Northern Ireland’s political future will be decided by the centre ground.
This centre accounts for 10% of voters.
Add to this many non-voters, an unquantified number of ‘soft’ unionists and nationalists and up to a quarter of the potential electorate are up for grabs in any future border poll.
The objective of unionism should be to court and convince this large and growing constituency that their future lies in a successful Northern Ireland within the UK.
Sinn Fein’s growing arrogance, their refusal to return to Stormont and reinstate an Executive and their unwillingness to compromise and admit the futility of the IRA’s terrorist campaign will not help their cause with the centre ground.
Despite the demographic change that is slowly taking place in Northern Ireland it is still possible for the Union to be maintained in the long term even in a post-Brexit scenario. To achieve this unionism must change.
It must accept that social mores are evolving, particularly amongst the young.
It needs to understand that the Union is a two-way street which requires nurturing and must include outreach across the UK and beyond. It must abandon its siege mentality and engage with non-traditional audiences across Northern Ireland.
Sinn Fein are currently making unionism’s job easier through their intransigence.
Every positive move from unionism is repulsed and Sinn Fein’s position continues to harden as they insist that unionism accedes to their ‘red line’ demands such as, a stand alone Irish language act.
Sinn Fein are in danger of overplaying their hand and driving away the middle ground who are sick of political drift and it’s resulting impact on public services.
They want an immediate return of Stormont and the blame will soon move to Sinn Fein as the blockage to progress.
Unionists must take this opportunity to widen the appeal of the Union and make it more attractive to the largest number.
They should reflect on the famous quote from Di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
Unionism is once again at a crossroads and this time I hope it takes the right road. The current narrow definition of unionism has become self-defeating and it lets Sinn Fein off the hook.
If a ‘new unionism’ capable of winning the centre ground can be developed then the Union will grow and prosper.
Philip Smith, Ex Ulster Unionist MLA, Strangford