Alex Kane: No time for heading back to future

Parliament Buildings, Stormont
Parliament Buildings, Stormont

THIS is from an article I read the other day: “Supporters of multi-party Unionism dismiss calls for a single Unionist Party as a pathetic bid to return to old-fashioned, pre-1972 majority rule.

“Correct, I want a return to those days – when a single movement had the courage to represent all shades of pro-Union opinion. The republicans didn’t like it – because it worked for Unionism! A single movement, known as The Unionist Party, is not simply about the aspiration of both mobilising and uniting all shades of pro-Union thinking. It is about combating the secular society and bringing about the day when the failed Republic experiment comes back into the Commonwealth. Now these are ideals worth marching for!”

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

My own view is that so-called ‘unionist unity’ didn’t actually work to the advantage of either unionism or the Union, let alone Northern Ireland’s relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom.

It was insular and self-serving. It refused to reach out and broaden the voter base for pro-Union belief. It regarded Roman Catholics as the enemy, people – even the best of them – who couldn’t entirely be trusted.

It was guided by the mantra of ‘united we stand, divided we fall’, the only purpose of which was to shut down debate within unionism and isolate anyone who might be a destabilising influence. Indeed, that mantra, along with ‘not an inch,’ was unionism’s version of the doctrine of papal infallibility.

Also, if unionist unity and one unionist party were so successful back in the ‘grand old days of yore’, could someone explain to me why we no longer have a Parliament at Stormont? If the unionist government was so united and confident how come it fell apart so quickly and so spectacularly?

It’s worth bearing in mind that at the last election to the NI Parliament – in February 1969 – unionism was very divided, very fractious. The ballot papers listed candidates for: Official Unionist (pro-O’Neill); Official Unionist (anti-O’Neill); Unofficial Unionist (pro-O’Neill); Protestant Unionists; Ulster Liberals; Independent Unionists; and a smaller collection of pro-Union independents.

And let’s not forget the pro-Union Northern Ireland Labour Party (which had won four MPs in the 1965 Stormont election and was only 8,000 votes behind the Unionist Party across Belfast). So don’t kid yourselves, or allow yourself to be kidded, that ‘back in the day’ represented some sort of utopian era for unionism and unity. It didn’t.

The Unionist Party survived for so long because it didn’t really do very much. It represented a coalition of interests – some of which were entirely contradictory. It didn’t encourage debate and it didn’t move with the times. Playgrounds, cinemas and shops etc remained closed on Sunday, because no Unionist Prime Minister or departmental minister wanted to pick a fight with the Loyal Orders or the evangelical wing of unionism.

So great was the fear of internal division that the party accommodated anything and everything it needed to accommodate – even when it meant closing its doors to new voters and acting against its own best long-term interests. The sheer wonder of it all was that it stayed intact until the mid-1960s. The Unionist Party monolith and NI Parliament weren’t undermined by some sudden manifestation of division: they were both inherently unstable because neither was capable of meeting the first demand of political evolution – adapt to new circumstances or be crushed.

I keep being told that ‘unionists want unionist unity, Alex’. But if that is true, then why don’t they vote for it? They choose to vote for new and different parties: like the UUP, of course, and then DUP and Vanguard back in the ‘70s; or UPNI, PUP, UUUM, UDP, UKUP, Conservatives, Independent unionist; Ulster Independence Movement, ULDP, Protestant Unionist and so on and so on.

Basil McCrea and John McCallister are clearly hoping that if they set up something new in the next few months then they too, will pick up votes. As I noted in a piece in Saturday’s News Letter, almost every drive towards unity results in another division and party.

The other danger with unionist unity (and I suspect that unity in some quarters is just code for ‘circle the wagons and put a Fenians need not apply sign over the door’) is that it sends out the very worst sort of message. Here’s a simple fact from the latest Census – confirmed by the recent Spotlight/BBC poll: more Roman Catholics now support the Union than have ever before supported it.

They support it because they feel comfortable within the United Kingdom. They support it because they feel comfortable in the post-Agreement Northern Ireland. They support it in spite of, rather than because of anything done by any of the unionist parties.

Unionist unity would undermine that, because unionist unity is an insular, selfish, self-promoting delusion. It may have been necessary during the passage of the Third Home Rule Bill a century ago and in the run-up to the creation of the NI Parliament in 1921, but it was never necessary after that. In fact, unity (certainly in the form it took from 1921-1963), did incalculable damage to unionism and to the relationship between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.

The political settlement we have today has a series of built-in, locked down safeguards and guarantees. It also has a veto: meaning that no side or community can impose its will upon the other. And there will be no government or Assembly here which isn’t built around power-sharing.

So even if you had unionist unity and every single pro-Union MLA belonged to a monolith known as the Ulster Democratic and Unionist party, it wouldn’t actually make a difference in terms of imposing your own agenda. It would probably make matters worse, in fact, because it would simply consolidate and cement in place the ‘us-and-them’ nature of politics here.

The Union is safe. Go on, say it out loud: the Union is safe. Run to your window and shout it out: the Union is safe. So it’s time for new thinking and new agendas for those who believe in the Union.

It’s time to move ahead rather than seeking false, unattainable comfort by jumping into the DeLorean and setting the dial for 1949. It’s time for confidence in our beliefs and position and for voices and vehicles capable of expressing that confidence. Choice is good. Good for unionism. Good for government. Good for Northern Ireland.

l Follow Alex every day on Twitter: @AlexKane221