PI Camp: Engaging Grassroots Unionism?

There was much soul-searching at Slugger’s Political Innovation (Un)Conference session on ‘How can greater grassroots engagement be advanced in unionism? What is the best means to set the agenda?’

This session was led by Geoff McGimpsey of the Open Unionism blog. McGimpsey said he had hoped the blog would in itself encourage greater grassroots engagement, but now he wanted new ideas to ramp up this process. Among his suggestions was a fringe event to get people talking, perhaps on the edge of the upcoming Ulster Unionist Party Conference.

McGimpsey said that he wanted first to engage people who are already involved with the unionist parties, then move on to the great political unreached.

Beyond that, the conversation was an object lesson in the diversity among unionism. There was not much actual discussion about engaging grassroots unionism, except a couple of suggestions such as trying to unite unionists around issues like improving Belfast’s airports or the A5 road. (This prompted me to ask myself – why would only so-called unionists be interested in those issues?)

In a post on Open Unionism not so long ago, ‘Unionist Lite’ pinpointed the difficulty with all this diversity within unionism, referring to ‘progressive / civic / liberal / UK / new / non-cultural* Unionism’ and saying that ‘all the various descriptions’:

illustrates one of the fundamental initial problems with trying to deal with the topic: whilst there may be overlapping between the categories, beliefs and policies may not always be common or shared between the different groups and individuals, e.g. it would seem that my thoughts on the economy (and probably following on from that attitude towards the Conservatives) would vary widely from others who might describe themselves as Progressives. Civic Unionists would not necessarily adopt the same social liberal positions as I would on such subjects as women’s reproduction rights.

When conversation gets bogged down on these differences, it raises a rather obvious question: do we want ever more ‘engagement’ (or talking in circles) about what unionism is? Or can unionists afford to set that aside and try and engage people on ‘real issues?’

In Maine, where I am from, there is a stock phrase that curmudgeonly locals sometimes use when tourists ask them for directions: ‘You can’t get there from here.’ There’s a similar phrase used on this island: ‘I wouldn’t start from here.’

I wonder if the goal of ‘engaging grassroots unionism’ is somehow the wrong place to start? Can McGimpsey and Co. get where they want by framing their agenda in terms of unionism or does this simply doom them to paralysing navel-gazing?

I think so, and I think structurally linking their discussion to an event like the Ulster Unionist Party conference (even if it is on the fringe), ties them unnecessarily and unproductively to unionist party politics.

If you want to get to a place where the great masses of apathetic unionists are interested in politics, I think the first step is dropping the existential angst about unionism.

Part of the rationale of the Political Innovation event was to stimulate thinking about alternative ways to do politics, beyond the unionist-nationalist divide.

In fairness, discussion about this has been happening on the Open Unionism blog. In the same post I referenced earlier, Unionist Lite recommended that unionists consider a set of five basic targets, which included ‘reducing the importance of communalism in Unionist politics’, eventually leading to ‘the removal of the constitutional issue and (by logical extension) the Northern Irish Unionist parties from the equation.’

Maybe that’s something the apathetic souls at the grassroots of unionism could get excited about?

Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com