JUNE 27, 2012, was a good day for unionism. It started off with Martin McGuinness standing quietly in line to shake the Queen’s hand and ended with 20,000 people partying in Stormont as the Queen and Prince Philip drove through the grounds in an open-topped vehicle.
It was a good day for her – so openly relaxed in what had often been a troublesome part of the United Kingdom: and a good day for unionists, celebrating the centenary of the Ulster Covenant.
It was a day on which unionists were right to feel confident, a day worth celebrating. The Union was safe and secure. Northern Ireland was enjoying a period of stability it hadn’t known for decades. All of the evidence and opinion polls suggested that support for the Union was at an all-time high – particularly among those who couldn’t be described as traditional unionists.
The sun seemed to be shining upon unionists. It should have been a red-letter day for them, the perfect launch for an ongoing, well orchestrated campaign leading to the centenary and celebration of the opening of the Northern Ireland Parliament in 1921.
Yet what a difference a mere eight months can make. Today unionism looks insular and intransigent again. It looks like a political movement that has closed the door to ‘outsiders’ and seeks false comfort in circling the wagons and talking to itself. It complains about the ‘chipping away’ of its identity and values, yet seems incapable of constructing a propaganda campaign to promote itself and boast of its very obvious successes. It’s almost as if it needs to feel hard done by: needs to believe that Sinn Fein somehow has the upper hand.
And maybe it does need to feel and believe that, because maybe, just maybe, it doesn’t actually have a vision and strategy which goes much beyond ‘united we stand, divided we fall’.
Worse still, it doesn’t seem to be learning any lessons. On August 25 last year the UUP and DUP, along with representatives of the Loyal Orders and the Bands Forum, published an open letter to the Parades Commission which, among other things, accused it of causing ‘untold damage to the peace process and evolving relationships’.
So it didn’t really come as much of a surprise when some elements used that letter as a ‘cover’ for their own agenda. Again, in November, the UUP and DUP co-authored a joint leaflet about Alliance’s position on the flying of the flag over City Hall: a leaflet which was used (and is still being
used) by some as a ‘cover’ for their agenda. Then last Thursday the Orange Order dropped elephant-sized hints that it was considering the possibility of not bothering to notify the Parades Commission about its activities during the marching season. Hmm, that sounds like a surefire plan for success!
And since the Loyal Orders are represented at the Unionist Forum, it’s going to make it very difficult for both Messrs Robinson and Nesbitt if anything does go wrong further down the line. Let’s face it, how much authority will their pleas for ‘calm and level heads’ carry when they are now so
intricately bound together with the Orange Order?
All of this – and I’m also including the decision to field a unionist unity candidate in Mid Ulster – sends out a very specific, very particular message: namely, that unionism (or that section of it tied together in the Unionist Forum) isn’t feeling particularly confident at all.
There are some very important issues that should concern unionism. The virtual disconnect of working-class unionism/loyalism from the political/electoral process; a disconnect which will not be resolved by a Unionist Forum that is focused almost solely on an anti-Sinn Fein electoral strategy rather than policy.
The Welfare Reform Bill, the most important piece of legislation to come before the Assembly –indeed the most important piece of legislation to come before any devolved body in Northern Ireland since the 1940s – will have an enormous impact on the majority of families here; yet you wouldn’t actually know that if you were just listening to what passes for debate within unionism.
And when enacted, as it probably will be, it will have a far greater effect on people than how many days the flag flies or where and when an Orange parade can go. And you can bet your bottom dollar that we won’t be seeing the unionist parties, Loyal Orders or make-it-up-as-you-go-along protest groups organising demonstrations against it. But hey, unionist leaders seem happier to stir up unnecessary fears about symbols and identity than about a vitally important ‘bread and butter’ issue.
And from what I can see the non-voting section of the pro-Union demograph has been written off as a lost cause by mainstream unionism. Both Robinson and Nesbitt make noises about pluralism, progress and reaching-out, yet enter an alliance (although, maybe that’s the wrong
word to use in the circumstances!) which seems to be sectarian, backward and internal: the very thing which is guaranteed to put off rather than attract new votes.
Let me be blunt: if you really do want to maximise turnout, re-engage switched off voters and increase interest in the political process and the benefits of devolution, then you are not going to do it through the clumsy, self-serving platform that is the Unionist Forum. You will do it by prioritising issues that matter to people, which effect people and which have a fundamental impact upon their everyday lives. You will do it by being seen to make a difference for the better. You will do it by being seen to be relevant. You will do it by offering real choice on real issues.
My gut instinct, though, is that the DUP and UUP know that they can’t, in fact, do any of this (or they just couldn’t be bothered, perhaps): which may explain why they have climbed into bed together – albeit of the bunk-up variety. In so doing they have chosen the very worst option for the very worst reasons. They have squandered the optimism, opportunities and confidence which existed on June 27, 2012 and replaced it with the same old kneejerk reactions and congenital insecurities. Really guys, stop relying on old practices and start dealing with new realities.
You wanted an Assembly – you’ve got an Assembly – now prove to us what you can really do with it.
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