A positive case for the Union: The best birthday present for Northern Ireland is to secure its long-term future
The start to Northern Ireland’s centenary year has highlighted the need for a new pro-Union strategy.
Campaign group UnitingUK is calling on unionism to help develop a positive approach that will build on and sell the strengths of the Union.
The centenary provides an opportunity to produce a new plan to ensure we sustain our position within the UK and build a better Northern Ireland for all. With your input we want to create Vision 2031 that will provide a roadmap to develop and grow the pro-Union majority view.
Recent riots and protests are, sadly, a symptom of a wider malaise within unionism. Fear of the fallout from the NI Protocol and justifiable anger at Sinn Fein’s special treatment has hardened attitudes and fuelled the existing perception that unionism is continually losing ground.
Such defeatism and negativity would become a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially if the only solution offered is a withdrawal from Stormont which will end support for the Belfast Agreement and mean a further descent into siege mentality.
It is easy to see why many unionists are downbeat, having lost their majority at Stormont and amongst our local MPs. We have seen the Irish Sea border erected, while Alliance are attracting thousands of disillusioned former unionist voters.
Nationalism pushes for a border poll with one eye on Scotland, urges the Irish government to put unity plans in place and Sinn Fein is hopeful of strengthening their position here while being in government in Dublin. From a unionist perspective, it doesn’t seem to be a very happy birthday for Northern Ireland.
Yet when we speak to individual unionists, we hear positivity for the potential and the successes of Northern Ireland.
There is a clear understanding that the Union continues to be the best option, as polls show a clear majority in favour of the Union.
UnitingUK also see an appreciation for the need to change and an opportunity to create a new approach to how the Union is promoted by appealing to both centre ground and younger voters.
A new strategy must answer two key questions: how do we strengthen the Union and how do we create a more successful Northern Ireland?
UnitingUK was set up to promote a positive pro-Union message from a centre ground perspective to audiences in Northern Ireland and across the UK. We strongly believe in the benefits of the Union for everyone on these islands and that it provides the best economic, political and social arrangement.
That is why we are asking unionism to get out of the political weeds, to look up and think about where it wants to go over the next decade and beyond.
The Union has tremendous strengths, but they need to be communicated effectively. We are seeking a wide input from political parties, campaign groups, community organisations and individuals who are supportive of the Union and want to build a better NI for all.
We have designed a questionnaire that can be completed at www.unitinguk.com/2031.
We want your thoughts on how unionism can improve, how a pro-Union message can be better delivered and how this can be developed over the next decade and beyond. What are the strengths of the Union, its current weaknesses, what opportunities are available and how can challenges be overcome? Over to you.
Unionism and its politicians need to understand the change that is taking place. We would especially encourage responses from groups in loyalist communities as disengagement from mainstream unionism by many loyalists is a significant issue.
A new pro-Union strategy must stand against paramilitarism, violence, bigotry, and sectarianism. We believe that the underpinning values of the Union must include tolerance, mutual support, and the celebration of diversity.
We want this process to deliver a clear pro-Union strategy that can receive widespread support. How that is then delivered and managed will be down to the political parties and the wider community.
The best birthday present Northern Ireland can receive is a way forward to secure its long-term future.
l Philip Smith is a UUP councillor who runs www.unitinguk.com