Alex Kane: Fractured unionism needs to find its focus – and fast

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A few days ago this tweet appeared on my timeline: ‘All I wish is that my loyalist political opinion is respected just as equally as any other political opinion and not demonised or abused as others would prefer.’

The tweeter uses the ‘handle’ T.E Laurence and reflects a broader view I have come across many times. It can be summed up in a question which was emailed to me at the beginning of December: ‘Why does the PUL community always seem to get such a hard time, Alex? Why do we always seem to be considered fair game?’ It’s an important question; one that I have raised many times in this column over the last 20 years or so.

The PUL community gets a 'bad press' but many of its problems are self-inflicted and long-standing

The PUL community gets a 'bad press' but many of its problems are self-inflicted and long-standing

The difficulty, I suppose, lies in the fact that the ‘PUL community’ is not a united, coherent community. All of us who belong to it – and I do – may share a common belief in Northern Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom, yet beyond that common bond there are layers upon layers of difference, division, nuance and confusion.

The Protestant (P) element is spread across a number of mainstream denominations (Presbyterian, CoI, Methodist, Free Presbyterian) and a host of smaller branches and off-shoots. The Unionist (U) element embraces DUP, UUP, PUP, TUV, NI Conservatives and Ukip, not forgetting a whole host of others which have come and gone since 1970 (Vanguard, UKUP, NIUP, NIAP, UUUM, UPNI, UDP spring to mind). The Loyalist (L) element consists, generally speaking, of people and organisations linked to paramilitary organisations; and, in fairness to them, sustained, genuine efforts are being made to complete the transition to fully democratic standards and practices. But the process is lamentably slow.

In the late 1970s – when an effort was being made to create some coherence and a common platform for cooperation – it was suggested the various unionist/loyalist parties and fringe groups organise a weekend conference. One astute observer told me: ‘Here’s the problem. You could leave half-a-dozen parties, three or four fringe groups and two mavericks at the hotel on Friday morning. But you’d come back on Sunday evening to find eight parties, five fringe groups and four mavericks. It’s almost as if we prefer division to a common front.’

Since the 1998 Assembly election Bob McCartney’s UKUP has come and gone, along with NIAP and NIUP. Basil McCrea and John McCallister left the UUP to create NI21. David McNarry left the UUP to join Ukip. Jim Allister left the DUP to form the TUV. In 2013 Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt set up the Unionist Forum (described by Robinson as ‘the most representative group in the unionist community to meet in half a century’); it collapsed within a year. Unionist electoral pacts have been arranged, only for the usual old acrimony to begin again once the polls close. The loss of the unionist majority in the Assembly in 2017 (it’s now 40 unionists to 50 non-unionists) came as a hammer blow; and the ‘backstop betrayal’ by Theresa May, has spooked and unsettled unionism in a way I haven’t seen since the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.

The common thread since the late 1960s has been division within unionism. We argued over O’Neill. We argued over Sunningdale. We argued over devolution vs integration. We argued over unionist unity. We argued over the response to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. We argued over talks with Sinn Fein (I’m old enough to remember when we argued over talks with the SDLP). We argued over Trimble. We argued over the Good Friday Agreement. We argued over flags and parades. We argued over Brexit. We argued and we sub-divided. Go to Twitter and Facebook and you’ll find unionist/loyalist sites and bloggers arguing with each other about which particular brand/manifestation of unionism is responsible for the present mess.

In late 1998 I had a long one-to-one conversation with a key player from Sinn Fein. I asked him a blunt question: how was Sinn Fein able to move to a position in which it found itself endorsing a policy which saw it in Stormont, in a still-partitioned Ireland and with a unionist first minister. His answer was equally blunt: ‘We spent years evaluating and positioning and never moved without ensuring the overwhelming majority of our people were with us. And unionist disarray and internecine warfare made it easier for us. We were able to point to their discomfort as a selling point.’

Let me go back to the tweet at the start of the column: that desire for his ‘loyalist political opinion’ to be respected is a genuine and justified desire. It’s one I share. The problem is that it’s just one opinion within a whole host of opinions – many of them mutually contradictory – which co-exist (not always comfortably) within a very broad pro-Union, PUL community.

I have stood in front of hundreds of SF supporters at some of their ‘uniting Ireland’ events and explained to them why I could never be comfortable in a united Ireland: ‘there is nothing you could do to make me comfortable.’ I have written extensively about Alliance over the years, explaining my concerns about what I perceive as their occasionally ‘holier-than-thou’ perception of unionism and why I think a ‘significant electoral breakthrough’ is now beyond them. I have set out my concerns about how unionism ‘prefers kneejerk responses to long-term thinking’ and why we (and the ‘we’ is deliberate) are ‘too often are own worst enemies’.

I do have sympathy for the view that unionism and the PUL community gets a ‘bad press and bad coverage’. But I also have sympathy for the view that we (and again, the ‘we’ is deliberate) make it easy for our opponents. The coherence, narrative, thought-through thinking and strategy I have argued for – for almost 30 years – is still not front and centre. We are two years away from NI’s centenary; and facing our greatest challenges in over 50 years. Focus on that. Everything else is distraction.

Finally, I hope 2019 will be mostly kind to all of you. Thanks for reading me. I hope you’ll continue to do so – even when I annoy you.