Outreach as a marker of confidence

Reaching out or attracting others to one’s cause might be considered a friendly and indeed open concept. In Northern Ireland, however, it is often the polar opposite of this. Outreach can be viewed with the gravest suspicion and hostility: indeed it is sometimes regarded as an aggressive act, frequently deliberately aggressive. It is also frequently a marker of confidence even triumphalism on the part of the group purporting to reach out: at least that seems to be the way it is often perceived in the community to which the reaching out is directed.

Some years ago now many unionists felt that republicanism and Sinn Fein in particular were in the ascendancy. At that time Martina Anderson was appointed as Director of Unionist Outreach and a Charter for Unionist Engagement was launched. At the time this was greeted with scorn by unionists. It was felt that Anderson was particularly poorly equipped for such a role; that it was an insult to unionists and that the strategy was simply to make unionists annoyed and then present them as bigots for being annoyed at the supposed attempt at “outreach”.

It was unlikely that many unionists were persuaded by unionist outreach but there was always the fear at that time that the Celtic Tiger (now gone the way of its sabre toothed namesake) and the seeming inevitability of further concessions to republicans would lead to unionists being apathetic, maybe less likely to oppose a united Ireland. Even a few doing this, so the fear went, would lead to a further weakening of unionism and the potential for a domino effect.

To republicans Unionist Outreach might have been a more genuine concept but it was certainly a marker of a certain confidence from the leadership (real or invented). Those were the days of Liberty by 2016 and such nonsense. Hence, converting unionists (ie Prods) to the cause was simply part of the inevitable triumphal march to a united Ireland.

Now some four years later the shoe seems on the other foot. It is Peter Robinson who seems to be doing much of the talking about outreach to the other community. Some of this may be based of things like the NI Life and Times Survey which always needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt in terms of its accuracy. Mick has already looked at these issues previously and is surely correct in his analysis that there is a huge difference between traditionally nationalist voters being content (or even happier) to remain in the union rather than seek a united Ireland and them actually voting for a unionist party. As noted previously part of this may be about trying to make the union sufficiently innocuous and sufficiently clearly financially beneficial to nationalists as to make them not bother to vote against it. Part of it may be to affect any possible referendum: getting nationalists not to vote actively for a united Ireland may be easier than getting them to vote unionist. Some of the pitch may be to reassure more liberally minded unionists that the DUP is a good alternative to Alliance (as noted here by Mark Devenport).

Possibly most important what talk of outreach demonstrates is a confidence within the organisation and indeed to an extent the community doing the reaching out. It seems clear that the DUP is highly confident at this time; yet seems to be managing to avoid the perception of arrogance which cost it dear at the European elections. Having seen off almost all the TUV challenge at the last election and continuing its dominance over the UUP, the DUP are in a highly confident position. Unlike the Unionist Outreach by republicans, however, that by Robinson seems less directed at boosting his own grass roots’ confidence: whilst there are some irritations as I have noted previously overall unionist confidence is fairly high. Peter Robinson’s ambition, however, means that reaching out may mean exactly that: it is clearly directed at liberal unionists and neutrals but is probably genuinely also directed at Catholics: albeit he may see this as a task of a generation or more. This may be an extremely hard task but people have been underestimating Robinson to their cost for years. For the meantime though it does speak to the confidence of the DUP: a confidence unbelievable eighteen months ago.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.