SOME time today Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt will meet to finalise arrangements for the first get-together of the Unionist Forum.
Now then, call me an old cynic, but I can’t help thinking that we wouldn’t have heard anything about this forum (and particularly in this form – it was flagged up in September as a Council for the Union) had it not been for the fallout from the decision to restrict the flying of the Union Flag to designated days only.
The truth of the matter is that the DUP, UUP and even the PUP have lost control of the streets. Worse still, they have lost control of the agenda: which has moved far away from the flying of the flag and into attacks on the nature and function of the Assembly itself. It’s also clear that some of the organisers are motivated by little more than hatred of the DUP in particular and mainstream unionism in general.
Yet the fact of the matter is that the DUP/UUP have to bear some responsibility for what has been happening. I accept that their joint leaflet didn’t incite or encourage violence but I did comment at the time that “this will end badly. It will be used by some as a cover. There are elements in Belfast and further afield who feel that they have had no benefits from the peace process and who will use both this leaflet and the lowering of the Union Flag as a vehicle for their own cause”.
Well, that’s exactly what happened: and even though some UUP/DUP MLAs and other public representatives have turned up at many of the protests it has been increasingly clear that they are there as mere tag-alongs. Again, I accept the views of those who say they were there to try and prevent any violence and I have acknowledged that most of the protests are peaceful, short and trouble-free.
But there have been four disturbing developments during the past week. The first is that the organisers of the protests have established their own Ulster People’s Forum because, to put it bluntly, they don’t trust mainstream unionism to represent their cause.
Secondly, the official position of the People’s Forum is for the return of Direct Rule – the very clearest signal they could give of having no confidence in the ability of the DUP/UUP in the Assembly.
Thirdly, the People’s Forum has appointed some people to their organising committee who have, to say the least, some very peculiar views!
Finally, the organisers of the People’s Forum have indicated they will not be in negotiations with the Unionist Forum.
Those four developments should be enough to convince any elected member of the UUP and DUP to walk away from these protests. It should certainly be enough for Robinson and Nesbitt to give an unambiguous instruction to every party member and public representative that they should not be attending these protests – peaceful or otherwise – in any capacity.
The agendas of the Unionist Forum and People’s Forum are mutually contradictory anyway, so I can’t even understand why any DUP/UUP member would want to show solidarity with them.
And a word of advice to those protestors who do want to see change and who genuinely believe that working class unionism has been left behind. You are right. It’s nothing new either. For all the talk about understanding the needs and concerns of loyalism and working class unionism, it has long been the case that mainstream unionism is a right-of-centre, generally middle class entity which doesn’t make much room for working class opinion.
So if you want your voice heard on the socio-economic issues that matter to you then don’t allow yourselves to be patronised by mainstream unionism or manipulated by paramilitary loyalism. Organise yourselves. Knock on the doors. Get out the vote that doesn’t go to mainstream unionism or to the PUP.
Your concerns cannot possibly be addressed, let alone resolved, by unionist representatives who don’t genuinely understand them: or by the leaderships of the big two unionist parties who still take a tokenistic approach to your problems.
There are strong, articulate voices making your case for you – some of whom I have engaged with through my Twitter account (feel free to follow and join in). They are the sort of people who don’t have personal political or promotional agendas, exactly the sort of people you need to champion your cause. Far too often in the past the needs of working class unionism have been hijacked by others for their own purposes. The same thing is in danger of happening again.
Meanwhile, back to the Unionist Forum. I’m still not entirely sure what the ultimate goal is, but if it does involve election pacts and agreed candidates in some areas then it will just look like a unionist unity vehicle – and I’m not convinced that such a vehicle can actually increase the overall pro-Union vote. A sizeable chunk of pro-Union non-voters live east of the Bann: they aren’t voting for either the UUP or DUP as separate entities and I’m not sure they would be inclined to vote for them if they were working more closely together.
That said, there are pro-Union Assembly, Westminster and council seats to be won in Belfast (particularly south and east) which will probably only be won if unionists don’t field against each other. The UUP clearly needs to win seats, because winning Euro, Westminster and Assembly seats adds considerably to their coffers. Indeed, the loss of their Euro seat would have a potentially crippling effect on them – which is probably why they are willing to talk to the DUP at this point.
My primary concern, therefore, is that the Unionist Forum is more of a self-serving marriage of convenience (or is in danger of being seen as such) rather than a genuine effort to promote the bigger, broader values of the Union. It was, I think, a huge tactical error to launch it against the present background, especially when it was a dead certainty that those organising the protests would opt to do their own thing.
Last year, the centenary of the Covenant, ended badly for unionism. The new year is starting badly. The leaders of mainstream unionism really do need to get their act together. Sinn Fein launches its Border Poll campaign on January 19, so we can expect a prolonged (leading up to 1916), well-funded and united propaganda campaign. Where’s the counter blast from unionism? Who knows, but what’s the betting it will be the same old, reactive, make-it-up-as-they-go-along stuff?
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