‘The UUP should become a liberal unionist party.’
This was the advice offered to Robbie Butler, MLA by a high-profile member of the DUP during a recent discussion on the Future of the Union facilitated at Queen’s University.
There may have been an element of mischievous smugness in the suggestion, now that the DUP far outstrips the former dominant party of unionism, but intentional or not, the advice serves to recognise the ongoing electoral problems being experienced by political unionism and the need to challenge the long-term sustainability of a model of minimum choice offered to the electorate. The evidence of recent elections points convincingly to this.
A diminishing voter base is now a trend, more likely to continue than not. Unionist voters are tired of Lambeg politics and fabric loyalism when the real focus should be on issues relating to economy, health provision, and creating a shared Northern Ireland based on equality, respect and accountable government through the full implementation of Good Friday strands.
That voters, who may in the past have voted for unionist parties, are now walking away cannot be addressed through unionist unity which – in spite of local spats, personal animosities between the main two unionist parties, and minimal policy differences – is de facto in existence.
Hence, the recent comment of a fairly senior and long-standing UUP representative that he, a member, finds it difficult to tell the difference between his party and the DUP.
What chance then for the voter who, whilst pro-Union, wants a more inclusive, ethical and relevant civic and consensual unionism than is currently on offer?
This is especially the requirement of younger voters who identify as unionist with a smaller ‘u’ than previous generations and now prioritize creating a peaceful and diverse community where harmonious relationships are not discouraged by cookie-cutter labels and continuous glances to the past.
Many across the generations want the same but are continually disappointed by unionist political representatives who promise much but pledge their primary allegiance to old quarrels and narrow ideology.
An old order can crumble very quickly.
Political unionism would do well to heed the words of Whig constitutionalist, Thomas Macauley: “reform that you may preserve”.
Terry Wright, former UUP vice-chairman (who quit the party in 2013), Londonderry