Arlene’s Baby Steps are welcome, but Unionism’s Outreach Journey is a Long Road

The DUP leader, Arlene Foster, has clearly been advised in recent days to give outreach a chance, and the first tentative steps in a Unionist outreach programme were visible in her appearance at an Eid celebration in Belfast and meeting with Fermanagh gaels over the past fortnight, as well as the confirmation that she will soon be attending an LGBT event.

This can best be interpreted as an implicit acknowledgement that political Unionism has a real problem with recognising the legitimacy of those from outside the ranks of the Elect, and that someone within Foster’s inner circle is advising her that circle wagoning as a strategy will no longer suffice for unionism in this age of Brexit and the rapidly changing demographics of the north of Ireland.

Yet there remains no indication, as of yet, that positive gestures will translate into substantive DUP policy reversals on the breadth of political issues that will be required for political Unionism to succeed in removing itself from the cul-de-sac it has found itself in as a consequence of the reckless insular manner in which those at the helm of unionism have conducted themselves through the generations.

Visiting with ethnic minority communities, attending an LGBT conference and sitting in the stands at an Ulster Senior Championship Football Final in Clones should not be noteworthy for the leader of the largest political party in Northern Ireland. The fact that each step is viewed as significant only reveals the massive strides now required to be taken by Arlene Foster in order to position political unionism in a place where it can begin to articulate a vision for the preservation of the Union which does not rely simply on rallying the diminishing number of Ulster’s loyalist of sons using the beat of the Big Drum.

Recognising the legitimacy of the Others that share this state with the Elect will require broadening the collective mindset of unionism to embrace a vision of the state and society as one equally reflective of all.

In a very practical sense, that’s gonna require a DUP policy reverse over recognising same sex marriage as well as an Irish Language Act in the very short term, not to mention bringing unionism to a point and place where it is comfortable with expressions of Irishness and the full range of minority voices in this society in the medium to long term.

To say that is going to be a difficult journey for unionist politicians would be quite the understatement.

For evidence of that, let’s take a look at a tweet put out last night by the DUP’s rising star in Upper Bann, Carla Lockhart.

Having read Sinn Fein MLA John O’Dowd’s tweet remarking upon the the PSNI facilitating loyalists laying claim to the shared space that is Lurgan town centre to erect loyalist flags and bunting, Carla responded with the following tweet:

In her indecent haste to reply to her political rival, the DUP representative left herself vulnerable to the charge of lacking any sense of self-awareness with her response.

Firstly, Carla Lockhart explicitly refers to a number of streets and areas that would be recognised as being ‘Nationalist’ in the same sense that many areas within Lurgan or Portadown (and elsewhere) are deemed to be ‘Unionist’ on account of the community background of the overwhelming majority of residents in a given area.

Typically for a unionist politician, Carla is conflating the issue of political/ cultural expression in what would be broadly recognised as ‘single’ identity areas with ‘mixed/shared’ space- something I recently wrote about on Slugger here.

This can only be problematic for Lockhart and her DUP colleagues as, taken to its logical conclusion, her assertion would mean the party opposing the erection of flags and other symbols in the most loyalist of areas within her own constituency and elsewhere.

Furthermore, Carla’s refusal to distinguish between communities and areas (like town centres) that are ‘shared’ as opposed to ‘single’ identity confirms a desire to dominate and reject the very premise of a shared and equal future that must be the logical outcome in the evolution of a Unionist outreach initiative.

But that would require a sense of logic and consistency in Carla’s utterances.

Secondly, Carla asserts that the presence of Republican flags in what would be deemed to be ‘Nationalist’ areas renders these as “No go areas for the Unionist community”.

I would have some sympathy with Carla regarding how the flying of flags and emblems within single identity communities does have the effect of often making those from the Other tradition feel uncomfortable.

However, what is beyond dispute is that the culture of festooning single identity communities with flags for long periods of the year is one in which loyalists disproportionately are engaged in across Northern Ireland, meaning that, with the rules of logic and consistency being applied, Carla really should be recognising the impact of such practices within loyalist communities upon those from the Other tradition, who disproportionately are the victims of this form of “sectarian marking”.

Again, that would require a sense of logic and consistency applying to what Carla has said.

Thirdly, Carla refers to the presence of flags from “foreign countries” flying in Nationalist communities.

Now I realise that the Drum Beat is getting louder as the heat of July nears, but Carla would know that referring to the flag of her nationalist neighbours within the Six Counties as a “foreign flag” is not only insulting and provocative, but it is also simply wrong. It might earn her an extra slap on the back when she visits the bonfires on the 11th Night (to watch that flag be burned?), but in terms of helping to condition her base to accepting the equal validity and legitimacy of the identity and aspirations of their nationalist and republican neighbours within Northern Ireland, it is very bad practice, not least since the journey Arlene Foster has begun with a couple of baby steps is one requiring Carla and other DUP leaders to preach respect for the flag of their neighbours within this shared state.

Finally, Carla finished off her ill-conceived tweet with a claim that the presence of a number of republican flags in nationalist areas somehow sends an ominous message to unionists about a shared future.

It is hard to logically deconstruct what Carla was attempting to do with this final statement. Given that we currently reside in the United Kingdom, a logical retort to Carla would be to point out that the presence of Unionist flags in Unionist areas kinda makes her remark look somewhat silly, and furthermore, her attempt to lay claim to shared space as exclusively British further undermines her credibility when purporting to express an interest in building a shared future for all.

The challenge for Arlene, Carla and others within the leadership of political unionism is to transform the manner in which unionism engages with the Others in this society.

The change required relates to instincts, words and actions, something that could require a political generation to get right- and that is making the rather large assumption that the unionist leadership is approaching the challenge with the necessary sense of conviction and determination.

The obvious problem for unionism is that it is running out of time.