Opinion: Parties must move beyond peace process divide

UNIONIST unity is a term guaranteed to produce Pavlovian and negative responses.

This is driven by the inability of some to realise how politics can move on. Many of the same commentators who complain about our politics happily use its truisms when it suits them to kill an idea they dislike.

With unionist unity they say it is a sectarian comfort blanket or worse a 21st century sectarian bogeyman. Others reject it as their politics is driven more by a visceral dislike of different parties than belief in a set of positive values.

They peddle conspiracy theories and play on the genuine loyalty of party activists to try and prevent discussion. The former is wrong and the latter offers nothing genuinely positive to anyone.

Unionism has two electoral challenges – falling turnout and the need to expand its electoral base beyond its traditional community (without alienating the existing base).

There is the political challenge of making Northern Ireland a beacon of political, social and economic success within the Union and regaining the global presence it once enjoyed. None of these tasks are easy.

There are also shifts in voter attitude going on among the electorate that unionism needs to be conscious of.

The present structures, relationships and attitudes among the unionist parties have been shaped by the peace process. Northern Ireland’s politics has begun to move on from the politics of the peace process.

As we look forward to the centenary of Northern Ireland in 2021, would focusing our efforts on these challenges and changes not produce greater benefits for the Union and unionism than finding arguments for the sake of them?

Unionist unity could be an opportunity to create something new and better. This is its litmus test. If after a thorough, intense and constructive debate the conclusion is that we can create something better then we should proceed.

If it doesn’t then we shouldn’t. The debate itself is something no unionist or anyone else in Northern Ireland should be fearful of.

* Lee Reynolds is a DUP councillor for north Belfast, party strategist and blogger