Does Robinson’s move to the right on #flegs open a viable space on the Unionist ‘left’?

How long ago was Peter Robinson’s speech of hope?

I want us to use our powers of persuasion here at home, where it matters, to expound the benefits of belonging to the Union.

That means challenging ourselves as well as challenging others and it means building a society where everyone feels equally valued.

In promoting the benefits of the United Kingdom, unionists have a product that none of our political opponents can match.

Saturday, 24 November 2012.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. Mike Nesbitt’s shrink to grow message is working, but only amongst border Protestants, who along with the young protesters on the streets of the last two months, express themselves most disaffected with a political system that is tangibly failing to deliver on it own modest targets.

It is the instincts of that (largely anti agreement) end of the party that is driving Mr Nesbitt into the arms of the DUP, and its Belfast Agreement denying ordinances.

What has happened since, perhaps, is evidence that what Mr Robinson has been trying to do within unionism (ie catch all unionist voters from liberal to hardline) is virtually impossible, not least when your opponent/partner in government plays the ultimate tribal challenge and takes down your flag.

As Alex Kane has noted, Nesbitt has driven his boat directly into the DUP harbour. Leaving two sets of people on the outside.

One, the angry young men of inner city Belfast who see a system repeatedly gamed in a sectarian manner against their interests. Proving that you don’t need a top notch Grammar school education to tell you when you’re being shafted.

Two, the pro Agreement unionists who voted for and wanted rapprochment with their Catholic and Nationalist neighbours. For this second group, the Alliance party has been the option.

East Belfast is proof that there are still large reservoirs of liberal unionist sentiment that can make its voice heard when required. Yet there are limits (both geographic and demographic) to the appeal of the Alliance brand.

Is there an opportunity here to open up a new, oppositional space within unionism? Maybe a clean start project that has a clear and unambiguous ambition to ‘hack’ a new cultural identity out of the Northern Irish space, as suggested at the weekend by John McCallister.

That would depend on two things. One, the quality of leadership on offer. And two, the capacity of the wider population to rise above the fatalism generated by our own “sui generis” conflict

There is a further question here though. And that is the nature of social identity itself. Is it possible, for instance, to succeed as a liberal on the constitutional issue when the politics of historic division predominate?

Particularly when the current incumbents are happy to foreground and play up a hardball spectacle with political issues that more properly belong in the distant future? Without serious answers to those questions, I’m not sure there is much point in new players taking to the field.

I’m not sure I know the answer to any of those questions. But one thing does seem clear, there is a space.

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