THIS evening there will be a debate in the late John McMichael’s home town of Lisburn on a document he published in 1987 on a political way forward.
John McMichael was chairman of the UPRG (Ulster Political Research Group), a body often described as “close to the thinking of the UDA”. This speaks volumes about the origins of the UPRG. The document, called “Common Sense”, was later adopted as the political policy of the Ulster Democratic Party, whose chairman was Raymond Smallwoods. Mr Smallwoods, like John McMichael, was murdered by the IRA. This speaks volumes for the IRA’s sense of engagement with political unionism at that time.
Given I lead a political party that uses the phrase “Common Sense Government” as an expression of our vision of good governance, I look forward to debating the UPRG document. The first point to make is that 11 years before the Belfast Agreement, here is a proposal for a Coalition Government, whose membership would be proportionate to each party’s electoral strength, and decided by the D’Hondt Rule. So it came to pass. The second point to strike me is that the UPRG approach would have enshrined in law the need for two-thirds of the electorate, voting in Referendum, to change the constitutional arrangements it envisaged. In other words, the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland would have been very safe indeed.
The third striking aspect comes when the authors, Messrs McMichael and Smallwoods, argued that what they proposed would release politicians from the “treadmill of ‘border’ politics” to “tackle the real enemies which confront and terrorise the whole community: social deprivation, economic recession, unemployment, the need for more housing and the breakdown of respect for law and order.”
I made clear during my speech to the 2012 Ulster Unionist Party conference that tackling poverty and multiple deprivation are two key objectives of my leadership. A third is sectarianism, and re-reading “Common Sense” makes clear that any equating of loyalism with negative values is lazy, simplistic and simply wrong. Of course, there are those whose motivation is self-gain, expressed in criminality. But I understand there are many who have assumed positions of civic leadership who bring energy and motivation, and I consider it my duty to engage, and help direct those energies as positively as possible.
There is a clear gap in capacity and connectivity between the engagement of grass roots nationalists and republicans with the devolved political process, and the disengagement on the unionist side. For me the way forward lies with increasing the capacity of these communities to address what some commentators have called the “confidence deficit”. The starting point is dialogue, like that planned for tonight.