William Ennis is a member of the Progressive Unionist Party
It’s probably one of those feelings which can’t really be described, such a burning disappointment that even tears seem pointless. I recall meeting a friend of mine who was an Alliance party activist in town the day after Gavin Robinson’s victory over Naomi Long. He smiled, we chatted, we had a beer, but I instantly recognised the mask he was wearing, the guy was actually a shell. This Progressive Unionist was seated at his desk when he experienced this disappointment for the second time, the first having been in 2011. Scrolling through the intermittent first count charts it soon became apparent that my friends and I in the PUP had failed in our attempt to get John Kyle elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Many things go through an activist’s mind at such a time. What if I’d canvassed my own street twice? Did we rely too heavily on Social media? Did our campaign lack political aggression? Was it too aggressive? Were our constituency campaigns to autonomous? Should we have spent less time in areas with a proven low voting turn-out? When, five years earlier, I failed to help Brian Ervine achieve the same goal I remember climbing beneath the bedclothes and not wanting to come out. This time I resisted that urge, opting to go and watch a football match in the hope that Glentoran’s visit to Coleraine would take my mind off things. It didn’t.
The first and starkest myth to gain flight since the election has been that this was some sort of victory for Unionism with the DUP retaining the post of First Minister (FM) and Nationalism, namely Sinn Fein and the SDLP losing three seats.
“The decline for support for nationalist parties amongst the catholic electorate could be attributed to a number of factors, but a key reason is that in recent years catholic voters are significantly less keen on Irish unity…” (from a blog by Salmon of Data posted on the Slugger O’Toole political forum on 12th of May 2016)
I don’t share this perspective. If retention of the post of FM is a victory, although I don’t see how it is given that the First Ministry is a shared office with the Deputy First Minister (DFM) with the two roles being legally and politically identical, then it was a victory for the DUP rather than Unionism.
The First Minister and Deputy First Minister shall be jointly elected into office by the assembly on a cross community basis… (Strand one point fifteen of the Good Friday Agreement, 1998)
Unionism, given the DUP’s backward yet effective deployment of the ‘vote for us or you’ll get one of themuns ’ strategy, has fallen back into the insecurity of circle the wagons politics- and so has actually become weaker.
And so what of Nationalism’s decline? Surly this is an equally farcical slice of spin? It is hard to imagine the radical left followers of People Before Profit (the party which seemingly pinched seats from the two overtly nationalist parties) marking their “X” next to Her Majesty’s glorious Union in a United Ireland yeah or nay referendum. In addition to this, nor can the recently gained seat of the Green Party be seen as a blow to nationalism.
“We will also bring forward a radical package of Ideas which demonstrates just how different and better an independent Scotland could be…” (The Scottish Greens http://greens.scot/campaign/independence )
Given the very strong “Yes” campaign in the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum by its Scottish branch it seems bizarre to witness some commentators offering up its progress as some sort of punch landed against nationalism simply because this party opts not to designate as such in the NI assembly.
The reality is quite clear, this was not a victory for Unionism it was a (self-declared) victory for the DUP. Nor was this a defeat for Nationalism, it was at best a poke between the ribs for Sinn Fein and the SDLP, a mere reshuffle of the non-Unionist pack.
The subsequent declaration by Mike Nesbitt that his Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) shall now form the official opposition has been heralded by some as a wonderful step toward normal politics. This is another quite deluded perception. The UUP and the DUP remain politically identical; both to the right of centre, both socially conservative, both exist as overwhelmingly middle-class machines, both retain a nauseating culture of self entitlement to elected office, both favour the austerity agenda, both hold education policies proven to hold back the less well-off, both share Sinn Fein’s belief in cutting corporate taxes to the cost of public services, and both intermittently claim/disown the Loyalist community strategically depending on the current news-cycle. So other than the political capital of maximised air time and the opposition’s privilege to become akin to Teflon regarding anything unpopular what exactly Mike Nesbitt could possibly find to oppose remains to be seen. Whereas, by sharp contrast, the voices of PBP and the Greens (referred to as “the naughty corner” by commentators who must consider it a punishable offence not to be in one of their preferred five main parties, another cliché which makes my teeth itch) actually do promise some sincere scrutiny.
At a recent get-together of friends in the world famous Sunflower pub (well, it’s world famous in Belfast!) a chum of mine giggled her way to a surprising confession.
“I thought you were a cert William.” She said.
“I was a what?”
“I thought you would have joined our party!”
She was, and indeed still is, a member of the Socialist Party and she and I would often meet and discuss the common political ground between our parties, usually around social issues. Upon learning that our friendship was initially, in part, a recruitment operation I opted to feel flattered rather than deceived. Like the Alliance party chap she is a young Protestant of Unionist and indeed Loyalist background. I recently, out of curiosity, asked her what the Protestant/Catholic ratio was with regard to her party colleagues. It was the cheeky kind of question I normally wouldn’t ask. She confessed to not having such data to hand but said in a way which was quite unguarded that whilst those of Catholic/Nationalist/Republican background are a majority it is “getting much closer than might think.”
The security of Northern Ireland’s constitutional membership of the UK will not be achieved by circle the wagons politics. Tribally blackmailing those who favour the Union to vote for your party lest they cost our side a place at the apex of some delusional hierarchy is a far cry from securing anything. It creates a democratic deficit which will, and indeed I believe already is, causing Unionism to hemorrhage young people who want the option of real politick first and foremost. These are young people, many of them of Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist background who favour Northern Ireland’s place in the UK but feel they have no option but to politicise outside of Unionism.
Those of us on the progressive flank of the PUP are immensely proud of our policies which oppose animal cruelty, oppose academic selection at the age of eleven, support equality for same sex couples and support a woman’s right to choose not just because they are principally progressive, but because such policies place a candle in the window. Such policies say, look folks, you didn’t need to leave Unionism, come home.
The veneer of normalisation of Northern Ireland’s political system may help the appearance of politics in the province, but for the Union to be safe we Unionists must show actual faith in it. Rewarding a Unionist party for its preparedness to turn every election into a single issue headcount is the most panic stricken display of insecurity imaginable. Personally speaking, I’d believe in our Union regardless of the designation of the First Minister. That I not only voted for, but campaigned for a minor party with no real chance of winning executive office is indicative of my confidence as a Unionist.
I anticipate the odd accusation of sour grapes. It’s a hard one to refute. In a campaign your constituency selects its candidate and as a team you venture onto the campaign trail, hoping that the electorate will approve. We had no doubt at all that we had selected the correct candidate. Even commentators such as Alex Kane who is sceptical of our party heaped praise upon John.
“Nice chat with John Kyle. He’s a lovely guy with real compassion, commitment and integrity.” (Alex Kane, 25th of March 2016, posted on his twitter account)
For three weeks we took our message to the streets, helped by friends and family. John wasn’t going into the assembly to be another generic Unionist; he was going in there to provide the voice of reason. His career as a family GP had brought home to him the reality of what kind of representation poorer families needed. His calm rational tone, favourite uncle smile, and the respect he commands across the whole political spectrum (not a cliché in John’s case) would have indeed brought back the sorely missed contribution lost with David Ervine’s passing. It’s difficult to express the emotional investment one commits to a campaign in which one truly believes.
Dr. Kyle would have been a great MLA. He would have been a great candle. But it wasn’t to be. It hurt. And if the next PUP campaign fails, it’ll hurt too.