There is a problem with how unionism is perceived. In some cases, it is generated from within and in other cases it is manufactured to harm unionism and leave it scrambling to recover balance.
It is clear that negative, angry unionism has taken to the stage with added vigour in the last number of years. It is vocal and uses social media to denigrate any unionist that dares to speak out in an inclusive, positive manner.
This negative, inward looking, navel gazing unionism promoting the ‘super prod’ idea as a strategic vision for the future, neither protects or promotes our position within the United Kingdom. It is nothing more than individual self-promotion resulting in societal self-harm and lasting damage to the Union.
This negativity shows weakness not strength, isolationism not inclusion. It is the absolute opposite of unionism and in many ways promotes Ulster Nationalism.
The Union is not just about Northern Ireland, it is about a much wider entity which includes Great Britain and together we make up the fifth largest economy on the planet.
The ties that bind are of blood, culture, economy and history. The Union provides opportunities and a platform for people born and raised in Northern Ireland to make their mark in a whole range of fields and professions. The cities of Scotland, England and Wales have provided homes and workplaces for so many of our people. There is hardly anyone in Northern Ireland or the Republic – unionist, nationalist or other – who doesn’t know someone or have a family member who has gone to study or work in Britain to seek new opportunities.
Our task locally is to build a Northern Ireland to which they not only want to return, but that can provide them with opportunities to build lives here of equal quality to those they can find in Glasgow, Newcastle, Manchester, Leeds and London.
It very obvious to me that there are many people out there who see Northern Ireland as their home and they are happy with remaining here if we can make this place work. Yet, for some of them voting for a unionist party means voting for the negative, angry, ‘wrap yourself in a flag’ unionism which they do not want as their vision for the future. Therefore, they stay at home and join the two thirds of non-voters who are unionists in their mind-set but not necessarily in their cultural outlook, or lend their vote to other political parties in the hope that at some stage unionism will wake up and promote a vision with which that they can feel comfortable. They are looking for a vision that is positive and forward looking that put family and prosperity at the heart of any decision and they lend their vote to other parties.
Those that manufacture negative unionism from the outside kick the fence knowing that they will draw out the negative from their political opponents. They use their bias, both conscious and unconscious, to goad their adversaries into making that fundamental mistake. They use legacy, COVID, the centenary to slap ‘themuns’ down knowing that the blocking of a Centenary stone, the planting of a rose, the lighting up of a building or the promotion of Britishness will be a poke in the eye for many. But here is the sad thing.
Unionism isn’t negative and angry; it’s just portrayed that way by a noisy minority, but now there is an opportunity, an opportunity unionism’s opponents fear more than anything else, which can be delivered if the silent unionist majority asserts its presence and finds its voice. This opportunity is no magic bullet, no hidden alchemic solution, not even a new idea, but it is fundamental to success. That opportunity is the promotion of confident unionism because confidence promotes strength. That confidence must be joined by positivity linked to an idea that, wellbeing and prosperity are at the centre of all we do.
Who wants to wake each morning to hear that negative, angry message promoting the next big crises with a sense of relish? Most want to wake up with news of a vibrant economy, jobs that give them a sense of purpose and a feeling of fulfilment as they contribute to an economy that delivers for all the people who share this place.
Our young people want to see a positive future full of opportunity to give them a genuine reason to stay in Northern Ireland and contribute to a vibrant society. Parents want to see their children grow and prosper, have that opportunity with a chance to have children of their own. So what do we do – here is the sell.
We must begin the process of building trust with non-voters and forgotten unionists, the uninspired and the progressives regardless of religion, sexual orientation or cultural background. We must give them confidence to coalesce around a confident, positive and progressive unionist message promoted by the Ulster Unionist Party that acknowledges it has made mistakes in the past but is determined to make the future brighter for Northern Ireland.
Unionism has an image problem, but only if we allow that image to be that problem.