Unionism needs to get off its knees and show some vision

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

Why does unionism insist on seeing almost everybody else as the enemy? Why is it so prone to factionalism and in-fighting?

I remember a UUP member telling me years ago that if you sent the leaders of all of the unionist parties into a room for a meeting on unity and co-operation an extra two parties would emerge at the end of it: and then every single party would issue a press release blaming everybody else for the lack of progress and cooperation.

Squabbling, sub-dividing, finger-pointing and navel-gazing – that seems to be what unionism does best: that and shedding votes faster than a mangy dog sheds hair.

So let me give Peter, Mike, Jim, David, Billy, Basil and Irwin (and any other unionist party leader who may emerge overnight) a reality check. In the 2011 Assembly election the combined unionist vote was a shade under 46 per cent.

More important, there are just 56 pro-Union MLAs, giving them a majority of only two. In other words, a loss of even one per cent of the overall vote, linked to more shredding of the vote due to the usual intra-party ding-dongs, could result in the loss of that pro-Union majority in 2016.

That may not seem all that important, particularly if the DUP clings on to the top dog spot (which I think is likely in 2016), but it will be another little fillip for those who believe that the march of history is against unionists: an Assembly which doesn’t actually have a pro-Union majority – even if there is a DUP First Minister – will cause psychological shudders within the broad pro-Union family and lead, as it almost always does, to the wrong response.

Here’s the real problem for unionism: a substantial body of evidence suggests that a comfortable majority of people within Northern Ireland are reasonably content to remain within the United Kingdom. Yet the number of people choosing to vote for pro-Union parties continues to fall.

That doesn’t make sense, does it? Well, it does make sense if you are prepared to draw the conclusion that increasing numbers of people do not trust the present unionist parties to champion the sort of unionism that matters to them.

So while they will be prepared to vote yes in any border poll which asks them if they wish to remain in the United Kingdom, they will not be prepared to vote for any of the unionist parties offering their wares at council, Assembly and general elections.

That’s not good for unionism and it’s certainly not good for the Union. Indeed, it suggests that the Union survives despite rather than because of the efforts of the pro-Union parties. Actually, I’d go further than that and argue that the various unionist parties spend so much time focusing on the negative aspects of politics here that they are in real danger of forgetting what is supposed to be their primary task – namely, promoting the values and benefits of the United Kingdom.

My concern is that unionism still seems keener to emphasise what makes Northern Ireland different rather than what makes it the same. It still goes down this very peculiar, very narrow path that continues to make Northern Ireland look like a place apart rather than a place which is fully folded into the broader pan-UK family.

It still wraps itself in its own culture and identity, managing to exclude people in Northern Ireland as well as people in England, Scotland and Wales. For all the talk about being better off together unionism still conveys the impression that, at the end of the day, it still prefers its own company to that of others.

The UUP and DUP have both talked about the need to break down barriers and to put in place the structures for a genuinely pluralist, sharing society. They have both condemned our present education system, a system which encourages division from almost day one of schooling. But where’s the grand blueprint for that change. Where are the big meaty policy speeches?

Where are the nuts and bolts of the new era structures for Northern Ireland, let alone the agenda and vision to encourage the next generation of pro-Union supporters?

There is absolutely nothing on offer, because the DUP is too concerned with keeping someone in the First Minister’s office, while the UUP is running around trying to find something – anything, it seems – to save itself from further electoral decline.

There are no votes to be had in simply trying to survive each election cycle. You need vision for survival. If you believe that the Union is safe then build the sort of unionism which attracts voters. If you’re serious about the benefits of a multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural United Kingdom then start identifying and promoting those benefits.

I am sick to death of a unionism which peddles fear and insecurity. I am sick to death of a unionism which convinces itself that Sinn Fein is winning. I am sick to death of a unionism which measures itself against all the wrong standards and then falls into every single trap set for it.

People want a reason to vote for the Union. They want arguments and agendas which inspire them. They don’t want a unionism which seems permanently spooked by what Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly say and do. They don’t want a unionism which panders to every new offshoot which imagines itself victimised and hard done by. They don’t want a unionism which constantly tells them that every day is a struggle for survival.

Unionism needs to get off its knees. Northern Ireland is in the United Kingdom because a majority of people want it to be in the United Kingdom. So let’s start from that premise and move on. This is not about a battle a day against Sinn Fein.

It’s about building a form of unionism that makes Sinn Fein’s dream of Irish unity increasingly difficult to sustain. That doesn’t require negativity and fear: instead, it requires confidence and fresh thinking.

A unionism which keeps Northern Ireland a place apart is a unionism which will, eventually, destroy itself.