Unionists must be tough, positive and canny

Not withstanding the large degree of disillusion amongst Unionist, Alex Kane argues that for Unionists to abandon politics just when things are starting to go their way would be extremely foolish. On a chilly December evening in 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, a woman refused to give up her seat on a bus. Her name was Rosa Parks, an articulate and educated woman, but forced to work as a seamstress because she was coloured. She wasn’t the first black woman to refuse to give up her seat and nor was hers the first major act of defiance against segregationist laws in America.

Yet in the week of her death she is remembered as the “mother of the civil rights movement” because her act of defiance galvanised Black America and paved the way for the great raft of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. She was revered by liberals across the world, and “We shall overcome,” the anthem of Civil Rights campaigners, was sung everywhere from Washington to Capetown and from Paris to Peking.

It was no coincidence that people like John Hume and Austin Currie began to agitate and orchestrate across Northern Ireland from the mid-1960s; and nor was it any coincidence that they rallied under the banner of Civil Rights. They were simply (albeit politically smartly) tapping into a movement whose time had come. Nationalists weren’t just standing shoulder to shoulder with each other in Londonderry, they were also indicating solidarity with oppressed minorities in South Africa and America, with revolutionary movements in South America, with rioting students across Europe and with new liberation movements across the Middle East.

One of Issac Newton’s Laws of Motion states that to each action there is an equal and opposite reaction. It applies equally to politics, resulting in a situation in which a majority begins to believe that it, rather than a particular minority, is the oppressed community. I have coined my own term for this, the Law of Newtonian Irony.

How fittingly ironic, therefore, that the Law can be so ably demonstrated in the very week that Rosa Parks died. The Love Ulster Campaign plans to hold a massive rally in Belfast today, to promote its belief that unionists are being sold down the river. Last Saturday, the Community Convention and Development Company hosted a conference which aimed to “develop, empower and transform disadvantaged Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist communities.”

A week earlier, a group calling itself Women Raising Unionist Concerns, told Tony Blair to “wake up and smell the coffee…we are everything to do with saving our culture, schools, traditions and Ulster.” And a couple of days ago I heard about a plan to create a “Belfast Property Company for the Orange and Protestant people…”

What is clear, indeed it has been clear for some time, is that there is a growing sense of disillusion and alienation within the unionist community. And it is something that neither the DUP nor the UUP can afford to ignore, for it suggests that growing numbers of the pro-Union community don’t trust and have now drifted from mainstream unionism.

Go anywhere within unionism, from a UUP branch meeting in North Down to a drinking den in Taughmonagh, and you will hear the same talk of government betrayal and concessions. And, although whisper it for now, I have even heard DUP members wonder if “the Doc” can do anything about it. Putting it bluntly, the consensus is that the pendulum has swung too far in favour of nationalism. It is unionists who now believe that their rights have been trampled upon and that they have become second class citizens in their own state.

When democratic parties fail, or are believed to have failed, then their voters either stay at home (which has been happening for some time) or look to other means to promote and protect themselves (an increasingly common trend in the past two years). Party political unionism is facing a crisis, haemorrhaging support at almost every level and seemingly clueless as to how to keep successive governments from servicing the Sinn Fein agenda.

But whinging alone will solve nothing. Unionism needs to be tough, positive and canny. Republicans have lost the armed struggle. We must not now allow our own navel-gazing stupidity to allow nationalists to win the political war.

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 29th October 2005

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