Alex Kane: Arlene Foster is right to say that unionists need to talk to each other. The problem is, I have heard it all before

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Addressing the DUP’s policy forum on Saturday, at an event billed as Vision for Unionism, Beyond 2021, Arlene Foster said:

“We must engage with any, and all, supporters of the Union, regardless of whether we hold fundamentally different views on party, policy or society. Today at this initial event, we talk amongst the DUP, but this is only the opening stage of this work and from this afternoon on, we must go out, talk and listen to other unionists.

“We must find other areas of common interest and common cause to work for the common good of unionism. People’s party political labels or beliefs will not hold us back from engaging. Unionism must earn the votes of as broad a coalition as possible. Some may be unionists of the very smallest u, and some may not even consider themselves unionists at all.”

I don’t disagree with a word of that. Regular readers of this column and my broader commentary will know that I have been saying the same thing for almost 30 years; practically begging the collective leadership of unionism to talk with each other and then hone in on and promote a coherent, attractive, relevant vision of unionism that can appeal to as broad a base as possible.

Indeed, in a piece in May I again broached the subject of engagement: ‘Engagement means challenging yourself as well as challenging your opponents. It means not always starting on the back foot. It means being prepared for all eventualities. Crucially, the internal debate is often much more instructive and important than the eventual debate with your opponents; because it’s the internal debate which gives you the real sense of what your own grassroots is thinking.’

Last week in the News Letter Ben Lowry accused unionists of being ‘too polite’ when it came to responding to some comments from the Irish government; while Owen Polley argued that unionists weren’t ‘noisy’ enough when it came to the dangers posed by the backstop. I share some of their concerns; but I would also add that a key problem for unionism is that there is rarely a co-ordinated, thought-through position on anything.

I know many people in the pro-Union community who do support a backstop. I know members of both the UUP and DUP who believe that the DUP ‘brought the problem upon themselves’. I know members of unionist parties and broader unionism who believe that unionism should be engaging in the ongoing Irish unity debate.

Interestingly, Foster touched upon Irish nationalism in her speech: “We must engage with those of a nationalist background. This is the strand of work that will be treated with the greatest scepticism, and will require the longest-term commitment, a generational commitment.”

She is going to be asked to define what she means by ‘nationalist background.’ Does she rule out talking to Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the Irish government and representatives from Irish parties and civic society? Is she planning to replicate SF’s ‘Unionist Outreach’ strategy?

Is she planning to invite pro-Irish unity speakers to address conferences organised by either her party or some sort of united unionist forum?

She will know that elements of her speech will have raised the hackles of her critics, inside and outside of unionism. Just two responses from my own Twitter timeline: ‘How do you engage with nationalism if you are bent on denying their identity, culture, ignoring their voice, hardening a border etc?’ ‘She should be challenging Irish nationalism. Not sucking up to it. She needs replaced by a strong male figure who will fight for our interests.’

Those responses sum up the entrenched positions of factions of unionism and republicanism: one complaining that she can’t be taken seriously and the other that she shouldn’t even be offering to engage.

I have taken part in a number of Sinn Fein’s ‘uniting Ireland’ conferences. I’ve also taken part in events organised as part of the Féile an Phobail. (And, before people complain, I’ve also addressed events organised on the other side of the fence, too, including guest speaker at PUP and TUV conferences and private meetings with groups linked to loyalist paramilitarism).

Anyway, one thing which has always struck me at SF events is the fact that they speak with one voice and promote one message. Even the off-the-record interviews or chatting with audience members indicates very little deviation from the central position.

That is not the case within unionism and loyalism. The nuances, differences, splits and disagreements are legion and legendary. Once you push people past the fact that unionists/loyalists support the Union and want to remain in the UK, all bets are off.

The parties attack each other with relaxed abandon. They don’t agree on key principles. They don’t agree on how best, borrowing the late UUP leader Jim Molyneaux’s mantra, to ‘promote, protect and preserve the Union.’

A few years ago the DUP was ruthless in its dismissal of the formal pact between the UUP and ‘untrustworthy’ Conservatives (Ucunf) yet managed to sell their own version in June 2017.

In 2013 the summoning of a Unionist Forum (with Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt as co-hosts) collapsed within months.

So, Foster is right. Unionists do need to talk to each other and reach common cause. She was right to say, “A party with a vision must both deliver on the immediate and important, but never overlook the long-term and strategic. Today is about the long-term for unionism and Northern Ireland.” But she must follow through.

I’ve heard all of this before from unionist leaders: most recently in a speech by Peter Robinson in September 2012 (at a dinner marking the centenary of the Ulster Covenant) when he spoke about the need to bring all of unionism together to prepare for 2021.

Like so much of what passes for unionism’s long-term planning, everything, yet again, seems to be left to the last moment. I wonder if Arlene even told the leaders of unionism of her plans to bring everyone together in the next few months before she released the text of her speech to the media?