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.

, , , ,

  • Eddie (Eamonn) Mac Bhloscaidh


    I have read this twice and I have no idea what you are trying to say.

  • keano10

    In that case, nationalist confidence must be sky high if the kind of Outreach epitomised in this year’s Feile An Phobail is anything to go by. Numerous events full of inclusion to Unionist and Loyalist culture.

    As for Robinson, I believe he is sincere on a personal level however I think he has a long way to go bring his own party rank and file with him if the numerous dubious outbursts by a whole variety of DUP elected representatives this summer is anything to go by.

  • Nunoftheabove


    And those measures of confidence within working class loyalism – what might those be and would you be as confident that the degree of confidence there would be equally high too or don’t they matter ?

    As for the comment “it was felt 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”, my suspicion is that that comment reveals a great deal more than perhaps you realize and not necessarily simply about you. Quite a pattern of that within your posts if you don’t mind me saying so.

    I for one welcome what Robinson is either doing or making a decent fist at making it appear he’s doing. It’s probably too early in the journey for his comments on, say, catholic education to be represented in an entirely fair light even among his current grass roots who, I felt, entirely missed his point, but I had the unnerving and unique experience of finding myself in agreement with something Robinson said and found the nationalist response to it susprisingly only by the extent of its stridency. It might not happen again of course but that’s that duck broken.

  • Reader

    keano10 : …if the kind of Outreach epitomised in this year’s Feile An Phobail is anything to go by.
    You are assuming that Feile An Phobail is a nationalist festival. But the website states 6 aims, and nationalism isn’t one of them. If a very diverse bunch of sponsors only got a bit of ‘outreach’ for their money, it’s maybe worth looking at the composition of the committee.

  • Obelisk

    Let’s just cut to the heart of the argument. When Nationalists do something there’s an ulterior motive, they don’t really mean it and inevitably, the bunch of incompetents that they are, they hash it up.

    Meanwhile when Unionist politicians try something similar it’s utterly sincere and/or a cleverly planned master-stroke. Hell if they’d ever have had a chance to run the place all by themselves I’m sure the North would have been a paradise on Earth.

  • keano10

    More like Paradise Lost Obelisk 🙂

  • Mark McGregor


    That’s a pretty cutting analysis of Turgon’s blog and one that should give him something to think about.

    Good stuff.

  • Turgon

    Yes indeed I expected that suggestion and it is indeed true. It works perfectly in reverse as well.

  • andnowwhat

    The problem with Robinson trying the reach out (whether genuine or not) is that the party is too diverse.

    Whilst we have people like Poots who seem to have paid the full fair and are wholly on the bus, we have the likes od Grefgory Camplbell and Jeffrey Donaldson who are clearly double dinging their tickets (1980’s reference that).

    How can Robinson present his party as reaching out when people like Campbell and Donaldson will not even counteance cases of innocent nationalist victims for example. Just look at how Campbell responded to Saville orDonaldson’s dismissal of a nationalist member of the Let’ Talk audience who wanted to discuss the death of a relative.

    How about Robinson’s reach out only to have egg thrown on his coupon by Ian Mc Crea’s infamous tweet shortly afterwards.

    Did Peter Robinson call the UVF enemies of unionism when they attacked the Short Strand? No. He had tea and biccys with them.

    The reaction of those in Peter’s, and other unionist parties, reaction to the events of this summer would leaved none but the most naive, in any doubt that if Peter is reaching out, there’s not many in his party that are supporting that stretching arm.

  • 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.?

    It may mean something a lot less parochial, his successor in E Belfast has had a bad summer. If Robinson tries to detoxify his own personal brand within the liberal suburbs of E Belfast, what the backswoodsmen get up to elsewhere may be unimportant come the next Westminister election

  • It may mean something a lot less parochial…

    I meant the opposite, “It may mean something a lot more parochial…”

  • I think theres a difference between “Outreach” and er…….”Outreach”.
    I think it is in itself good, respectful of all……and a morale booster and a good use of resources to present a shop window of wares…so to speak. It is also a process that requires renewal or changing the display in the shop window.
    But there can in Norn Iron be little prospect of selling any goods to a different political shopper unless of course the Shop has something different to sell.

    I dont think its necessarily a sign of confidence that (for example) the DUP are seemingly involved in “Outreach”.
    Have they really got a new line? Perhaps making the “union” more attractive to Catholic incomers to Norn Iron (while possible selling it as a convincing eveidence that “Catholics” support the union.
    But realistically Peter Robinsons “Outreach” is as meaningless as Martina Andersons.

    Theres nothing wrong with either Unionism or Republicanism or Lets Get Alongerism for that matter.
    All three have unsatisfactory underbellies.
    But ultimately you cant sell a pork chop to a vegetarian.
    And you cant sell a ……..er Linda McCartney ready meal to a meat eater.

    Philip & Margaret from the Gospel Hall are regular visitors in our village. I cant guarantee the reception they get on each doorstep but it seems entirely reasonable….indeed extremely in the image of God that they give us a calendar with contact numbers. Anda sincere message that they are there for us all.
    I dont suppose they get many converts. But at least making themselves available seems honourable.
    In the political context, that is a good thing too.

    Of course in the case of the SDLP Outreach……they invite people to convert THEM. Which is probably where they are going wrong.

  • Reader

    fitzjameshorse1745: Of course in the case of the SDLP Outreach……they invite people to convert THEM. Which is probably where they are going wrong.
    Is that really fair? All those dalliances are really saying is “hey – look as us, we have friends. Slap it up ye, Shinner-no-mates”

  • Alan N/Ards

    Martina Anderson as Unionist Outreach person was absolutely hilarious. Do they have somebody else doing the job?

  • I think it is fair Reader.
    I have been at SDLP Conference 2010 and two fringe meetings, where SDLP invited outsiders to talk AT them.
    Discussions were facilitated by Conall McDevitt and Fearghal McKinney.
    The only other SDLP voices on platform I heard were Margaret Ritchie, Alex Attwood, Alban Magennis, Mark Durkan and Dolores Kelly.
    Contrast this with three TDs, the Moderator of the General Assembly, a senior GAA Official, Davey Adams,
    Colin Harvey (twice), Duncan Morrow, Patrick Corrigan (Amnesty) and another lady from the Human Rights “Consortium”.
    That means I went to a SDLP Conference and heard seven SDLP voices and eleven from outside the Party.
    Thats not Outreach…..its Over Reach.
    An attempt to engage with “letsgetalongerism” which failed the SDLP in May 2011 and I would hold a tactical and strategic mistake.
    It might well (like Ritchies Poppy thing) have made the SDLP look “nicer” to unionists and “lets get alongerists” but weakened SDLP as a nationalist/republican Party which its core still is.

    No point in gaining sixth and seventh preference votes if you lose first preferences.
    Thats a mistake that a Patsy McGlone-led SDLP wouldnt make.

  • O’Neill. That’s the point I’ve made elsewhere, namelty that Robinson is more likely trying to hoover up UUP voters or Alliance ones, rather than any direct appeal to nationalists. There is plenty of confidence among unionist voters these days, but this doesn’t extend to the unionist parties who can’t benefit from any outreacjhh from nationalists as their insecurity and their superiority complex won’t allow this.