Terry Wright: For any ‘new unionism’ to succeed it needs to be new, not just politically expedient talk

This letter from the former Ulster Unionist Terry Wright appeared in today’s print edition of the News Letter but the last line was mistakenly edited out, as was his name:

Monday, 4th November 2019, 3:17 pm
Talk of new generation unionism has echoes of a speech by former DUP leader Peter Robinson in Donegal

‘Everything needs to change so everything can stay the same.’

These words are spoken by Tancredi, one of the characters in the Italian novel ‘The Leopard,’ written by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampadusa.

The story is set in a time of political upheaval in the history of Italy, in particular Sicily, where the plot is set.

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The main character, used to privilege and power but now facing unwanted change, must choose between upholding the mantras of the past or breaking with tradition to secure continuity.

It would not be appropriate to stretch comparisons too far or allow cynicism to cloud judgement but has this more than a passing resonance with Northern Ireland where we are asked to welcome the launch of ‘new generation unionism’ by the leader of the DUP?

With echoes of what former DUP leader Peter Robinson said in a speech in the Titanic Quarter, the essence of this latest initiative gravitates around building a collaborative vision with unionists of all shades and backgrounds through acknowledging that unionism is multi-layered with different cultural strands.

Begging the question as to what politicians when fully employed have been doing up to now, there is also a desire to re-invigorate political debate around issues of education, health and the economy. Gone it seems are the days of ‘curry my yoghurt’ and ‘crocodiles.’

Whilst encouraging to note belated recognition that the reality in the community is different to the conversation that the DUP has been trying to dominate, this fresh start modernism will need to fare much better than previous attempts and unless addressed, could founder in the political mire into which political unionism has been dragged.

This new generation unionism will be suffocated by the legacy of the well-documented issues of Spads, RHI, exotic holidays, misuse of expenses which led to court cases and the arrogant denial of the views of the community on Brexit.

These have not gone away, you know and will not be absolved by initiatives that suggest more than a tinge of political expediency in the hope that if things have to change, they can stay the same.

Honest remorse would lay a more solid foundation.

Large swathes of the so-called unionist but now more pro-Union constituency have already moved on. Tired of relatives having to wait unacceptably long times for healthcare; faced with the financial uncertainty of Brexit and the massaging of employment figures which classify 16 hours a week as a full-time job; and having to help family members who cannot afford their own homes or ,in some cases, cope with high childcare costs ,they will not parade blindly to the ballot box.

In the absence of devolved government, alternative leaderships have emerged on culture, social enterprise, peace-building and inter-community reconciliation.

Organisations are acquiring the tools and doing the job. Banishing the old unionist stereotypes for good, they work across the communities, with LBGT, multi-ethnic groups, in schools and bring professional expertise to festivals and inter-community projects

Prepared to challenge their own issues and perceptions they engage in dialogue and lead collaboration on conflict, the past and old prejudices. When problems and differences occur, they are addressed and not allowed to become a barrier to a better future. They are attuned to the community.

Welcome to new generation unionism.

Any leopard seeking to engage should be prepared to change its spots.

Terry Wright, Londonderry