Owen Polley: Unionism needs a core set of guiding principles to tell a positive story of what we want, not just what we are against

I don’t think it is controversial to acknowledge that unionism is in a bit of a mess.

Tuesday, 11th August 2020, 1:00 pm
Updated Tuesday, 11th August 2020, 1:16 pm
Unionists should try to ensure that Northern Ireland plays as full a role as possible in the social, political and economic life of the (British) nation

Unionist parties have an image problem, Alliance has gained voters in traditionally unionist seats and there is a dearth of ideas among current unionist leaders.

Unionists frequently feel misunderstood and misrepresented, but it does not help that, often, they cannot explain exactly what they mean when they call themselves unionists.

In the obituaries for John Hume, after his death last week, many writers focussed on his belief in an ‘agreed Ireland’ that included all the ‘traditions’ on this island.

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From a unionist perspective, the problem with this philosophy was that it treated unionism as a culture or identity within one Irish ‘nation’, rather than a rational, defensible political allegiance to the United Kingdom that only makes sense in a British context.

Justifiably, Hume’s outlook attracted criticism, but people from a unionist background have not always done much to dispel his perception.

Recently, in the News Letter, Jeffrey Dudgeon (‘The endgame for unionists still has a long way to run,’ July 16) and Alex Kane (Unionism needs a strategy, July 13) exchanged ideas about the future of unionism (see links below).

While they both had different perspectives, I think they would agree that, particularly recently, the sense of crisis and negativity among unionists has deepened.

Partly, this is because nationalist attacks on Northern Ireland’s place in the UK have become more virulent, but ultimately it is not up to nationalists to pull unionists out of their tailspin of negativity.

Then, there is the difficulty of making preserving the status quo seem exciting.

It is no accident that parties try to market themselves as a ‘vote for change’, even when they are linked firmly to the establishment.

It is human nature to be dissatisfied with what we have got.

I certainly would not suggest that unionists should stop worrying about the things they oppose.

The proposed Irish Sea border, corruption of the legacy process, assaults on the Belfast Agreement’s three strands, the campaign to change citizenship law here (indeed constant attempts to erode our place in the UK and confuse identity with sovereignty) — they are all important and insidious. It is not enough to look the other way.

At some level, though, we have got to start telling a more positive story about what we want, rather than always talking about what we’re against.

For that reason, it might be a useful exercise for unionists to think seriously about what unionism consists of in its most basic sense.

What are the principles that nearly all unionists could sign up to?

And, if you were starting a unionist party from scratch, what would be its most fundamental aims?

A ‘mission statement’ if you like that kind of jargon.

Rather than leave the question hanging, I have had a think about the objectives that are most important to me. Quite deliberately, they are big, vague statements of principle, but if you cannot work out the essentials, then you are never going to master the details.

By my thinking, the purpose of unionist parties in Northern Ireland is (or should be):

• 1. to strengthen the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And to maintain and consolidate Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.

• 2. To ensure that Northern Ireland plays as full a role as possible in the social, political and economic life of the (British) nation.

• 3. To encourage positive relationships with our neighbours across the island of Ireland. And to make Northern Ireland a happy and prosperous home for people of all backgrounds.

I know many of you would have things to add, or you might dispute the order and the emphasis, but I hope that most unionists agree broadly that these things are important.

The critical point is that our leaders could do with thinking more carefully about what it is they want, then they can test their policies and strategies against how likely they are to achieve those aims.

It is important too, to keep things clear and understandable.

I know from experience that, when you get politically minded people in a room, it is easy to end up with a long complicated text that’s full of platitudes and buzzwords.

If you cannot explain what you want clearly and simply, voters are not going to bother decoding a lot of jargon.

Perhaps the statements above look too obvious, or like they go without saying. But, if that is the case, why do so many people misrepresent unionism or get the basics wrong?

If there’s a proper effort to consistently think things through from first principles, then it will sharpen up unionists’ ideas about which issues are important, when we should be unbending and when we should show flexibility.

If unionism wants to reach new people, then it needs to tell them a coherent story about what it wants and what it stands for.

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