Even watching Glentoran didn’t help!

William Ennis is a member of the Progressive Unionist Party

It’s probably one of those feelings which can’t really be described, such a burning disappointment that even tears seem pointless. I recall meeting a friend of mine who was an Alliance party activist in town the day after Gavin Robinson’s victory over Naomi Long. He smiled, we chatted, we had a beer, but I instantly recognised the mask he was wearing, the guy was actually a shell. This Progressive Unionist was seated at his desk when he experienced this disappointment for the second time, the first having been in 2011. Scrolling through the intermittent first count charts it soon became apparent that my friends and I in the PUP had failed in our attempt to get John Kyle elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Many things go through an activist’s mind at such a time. What if I’d canvassed my own street twice? Did we rely too heavily on Social media? Did our campaign lack political aggression? Was it too aggressive? Were our constituency campaigns to autonomous? Should we have spent less time in areas with a proven low voting turn-out? When, five years earlier, I failed to help Brian Ervine achieve the same goal I remember climbing beneath the bedclothes and not wanting to come out. This time I resisted that urge, opting to go and watch a football match in the hope that Glentoran’s visit to Coleraine would take my mind off things. It didn’t.

The first and starkest myth to gain flight since the election has been that this was some sort of victory for Unionism with the DUP retaining the post of First Minister (FM) and Nationalism, namely Sinn Fein and the SDLP losing three seats.

“The decline for support for nationalist parties amongst the catholic electorate could be attributed to a number of factors, but a key reason is that in recent years catholic voters are significantly less keen on Irish unity…” (from a blog by Salmon of Data posted on the Slugger O’Toole political forum on 12th of May 2016)

I don’t share this perspective. If retention of the post of FM is a victory, although I don’t see how it is given that the First Ministry is a shared office with the Deputy First Minister (DFM) with the two roles being legally and politically identical, then it was a victory for the DUP rather than Unionism.

The First Minister and Deputy First Minister shall be jointly elected into office by the assembly on a cross community basis… (Strand one point fifteen of the Good Friday Agreement, 1998)

Unionism, given the DUP’s backward yet effective deployment of the ‘vote for us or you’ll get one of themuns ’ strategy, has fallen back into the insecurity of circle the wagons politics- and so has actually become weaker.
And so what of Nationalism’s decline? Surly this is an equally farcical slice of spin? It is hard to imagine the radical left followers of People Before Profit (the party which seemingly pinched seats from the two overtly nationalist parties) marking their “X” next to Her Majesty’s glorious Union in a United Ireland yeah or nay referendum. In addition to this, nor can the recently gained seat of the Green Party be seen as a blow to nationalism.

“We will also bring forward a radical package of Ideas which demonstrates just how different and better an independent Scotland could be…” (The Scottish Greens http://greens.scot/campaign/independence )
Given the very strong “Yes” campaign in the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum by its Scottish branch it seems bizarre to witness some commentators offering up its progress as some sort of punch landed against nationalism simply because this party opts not to designate as such in the NI assembly.

The reality is quite clear, this was not a victory for Unionism it was a (self-declared) victory for the DUP. Nor was this a defeat for Nationalism, it was at best a poke between the ribs for Sinn Fein and the SDLP, a mere reshuffle of the non-Unionist pack.

The subsequent declaration by Mike Nesbitt that his Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) shall now form the official opposition has been heralded by some as a wonderful step toward normal politics. This is another quite deluded perception. The UUP and the DUP remain politically identical; both to the right of centre, both socially conservative, both exist as overwhelmingly middle-class machines, both retain a nauseating culture of self entitlement to elected office, both favour the austerity agenda, both hold education policies proven to hold back the less well-off, both share Sinn Fein’s belief in cutting corporate taxes to the cost of public services, and both intermittently claim/disown the Loyalist community strategically depending on the current news-cycle. So other than the political capital of maximised air time and the opposition’s privilege to become akin to Teflon regarding anything unpopular what exactly Mike Nesbitt could possibly find to oppose remains to be seen. Whereas, by sharp contrast, the voices of PBP and the Greens (referred to as “the naughty corner” by commentators who must consider it a punishable offence not to be in one of their preferred five main parties, another cliché which makes my teeth itch) actually do promise some sincere scrutiny.

At a recent get-together of friends in the world famous Sunflower pub (well, it’s world famous in Belfast!) a chum of mine giggled her way to a surprising confession.

“I thought you were a cert William.” She said.

“I was a what?”

“I thought you would have joined our party!”

She was, and indeed still is, a member of the Socialist Party and she and I would often meet and discuss the common political ground between our parties, usually around social issues. Upon learning that our friendship was initially, in part, a recruitment operation I opted to feel flattered rather than deceived. Like the Alliance party chap she is a young Protestant of Unionist and indeed Loyalist background. I recently, out of curiosity, asked her what the Protestant/Catholic ratio was with regard to her party colleagues. It was the cheeky kind of question I normally wouldn’t ask. She confessed to not having such data to hand but said in a way which was quite unguarded that whilst those of Catholic/Nationalist/Republican background are a majority it is “getting much closer than might think.”

The security of Northern Ireland’s constitutional membership of the UK will not be achieved by circle the wagons politics. Tribally blackmailing those who favour the Union to vote for your party lest they cost our side a place at the apex of some delusional hierarchy is a far cry from securing anything. It creates a democratic deficit which will, and indeed I believe already is, causing Unionism to hemorrhage young people who want the option of real politick first and foremost. These are young people, many of them of Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist background who favour Northern Ireland’s place in the UK but feel they have no option but to politicise outside of Unionism.
Those of us on the progressive flank of the PUP are immensely proud of our policies which oppose animal cruelty, oppose academic selection at the age of eleven, support equality for same sex couples and support a woman’s right to choose not just because they are principally progressive, but because such policies place a candle in the window. Such policies say, look folks, you didn’t need to leave Unionism, come home.

The veneer of normalisation of Northern Ireland’s political system may help the appearance of politics in the province, but for the Union to be safe we Unionists must show actual faith in it. Rewarding a Unionist party for its preparedness to turn every election into a single issue headcount is the most panic stricken display of insecurity imaginable. Personally speaking, I’d believe in our Union regardless of the designation of the First Minister. That I not only voted for, but campaigned for a minor party with no real chance of winning executive office is indicative of my confidence as a Unionist.

I anticipate the odd accusation of sour grapes. It’s a hard one to refute. In a campaign your constituency selects its candidate and as a team you venture onto the campaign trail, hoping that the electorate will approve. We had no doubt at all that we had selected the correct candidate. Even commentators such as Alex Kane who is sceptical of our party heaped praise upon John.

“Nice chat with John Kyle. He’s a lovely guy with real compassion, commitment and integrity.” (Alex Kane, 25th of March 2016, posted on his twitter account)

For three weeks we took our message to the streets, helped by friends and family. John wasn’t going into the assembly to be another generic Unionist; he was going in there to provide the voice of reason. His career as a family GP had brought home to him the reality of what kind of representation poorer families needed. His calm rational tone, favourite uncle smile, and the respect he commands across the whole political spectrum (not a cliché in John’s case) would have indeed brought back the sorely missed contribution lost with David Ervine’s passing. It’s difficult to express the emotional investment one commits to a campaign in which one truly believes.
Dr. Kyle would have been a great MLA. He would have been a great candle. But it wasn’t to be. It hurt. And if the next PUP campaign fails, it’ll hurt too.

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  • Teddybear

    PUP still think what the UVF did was justified. Therefore they’re as bad as SF in my eyes. Plus they are anti Christian in their support of baby murder (aka abortion) and the corruption of marriage.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    I also feel the pain of the article. It is difficult to see where the PUP goes from here ? Obviously with future Assembly Elections being reduced to 5 MLAs per consituency it’s current vote base would not even count in such an election. I even think that it will be a struggle to hold onto it’s council seats with current unionist voting patterns. One option maybe to throw it’s full hat into the Loyalist Community Council and see if this can be a vehicle and tool to represent political loyalism. I for one do not wish to see such political opinion thrown into a wilderness of hopelessness. Whatever the PUP decide to do in the future good luck to them and here is one person who voted for them and their policies.

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    “The UUP and the DUP remain politically identical”

    William, I think perhaps you’ve been seeing what you expect to see rather than the reality. There are multiple outspoken UUP reps who are pro equal marriage, pro abortion reform, pro MSM blood donation. The party has a position of remaining in the EU. Their approach to education is different to DUP, they also have a much greater emphasis on mental health than their DUP counterparts. There are other differences also. I for one am greatly looking forward to seeing even more breathing space between the 2 dominant unionist parties, opposition will be a great medium to highlight this.

  • Brendan Heading

    These are all facts, but things like the pact in 2015 and the joint UUP/DUP action over the flag on the city hall feed the notion that these are two parties that represent a fundamentally similar vision. The UUP’s failed attempt to scare everyone with the fear of a resurgent IRA by walking out of the executive was not an appeal to constructive or moderate voices in the community.

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    Not refuting that BH, but at some point if we want our politics to move forward, we either need to stop hanging all of the stuff that has come to pass around the necks of political parties, or get completely new parties. I agree that the unionist pact was a terrible thing, I abhor it completely.

  • Brendan Heading

    I’ve no fundamental problem with William’s article or the message within it (although there are parts I disagree with), and I feel sorry for the activists whose hopes were dashed, but my overall feeling during and after the election is that it didn’t feel as if the PUP were really that anxious to win a seat; a combination of complacency and indifference.

    I’m also not too sure how coherent the PUP’s message is. The leaflet I got from the PUP’s candidate here in East Antrim mostly emphasised protecting cultural rights and the problems with education in working class communities, augmented with a throwaway tribute to the NHS. It said nothing about the PUP’s emphasis on progressive matters – abortion, empowering women, marriage equality and so on. I also find the idea that unionists should have nothing to fear from a nationalist first minister – which is a pretty much a fact – to be inconsistent with the message that implementing designated days on City Hall marks the beginning of the end of the union.

  • Brendan Heading

    I’m up for moving forward but the pact was one year ago. They can’t just announce a policy like that and then expect everyone to simply forget about it 12 months later on the basis that politics needs to move forward. The pact fundamentally exposed the values of the UUP and its leadership.

  • sk

    The leader of the PUP reckons he “protected the union” by murdering two unarmed people on their way to work.

    Some prominent PUP literature during this campaign featured photos of the aforementioned psychopath squaring up to various republicans, with a tagline of “only the PUP stands up for you”, or something to that effect.

    There’s nothing progressive about them.

  • Nimn

    Everyone seems to agree that John Kyle is a thoroughly decent man. Perhaps the issue is that he is in the PUP which was and remains close to the UVF, an organisation which is still active in criminality, drug dealing, extortion, racketeering, intimidation and violence within Loyalist communities. It is difficult for many people to reconcile the PUP as champions of the marginalised in Loyalist areas, when the party at its kindest demonstrates an ambivalence to UVF criminal activities, particularly peddling drugs within their own communities.
    In areas where the UVF are active, speaking out can have dangerous consequences.
    In the privacy of the ballot box, where intimidation cannot reach, these same communities provided their real answer to the PUP – we don’t want you representing us.

  • Lee

    Watching the Glens rarely helps these days! Maybe with Kernaghan’s clearout we might have a better season next year.
    I gave PUP a preference which would have counted. I was disappointed Kyle didn’t get in. I feel the PUP does at least engage working class unionists.
    But there is a contradiction at the heart of the party. It cannot expect to champion the unionist working classes on one hand while the loyalist paramilitaries it has vague links to (I still don’t really understand just how closely or what the connections actually are), while such paramilitaries suck the life out of areas.
    Do parents STILL have to take their kids to school walking past the obscene 2 murals of UVF gunmen at Dee St junction?
    William, perhaps if the liberal wing of the PUP ‘did a Dawn Purvis’ and split to form a working class socialist unionist party which embraced the immigrants it might do alright? I’m sure this thought has crossed Julie Ann Corrs mind

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