The question I’m asked most often about unionism and Protestantism (and many of those who ask me belong to the pro-Union ‘family’ in one form or another) can be boiled down to this: why are there so many parties, organisations, vehicles and churches?
Given the circumstances it seems like a fair question. At the moment we have the DUP, UUP, TUV, PUP, UKIP, NI21, Conservatives, UPRG and Protestant Coalition – not to mention an assortment of independents and the Loyal Orders.
And over the last 40 years or so there have been about 20 others which have come and gone, along with a variety of coalitions and ‘unionist unity’ vehicles – the Unionist Forum being the latest. On the religious side we have Presbyterian, Church of Ireland, Free Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Methodist et al: indeed, I counted almost 50 wings of Protestantism when I checkedthrough the Yellow Pages a few days ago.
When you look at that spread of opinion and division it’s no wonder that early unionism set so much store by the mantra ‘united we stand, divided we fall’.
When the Unionist Forum was established in January I predicted that it would end in the ‘usual old whingeing and stalemate and almost certainly lead to further division’. And it did: since then we have seen the emergence of NI21 and the Protestant Coalition – not to mention ad hoc groups thrown together for the purposes of taunting and challenging the Parades Commission.
So, what is it about unionism that encourages division? Actually, let me nuance that question very slightly: what is it about unionism that encourages it to divide and then spend so much time attacking itself? I often think we despise each other more than we despise our supposed enemies. It’s like the line – from Churchill, I think – that in the House of Commons your opponents are opposite you, but your enemy is behind you.
Look at Peter Robinson’s letter from America re the Maze, when he devoted as much time to putting the boot into elements of unionism as he did into criticising Sinn Fein. Look at how often Jim Allister condemns the DUP for rolling over to Sinn Fein. Look at how often the PUP condemns mainstream unionism for leaving working-class unionism/loyalism behind. Look at how often the UUP berates the DUP for hypocrisy. Look at how often NI21 condemns the unionism it came from. Over and over and over again unionists and loyalists seem to prefer internecine bitching and finger-pointing to either agreeing a joint strategy for progress or coming up with one of their own.
I think that part of the problem – a very big part admittedly – is that many unionists don’t really know what unites them, other than opposition to a united Ireland. Take that ‘given’ from the equation and what are you left with? Some unionists want a genuine shared future with nationalists/republicans, and others don’t. Some are serious about power-sharing with Sinn Fein and others are looking for ways to sideline them. Some want devolution, others would prefer a return of direct rule. Some want integrated education and the downplaying of religion in our everyday life, while others want separation ring-fenced. Some want a liberalising of laws on gay marriage, abortion and gambling, while others baulk at the very suggestion. Some think our civil rights are being trampled on, while others say they don’t need flags, symbols and parades to shore up their unionist identity.
In September 2012, at a joint UUP/DUP dinner celebrating the Covenant centenary, Peter Robinson made one of the best speeches of his career. In a key section he suggested the setting up of a Council for the Union, a body that would bring together all strands of the pro-Union community and construct a coherence and strategy which hadn’t existed for a very long time.
It struck me as a very bold, very sensible, much needed idea and I was very supportive. Yet within a few months it had somehow morphed into the Unionist Forum, a circling-of-the-wagons exercise which reduced every aspect of debate to the lowest common denominator: or, putting it another way, ‘how do we stop themmuns from getting the upper hand?’.
What has happened in the year since that dinner and since that speech is as good a summing up of the unionist problem as you’re going to get. 2012 should have been a good year for unionism: polls were indicating increased support for remaining in the Union; London-Dublin relationships were better than they had ever been; the Queen had had a great reception in Dublin in 2011 and a trouble-free visit to Northern Ireland in June 2012. In September 2012 the future was bright, the Union was safe.
A year later and unionism and loyalism have returned to the safety zone of internal squabbling. And it is a safety zone. It saves them having to do any thinking about the future or take any responsibility for promoting their values and beliefs. It allows them to blame each other (usually for some form of surrender or sell-out); or blame the media for misrepresentation (although it’s very hard to give an accurate representation of a political hydra).
I have said before – many, many times – that unionism is its own worst enemy. If you present a fractured image and inconsistent agenda then don’t feign surprise if that’s what the media reports. If you confuse potential voters with a message based on fear and the success of your opponents then again, don’t blame the media or other strands of unionism.
Better still – particularly for the PUP and loyalists –use the social media and Twitter for relentless positivity rather than for negativity, nastiness and tension stirring.
Here’s the real challenge for unionism: find out why your votes and seats aren’t being maximised and then put in place a strategy for addressing the problem.
And now that would be a good idea!