Even Unionist leaders must lead

You can see the dilemma facing unionism especially the UUs, from recent articles by two of the most seasoned observers of unionism around. Looking back at the Ulster Unionist record as Tom Elliot takes over, Ed Curran dismisses fashionable media opinion (whatever that is) and believes the Fermanagh man may be the right leader for the “mainstream conservative church going Protestant rather than the secular liberal.” And so he may be. Ed points meaningfully to Jim Molyneaux’s long tenure from 1979 to 1995.

As Sovereign Master of the Royal Black Institution and an arch-conservative, he held his party together on traditional unionist values of loyalty to Queen and country. I remember asking Molyneaux one Friday afternoon in the party’s old HQ in Glengall Street how he managed to keep Paisley at bay. He replied: “I simply ‘out-Right’ him.”

Molyneaux, the most personally decent of men, (now 90)  elevated dithering into an art form without managing to conceal the split in his party between the devolutionists and integrationists. And until 1985, he was spared the ordeal of a serious Initiative (if we discount, as we surely must, the farce of the Prior Assembly in the wake of the hunger strike). How unionists used to dread Initiatives!

O’Neill, Faulkner, and finally Trimble, all comparative activists, fell like ninepins and the hopes and needs of at least two generations were squandered . But so also fell Jim Molyneaux in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish agreement and the first public stirrings of the peace process. Unionists began to realise they needed to negotiate ( P Robinson very much included).  Jim was no longer the man.

So immobilism may have its attractions but it isn’t the answer. Powersharing came 35 years after it was first mooted, and was accepted only grudgingly by unionists. Every leader who moved an inch either took the Damascus road or was Nixon going to China. And then was slung out for his trouble. So even was Paisley,  although in a muffled sort of way. The DUP share much with the UUs, ” the heavy lifters, ” but have always learned from their worst  mistakes. 

While these days unionists in both parties turned their backs on the leaders who accepted powersharing, they nonetheless have accepted their legacy – as if they knew they were right but hated them and themselves for it.   How much better they might have faired if they’d held together and blamed Adams and Co more than they blamed Trimble (for all his lack of party management skills).

We can understand the doubts and hesitations (although the opportunism of the DUP was deeply unattractive.) But  immobilism is hardly the most attractive face to present to voters. With the political deal more or less sealed, something has gone out of the old dynamics on both sides. Professor Henry Patterson put it like this in the Newsletter.

If the Union is secure then unionism is too often reduced to the narrow sectarian imperative of making sure that the ‘Shinners’ do not get too much their own way. The result is certainly not ‘civic’ and it is clearly not very electorally appealing either.”

“Civic unionism” I take to refer to the thousands of   pragmatic Protestants who had public sector jobs under the old system or were identifiably  “moderate” unionists in business. For years such people wouldn’t have been seen dead admitting to voting DUP, similarly public sector nationalists for Sinn Fein. Is this still true? Do they vote a little shamefacedly for the m or not at all?

If so, there is a serious gap between the majority parties and the nomenklatura, the elite. This may go some way to explain the scarcity of ideas for modern government common to all parties, except to some extent, Alliance.

Tom Elliot joins the other leaders. So are they all, all in favour of a shared future now, as they are all, all honourable women and men. It is not enough to typify your voters; you have asked to lead them. Lip service is not enough for task ahead. “Civic unionism” is not enough. It’s surely “civic politics” now.  I’ll be reviewing the approach recommended by Oxford Economics when it starts raining again.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London