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?

  • Ending the intellectual over-investment in the UUP as the means to any end would be a starting point.

  • Laughing (Tory) Unionist

    Second: updating ‘Open Unionism’ on slightly more than an annual basis.

  • “dropping the existential angst”

    Grassroots unionists (or nationalists) will not be too bothered about this condition; they won’t know what it means. Let’s have more plain speech for the Plain People, please.

  • PJ Dorrian

    Rather than poke fun at those engaged in this introspection about unionism we,nationalists/republicans should encourage it. Even Ian Paisley was engaged in this exercise last week, even if it was mischief making. The main point is that other than travelling further into the backwoods with, initially, the DUP and latterly with the TUV, political unionism is still welded to pre-1921.
    In the same vein nationalists/republicans also need to re-visit their politics because they are still wedded to 1916.
    As we are now in a kind of post-nationalist situation vis-a-vis membership of the EC and there is globalisation in everything from fuel to war this kind of introspection is long overdue.

  • Maybe something you guys will be able to consider on Saturday afternoon’s “blogging for unionism” session at the DUP conference!

  • Geoff’s on the panel so I expect so

  • anne warren

    Why not ask “Grassroots unionists” what they want?
    Seems an obvious starting point.

  • Didn’t know there was such a session, but can’t make the weekend anyway as I have business elsewhere – the money-making kind of business.

  • a wise suggestion. God loves us plain people. That is why he made so many of us.

  • To be fair to Geoff I think the over representation of UUP slanted blogging at Open Unionism is something he wants to address. All the conferences were mentioned. Personally I’m more of the O’Neill school.

  • randomjoe

    I had heard a while ago the idea raised of a unionist college . Im not sure what form such an establishment would take but i always thought it was a good idea , i think it was supposed to be for young people and university students interested in unionism .

    Does anyone else rember hearing about it ?

  • Hi Randomjoe, someone at the session on engaging grassroots unionism actually mentioned this college – I think they said it was floated by the DUP awhile back — but I could be wrong on this.

  • Roy Walsh

    Having been engaged with working class Unionists encouraging the development of self-reliance I think the first thing they can do is understand neither of their main political alternatives gives a damn about them.
    I once approached a young Peter Robinson, then MP for east-Belfast, seeking assistance for his elderly, working class, constituents on the Hollywood road, his response was ‘I’m sorry but doing what you want would alienate my middle-class voters on the circular road’.
    This announcement shocked me so much I instantly recorded it in my diary, so much for the Desmond Boal ideal.
    As to the UUP, they have only the interests of their wealthy, retired members at heart and kept all others removed from influence for decades, I see no indication they have changed in the interim.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Unionism is perhaps drifting because it isn’t really a political ideology as such, just a position on national identity. There is no programme, other than opposing Irish nationalism (which, don’t get me wrong, it is necessary to do, because nationalism stubbornly continues despite its total intellectual defeat, like some headless chicken in the farmyard). Unionism, in my view, was only ever supposed to be a starting point for getting on with proper politics; a shield to bat away the irritant of traditional Irish nationalism, but no more than that. So talking about unionISM as such isn’t going to be fruitful.

    But now we have an opportunity, with relative stability, to do what we should have done in the 1920s. What unionists need to do is move on to develop distinctive political groupings that are not about how unionist you are. They could be progressive vs conservative, left vs right, economically liberal vs centrist, set within the wider British context and grounded in broadly British debates, values and discourses, but not needing to bang on about our British identity. We do have to stand up for our cultural identity and so on, annoyingly – and its wrong we still have to do that – but we have to avoid getting bogged down too much in defending it, to the detriment of developing a richer set of political programmes (and we need at least two – there needs to be REAL political choice for unionist voters at election time, not just a choice of which is the best version of unionism at the moment).

    If we allow ourselves, ‘unionist’ politics – meaning politics practised by unionists, not politics focusing on unionism – can serve Northern Irish people by dealing with the issues of our times. Stuff like financial responsibility, public spending debates, what we want society to mean, how public services should be delivered and where the burden of taxation to fall … and so on. Look east and south for ideas – to the think tanks in London, the work going in Edinburgh and Cardiff and around the country – there is bags of progressive political and social thinking going on for us to draw on and adapt for Northern Ireland. Can we get on with it?

  • randomjoe

    yea i rember the DUP floating the idea, they even got quite a lot of coverage in the press a while back. A Unionist college/camp , would be a great idea anyone who considers themselves unionist regardless of party affiliation could meet and disscuss the sort of issues this blog highlights. it could be funded by rich unionists and or the parties . someone just needs to take the lead on it again …..

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Agreed – as long as they are not confined to thinking about what unionism has been and focus on developing new directions. Unionism, when it comes down to it, is just their nationality after all.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Also, I’d happily give my services as a qualitative researcher, focus group moderator and analyst for free for such an endeavour, if anyone organising the thing is reading this (highly unlikely?!)