Why symbols matter to Sinn Fein

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

ACCORDING to Peter Robinson the Unionist Forum – which met for the first time on Thursday – was “the most representative group within the unionist community to meet probably in half a century”. Well, half a century ago it was 1963; the year Terence O’Neill became Prime Minister: the moment which many unionists believed marked the beginning of the end for unionism and Stormont.

One of the people who believed that was a relatively unknown cleric called Ian Paisley. In the summer of 1963 he organised a march to protest against the lowering of the Union Flag on Belfast City Hall to mark the death of Pope John XXIII. That march became the first ‘loyalist march’ to be banned under the Special Powers Act: and when it went ahead Paisley was given the choice between a fine and imprisonment. He chose prison, but the fine was paid anonymously. From that moment on Paisley dedicated himself to what became known as the ‘O’Neill must go’ campaign.

There’s another little footnote from that period which is worth highlighting. In 1969, at the last ever election for the old Stormont Parliament (although people didn’t know it at the time) 383,881 people voted for unionists of one sort or another. At the 2011 Assembly election 311,092 people voted unionist (and that was a drop of 16,734 from the 2007 result). In other words, even though there has been a very significant increase in the electoral roll since 1969 – with tens of thousands more unionist voters – there was actually a drop of 72,789 unionist votes between 1969 and 2011. Now then, that’s the sort of information which should really have unionist strategists shaking in their boots: putting it bluntly, while there may be a lot more pro-Union voters they don’t appear to have any interest in voting for the existing unionist parties.

So, when Robinson talks about the Forum being ‘representative’ it’s a claim which needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Who, for example, represents the increasingly significant numbers of people within the pro-Union community who have disengaged entirely from political unionism? Indeed, who represents those 100,276 unionists who voted in the 1998 Assembly election, but not in 2011?

My primary concern with the Forum – and I have talked to a number of those involved – is that it’s in danger of focusing on the wrong areas. I thought it was a mistake, by the way, to launch it against the present background, because it gave the impression to many people (unionist, non-unionist and media) that it was a kneejerk response to riots and protests. Yes, the leaders of mainstream unionism need to have lines of communication with a variety of fringes, but that should have been kept quite separate from a Forum to examine the problems facing the much broader based pro-Union family.

Anyway, the primary task for the Forum (and something that could have been done before issuing the formal invitations) should be in-depth polling research. Why are so many people not voting for any unionist/pro-Union party? What are the political/socio/economic priorities of pro-Union voters? What are their views of the unionist parties and leaders? What would attract them back to the polling booths? Is there room for entirely new parties? Should there be realignment, maybe even merger between the DUP and UUP? How should unionists deal with Sinn Fein propaganda? What do they think of the Assembly? What changes would they like to see?

That strikes me as a much better way of tackling the issue than a rag-bag of meetings with groups across the Province – many of whom have no mandate and don’t really look much further than their own back yards. Unionism has been down that path before: most notably with the Task Force set up by Ian Paisley and Jim Molyneaux in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. When the Task Force Report – delivered in July 1987 and recommending a strategic unionist rethink – was rejected by the two leaders, Peter Robinson, a co-author, resigned briefly as deputy leader of the DUP.

The Forum needs to be built around one very simple and very reassuring premise: the Union is safe. Every single piece of polling, research and anecdotal evidence suggests that more people are content for Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom than to vote itself out of existence and into a brand new united Ireland.

Even an awful lot of people who wouldn’t be keen to be described as ‘unionist’ (in the sense that I and most News Letter readers would use the term) seem content to remain within the United Kingdom.

So can we stop falling over ourselves in a headlong rush to jump into every elephant trap set for us by Sinn Fein and Gerry Adams’ continuous loop guff about the inevitability of unification? If you set so much store by symbols then don’t be surprised if Sinn Fein keeps gnawing away at the symbols. I don’t need a Union Flag at the City Hall to let me know I’m still in the United Kingdom (and I didn’t even know it used to fly there all the year round). Conversely, no amount of restricting the flying of the flag is shifting Sinn Fein one inch closer to Irish unity.

Let’s be clear about this. British symbols matter: and they matter most to Sinn Fein. They matter to Sinn Fein because they are a daily reminder that Sinn Fein and the IRA have failed to do what they say on their particular tin. Northern Ireland remains in the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is going to continue to remain in the United Kingdom.

So the Unionist Forum (and I really did prefer Peter’s original title of a Council for the Union) needs to focus on that: focus on a campaign of promoting the Union, encouraging voters, encouraging new vehicles, opening channels of communication to every potential pro-Union community, deconstructing Sinn Fein propaganda and, most important of all, building the confidence of those unionists who feel they are on the losing side.

If, instead, the Forum becomes a vehicle for allowing the DUP and UUP to promote their own electoral interests – while trying to buy off some of the more unruly elements of loyalism – then it will do a great disservice to the very cause they claim to champion. There are tens of thousands of voters out there waiting for a reason to vote for unionist/pro-Union parties again. The Forum should indicate that it is both ready and prepared to rise to that challenge.

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