addressed the demands of Covid-19 and in regards to Brexit, much of which remains unclear, a growth in English and Scottish nationalism with recent polls showing 54% support for independence in Scotland and in England a high in the 40s for English independence. Both figures are increasing. The recent proposals for a UK Internal Market are adding to debate.
Undoubtedly this has prompted Taioseach Micheál Martin to project that this could lead to the likelihood that England will lose interest in Northern Ireland. The appropriateness of his doing so and momentarily forgetting the principle of consent, speaks for itself.
Recent surveys consistent with a range of other research show that a majority in Northern Ireland still wishes to maintain membership of the UK and is yet to be convinced of the benefits of Irish re-unification and the need for a Border Poll.
This does not necessarily translate into electoral preferences for Unionist political parties as indicated in recent elections. A large number of electors who are pro-Union do not vote because they do not like what political Unionism is offering and failing to deliver in terms of social justice or economic and environmental issues and there is a sizeable proportion of ‘don’t knows’ when it comes to how they might vote in a Border Poll in the future. Is Unionism making itself relevant to the issues which impact on lives?
The success of Alliance, a party not committed to the retention of the Union, is a case in point.
Business and economic Unionists are understandably concerned by the handling of Brexit and look to Westminster and Stormont for assurances in the days ahead. The Republic of Ireland in organising All-Ireland Dialogues and sending well-briefed envoys to European capitals was well ahead in terms of lobbying and preparation. Unionism absented itself and maybe forfeited the opportunity to at least table discussion on how the GFA Bodies might have been used to address trade and border challenges. These were surrendered to become leverage for the EU.
There are other challenges for the whole pro-Union community and it is that community in all its diversity – as stakeholders – which must be afforded the opportunity to address them.
The First Minister who gains credit for the manner in which she has addressed recent and ongoing problems suggests that ‘people need to ask what kind of Northern Ireland they want to live in.’
The implication is that Unionism does not yet have a shared response to what is a pivotal question. Any response cannot rest in the ownership of one group, must be mutually supportive and shared to become the social glue for the pro-Union and Unionist constituency. There is an imperative to nurture a participatory, consensual and clear response from that constituency and different priorities can be anticipated.
The task will be akin to constructing an inclusive home for people to live, offering choice as to how the occupants wish to live their lives and pursue diverse activities whilst sharing the abode. It will require transparent, enlightened and creative processes, perhaps involving civic engagement, understanding to reconcile festering differences and resentment, resilience, accommodation, mutual respect and concentration on relevant issues. If these are neglected or absent and it becomes about one political party keeping power, the community will hesitate to engage and a fresh challenge to collaboration will ensue.
It is the nature of the Good Friday Agreement process that it is always likely to be a work in progress. However, Unionism, it seems, knows what it is in constitutional terms but not what it is for and in spite of recent but tentative strategic movement within the two main political parties, how to build an inclusive and invitational society. If within the GFA process and after 100 years, Unionism is asking the question not least of itself: “What kind of Northern Ireland do we want?” it has not yet built the home.
A past of excessive certainty which merely stored up problems to produce an introverted and uncreative unionism cannot and never will return. It is a mistake to try to remain where you started when all around you is changing.
In the midst of the ongoing campaign for a border poll and re-unification is it not time for political unionism to step up to the mark, respond to points tabled and present the positivity of pro-Union argument? The reality is that Unionism needs to articulate the case otherwise it can expect, by default to forfeit the opportunity to shape the future?
With too much focus on political territory and tribal head counting, the implementation of the GFA structures and peace process lack any co-ordinating point to transform, pull together a shared future and track into a new way of doing.
Unionism should want to lead the way.