Ben Lowry: There is much confusion in unionism, so here are some suggested core pro Union principles

Confirmation of Edwin Poots and Doug Beattie as leaders of their parties ought to be the start of a new political era.

Saturday, 29th May 2021, 12:22 pm
Updated Sunday, 30th May 2021, 12:14 am
Westminster. Ben Lowry writes: "We should emphasise our integral place in one of the great parliamentary democracies, in a country that is a world leader in science and arts, and our shared history and institutions such as the (flawed) BBC"

A moderate Ulster Unionist Party and a conservative DUP.

Instead, there was drama in the DUP, which reflected unionist confusion. But unionism can be open minded and generous on a wide range of issues while standing firm on these principles:

1. Challenge the idea of a ‘process’

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That republican concept of a peace ‘process’ is used to move Northern Ireland halfway between the UK and Republic of Ireland, via small concessions (ie the mingling of identity and citizenship in the de Souza campaign).

But the UK has (foolishly) agreed that Scotland and Northern Ireland can leave on a 50% + 1 vote. Spain, Canada, France, the US, do not make it so easy for their regions to go. UK nationalists have won an advantage that is the dream of separatists elsewhere. In return, there must be no dilution of sovereignty unless and until there is a vote to go.

2. Three strands must be observed

Last year the DUP let Dublin jointly author a deal to return Stormont that included policy pledges that were Strand One matters (that relate solely to governance of NI).

Doug Beattie wanted the UUP to go into opposition then.

If the assembly falls again, there need to be clear demarcation as to which political talks involve Irish officials, particularly given that Ireland pushes nationalist concerns while the UK stays neutral.

3. SF won’t get reward for collapse

Sinn Fein brought down Stormont over RHI yet its only unwavering red line for a return to devolution was an Irish language act (Dublin backed this demand).

Unionists let their reasonable opposition to blackmail be depicted as ‘both sides’ having red lines. They should never again endorse a deal that rewards blackmail.

4. Beware of culture wars

Showing proper respect for Gaelic culture such as language and sport is essential, but should not tip into weakness in the face of openly stated republican aims to use culture to secure political advance.

5. Seek friends across Ireland

The republican electoral march on both sides of the border is not inevitable as shown by the 2019 general election, and the slow SF Dail advance in the decade after 2007.

Nationalist Ireland was ambivalent about the IRA in the Troubles, reflected in Irish extradition policy, but support for the Provisionals was small. Among NI Catholics, 60%+ consistently voted against Sinn Fein after they began contesting elections in the 1980s. The Republic was even more anti. SF got 1%-4% until after the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

Unionists have rarely courted Sinn Fein critics, even those who became Taoiseach (ie John Bruton and Micheal Martin). Such leaders need support, given that elements of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael seem happy, even keen, to usher SF into power.

6. Develop diplomatic skills

Northern Ireland unionists seem to have few friends, yet the pool of potential allies is vast in England and Wales, given shared history. Scotland, even more so.

Much of the American establishment still sees itself as Scots Irish (ie Ulster Protestant). And many more are fond of the British link, despite the historic breach, and could be sympathetic to points such as NI’s (admittedly small) role in the still close UK-US alliance.

I have also seen curious visitors, who have no prior Northern Ireland link, arrive here branding unionists as oppressors but leave seeing them as a vulnerable minority.

7. Don’t let NI be a ‘place apart’

A nationalist strategy, in Scotland and Northern Ireland, is to make it so different from England and Wales as to be unrecognisable as part of the UK.

NI unionists are acquiescing in this, in part due to confusion about what is local and what is national. Core issues such as defence and trade are decided at national level of any state, something the NI protocol shatters (more on that below).

The Tory Henry Hill wants a new Campaign for Equal Citizenship for Northern Ireland within the UK.

8. Challenge misuse of ‘rights’

Gerry Adams reportedly said “what’s going to break them is equality”. Influential people of a similar mindset seem to think the citing of ‘human rights’ in court to change policy will do the same. The 2020 Stormont deal advanced a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, which republicans hope will separate us from GB and ultimately to strike down laws. No unionist should back it.

9. Don’t be mercenary about money

Money is the benefit unionists most cite about the UK but a grasping approach alienates people in GB. We should emphasise our integral place in one of the great parliamentary democracies, in a country that is a world leader in science and arts, and our shared history and institutions such as the (flawed) BBC.

10. Pay heed to history and legacy

The IRA have made legacy a priority and are turning the narrative against state forces who prevented civil war. The problem is rooted in unionist neglect of history. I attended two schools that were culturally British, yet was being exposed to text books in the 1980s that subtly pushed the apartheid NI lie (from which it is a step to justifying IRA).

11. Don’t fuel the New Ireland push

The Republic has changed radically since 1921, when Home Rule really was Rome Rule, but Brexit has also revealed an enduring anglophobia. Unionists should stop giving cover to an ‘old’ united Ireland plan, to shunt us out of a society of 70 million people into an small island unit that will align itself with Germany and France before recognising the huge historic British contribution to this island

12. Celebrate the NI centenary

The downplaying of the centenary of our country, Northern Irleand, is a scandal. But as we emerge from lockdown we still have six months to celebrate, in a non tribal way, what London won’t.

13. Reject the NI Protocol

There are strong pragmatic arguments for the protocol but they are not unionist ones. Yet Edwin Poots seems as pragmatic about the Irish Sea border as was Arlene Foster. Doug Beattie said on Good Morning Ulster this week that the NHS was more important than the protocol. Why keep unionist in the title of his party if so?

The UK has said in court that the Act of Union is repealed. That has to be the number one issue for anyone whose objective is staying in one of the greatest nations in history.

14. Unionists are not Alliance

The Alliance Party vote has risen to 16%+. But unionism on a bad day still gets 41%. Some people are talking up the Alliance surge to get unionists to move closer to a position of agnosticism on the Union. Don’t.

15. Get tough on security

See on page 12 a bid for tougher on terror sentencing in GB. Yet NI is still soft about dissident bail and sentencing. Unionists should demand Stormont gets robust on those who kill.

16. Conscience is private

Same-sex relations, abortion, etc are conscience issues. If the UUP wants to encourage liberal positions and the DUP traditional ones, they should still allow a free vote.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

Other articles by Ben Lowry below, and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter:

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