If Unionism is to maintain Northern Ireland’s membership of the UK then it must change and evolve – otherwise, it will become a footnote in a forgotten story…

There is an old joke within Orange circles that goes, if you put 10 Orangemen into a room for 3 hours and task them with putting together a strategy on their lodge’s ambition for the next 10 years, the outcome would be – 15 completely different and contradicting ideas that all must be implemented. The results being 3 people leaving the Orange for good (2 indicating it’s gone soft, 1 citing it’s got too extreme), 3 leave to set up a new lodge calling the 3 leavers traitors and the original lodge Lundies and what remains of the original lodge is left in disarray with talk of folding. In this scenario, the Orange is interchangeable with the Protestant churches or Unionist parties and the story works the same.

In following up on my original article for Slugger, I wanted to discuss some changes in direction that I would like to see across Unionism, however, as outlined above, Unionism takes on so many different strands, bodies and opinions that anything that I contribute to the debate will be agreed by some and lambasted by others within the Unionist camp.

 

History

This may seem like an odd topic to begin with, but for me, it is extremely important. I have found that as a political entity, Unionism is too often ignorant of its history, not only around the formation of Northern Ireland but what led to this, and what Unionism’s impact has been on Northern Ireland throughout its existence. Honestly assessing and understanding the past is key to enabling Unionism to move forward in a more informed and progressive manner. Currently, when people speak on behalf of Unionism, nothing can be more damaging than when it becomes apparent that they’re unaware of their history, this is entirely self-defeating.

 

Leadership

One of the huge problems at the moment is leadership wise Unionism is rudderless. I have spoken before on my admiration for Arlene Foster’s handling of the Covid-19 epidemic, (this extends to Michelle O’Neill and Robin Swan); however, it does not hide the fact that her tenure as leader of Unionism has long since expired. The failed handling of Brexit, internal scandal, the RHI controversy along with several election hammerings and much more has permanently damaged Ms. Foster’s position. The key problem here is that a successor is not obvious, either from the Westminster or Assembly pool. Ironically the natural leader resides within the UUP in Doug Beattie, however, Doug has wisely chosen to stay away from leadership at this time. When David Trimble and then Ian Paisley led Unionism, there was always a pool of people being lined up to succeed either one, and to an extent this competition was healthy. Unionism of all shades needs to begin developing leaders within their ranks, the fact that there is nobody there at present is going to be an ongoing problem – this is one aspect that needs immediate action.

 

What does Unionism stand for?

Unionism should be about vibrantly and positively promoting Northern Ireland and its membership of the UK. Unionism is a very diverse and complex demographic which reflects the Northern Ireland of 2020. However, at present with the DUP leading, the vast majority of Unionists are left voting for this party but not feeling entirely represented by them. A key example of this was after the 2017 General Election when the DUP held the balance of power, journalists from Great Britain began interviewing some Unionists around Belfast to find out why they voted DUP? A common theme coming back was that they opposed most of their stances on social issues such as same-sex marriage but supported them as being the only viable Unionist party that could stop Sinn Fein. The party that leads Unionism cannot be driven by the ideologies of the fundamental Free Presbyterian church, which in itself is a minority member of the Protestant churches within Northern Ireland. Unionism has to move from being a regressive and reactionary movement to one that is genuinely inclusive. With some justification, many minority communities within Northern Ireland will feel alienated by political Unionism to say nothing of the Nationalist and Other camp and the Unionism demographic itself. Unionism should be the opposite and fully inclusive, these are unfortunately very empty words as Unionism has frequently failed to be inclusive.

 

Long Term Vision

I am always surprised that Unionism has never put in place a long-term strategy of where it wants to be in 5, 10, 15, or indeed 20 years. Peter Robinson once mused that Unionism would need to court the Catholic vote as demographics continued to evolve but this was never developed. We need to be looking towards the future, understanding our vision, and developing a strategy that works towards this. This should be fully created in the format of a positive vibrant Northern Ireland at ease with itself and inclusive of all of its citizens. As part of the Union, a central theme should be healthcare and the NHS and on how the current system can be improved upon and properly funded.

 

Universal Themes

What motivates a Unionist is not going to be very different from anyone else in society, key concerns are health, jobs, education, child care, the environment, equality and pensions along with living in a safe and peaceful community. A Northern Ireland that works will have these themes at its heart, it’s encouraging to see a Unionist health minister take a huge interest in mental healthcare and I know individuals have had this theme as a central plank of their agenda (Robbie Butler stands out here), however, a more overarching and joined-up approach that the vast majority of the population can buy into is hugely important. Sinn Fein in the Republic of Ireland made housing a central plank at the last election and it tapped into a universal demand. Unionism can do the same by concentrating on bread and butter issues that affect everyone.

 

It’s the Economy Stupid

The words “Fill your boots” should haunt every Unionist in Northern Ireland and it highlights a greedy one-dimensional Unionism that views Westminster as a cash cow. We have to get Northern Ireland working, which means creating jobs and an economy fit for 2020 and beyond. Difficult decisions will need to be made to cut waste and the duplication of services and we need to develop our second city. It was interesting that a Republican friend of mine who owns his own business mentioned that the UK furlough scheme was the only thing that kept him afloat during the pandemic. This has shown that being protected by a large economy as part of the UK can benefit us all in Northern Ireland, however, we have to make the economy work to show that Northern Ireland can be viewed as more than a financial basket case. However, we’re still ideally situated with a full island to trade with and the overarching protection of the UK – the economy is crucial to everyone in Northern Ireland and Unionism needs to take it seriously.  It should also be noted that money needs to travel further away from Belfast, somewhere like Fermanagh is grossly overlooked which should not be happening.

 

Demographics are not concerning

Republicans have made much of the changing demographics in Northern Ireland, however, this should not concern Unionism as it leaves a huge opportunity. The undecided/other camp has never been larger and these are individuals open to persuasion on the Union. They are going to be won over on Universal themes and not flags and aggression. Northern Ireland is a mix of many communities coming together to form a uniquely Northern Irish identity, if people feel they have a stake here, that Northern Ireland works for them, then there is vastly reduced needs to change the constitution. Conversely, if Unionism acts as an incompetent, corrupt agitator, guess what people might want to do?

 

Reaching Out

Any attempts to reach out to Nationalists etc would be seen as cynical and fallacious but it does need to be done. However, political Unionism needs to reach out to its own demographic first to find out their needs and concerns. It is incredulous that political Unionism has drifted so far away from its base that it now barely resembles or reflects the views of those who elected it. Unionism needs to have a serious in-house discussion about what it wants from its elected representatives. Political Unionism also needs to be more transparent on its actions, for example, this week at Westminster the DUP voted against weekly Covid-19 testing for healthcare workers but they never explained why and this is certainly not something that has any approval across Northern Ireland. By addressing concerns within the core Unionist base, political Unionism will start to realise that these are aspects that affect everyone in Northern Ireland and by acknowledging and addressing the fundamentals like health, education, jobs, the economy, law and order, and the environment everyone benefits. This of course is not to say that these things are not being worked upon at present by political Unionism but there is no overarching strategy to deal with them and frankly grassroots Unionism is not making their voices heard on these matters.

 

Heard it all Before

Nothing Unionism says will change the opinions of many, internal change has to happen and Unionism will have to show it’s serious by example and not by the lectern.

 

Brexit

Simply put the Northern Ireland protocol is damaging for Northern Ireland and seriously undermines its position within the UK. The DUP needs to take a step back on this and bring in some outside help to address this issue. It is ridiculous to the point of contempt for Sammy Wilson to be making ludicrous statements in Westminster before going on the offensive against Alliance councillors on social media. The lack of contrition from the DUP on the Brexit fiasco is not endearing them to anyone. Unionism of all shades needs to develop a strategy that will ease the protocol’s impact, ensuring that Northern Ireland is not disadvantageously impacted. There are obvious first steps it can take in terms of arranging meetings with Dublin, London, and including the other main Northern Ireland parties. Taking the lead on this, owning the problem and coming up with a solution is something that can benefit all of Northern Ireland.

 

Lack of Talent and Too Much Incompetence

There is the talent within Unionism but not enough, it’s outstripped by Sinn Fein, the SDLP, and Alliance who all boast natural and competent leaders and a membership that in many ways’ mirrors Northern Ireland. It’s also noticeable that Executive Ministers from these parties are highly regarded (mostly) and there is considerable new talent coming through their ranks. Fewer people want to get involved in Unionism now, gone are the days when Unionism had within its ranks David Trimble, Peter Robinson, Nigel Dodd’s (albeit damaged by Brexit), Steven King and even in recent times the underrated Ian Marshall. When Ian Paisley stepped down as MEP, the DUP headhunted Jim Allister for the role who left his position as a barrister, effectively taking a pay cut. Arguably Jim Allister is one of Unionism’s most talented politicians at the moment, however, his brand of politics will not drive Unionism forward. Political Unionism needs to headhunt new talent for its ranks but people will not want to get involved if Unionism continues to espouse the ugly image it currently has.

Also, when Unionists go rogue or appear incompetent, this has to be addressed. Sammy Wilson blaming Alliance for checkpoints at Larne was incredulous and damaging. Also, much was made of the Lisburn and Castlereagh council “Black Lives Matter” vote and some of the disjointed and at times ill-informed statements from SOME Unionist representatives against the motion that certainly caused some offence on social media. Whilst the concerns of Unionists about the actual BLM movement and its political leanings are understandable and it’s a concern many conservatives share including black conservatives, the problem is they were not clear that they fully supported black lives. This of course left Unionism caught in a trap of its own making. Unionism needs to be better and sometimes just taking a step back and presenting a more pragmatic view is the best option.

 

Change of Personnel

It was mentioned to me recently that the SDLP’s Westminster team of 2 was much stronger than the DUP team of 8. There is some merit within this statement and it perhaps arises from the fact that the current DUP team is severely damaged and compromised not least due to their partnership with the Tories. Now would be the time to change this team so that it better reflects a 21st century Northern Ireland. From a very crude analysis due to the current Westminster performances, North Down and North Belfast are beyond the DUP in any future election and East Belfast, East Antrim, Lagan Valley, and South Antrim are all in huge danger of falling at the next election. Some of the DUP team look out of their depth at times, Gavin Robinson performed very poorly and seemed ill-informed during a debate with Naomi Long whilst Jeffrey Donaldson is by no means a safe pair of hands now. This is all undermines Unionism and leaves the Unionist electorate embarrassed and frankly looking for alternatives. However, it’s not just the Westminster team that needs a shakeup, across the Assembly and indeed some councils there are people in place who are frankly not representing the electorate. There is a huge lack of females involved in Unionism and parties need more from the <50 age demographic to get involved.

 

It’s the DUP or Nobody

This has been said a lot in Unionist circles and in their current form many people will not vote for the DUP and don’t see the UUP as a credible alternative, therefore they either vote Alliance or don’t vote. There is a need for something different within Unionism that better represents younger Unionists and more specifically Liberal Unionists. When NI21 burst onto the scenes this caused huge concerns within the established Unionist parties as it represented a genuine alternative and had members within it that were relatable and reflected what Northern Ireland is. Their implosion was predictable but this left a huge opportunity for the UUP to adjust its model to capture this huge demographic and represent a real alternative to the conservative and indeed fundamental DUP. This was never acted upon and this huge demographic has gone elsewhere with many making a home in the Alliance party. Unionism cannot afford to ignore the liberal demographic, they must be given political representation.

 

Become intolerant of intolerance

We have to address sectarianism, racism and the threat of violence that can too often exist within Unionism and in no ways represents anything close to mainstream views within Unionism. For example, this week a UUP party member shared a post indicating that he was learning some words of Irish and sure enough a “super Unionist” came along with an ill-informed rant laced with the menace of violence. Such a thing happens all too often within Unionism and is particularly prevalent on social media. Sectarianism is all too common also, with words such as “taig” and “Fenian” thrown in for good measure, this is not called out enough. We all must lead by example and to be less accepting of this nonsense, it turns people off Unionism, it genuinely upsets people and it completely undermines the Unionist cause.

 

The Alliance Party was never in the IRA

When Unionism attacks the Alliance party with such bizarre and unsubstantiated statements, it hardens up some elements within Unionism against Alliance whilst turning others off Unionism. In East Belfast, such a statement cost Unionist seats on the council and by playing this card it only enhances Alliance. The attacks the Alliance party received, particularly during the flag protests are something Unionism should take ownership of. I am not a supporter of all of Alliances policies but to say they’re in league with Sinn Fein or the IRA is absurd. Also, if we’re looking to preserve the Union, Alliance supporters will hold the key, self-preservation may need a more pragmatic approach.

 

Knowledge is Key

Unionism due at times to bad leadership and also due to being whipped into a frenzy at election time with misinformation can sometimes present a case that is ill-informed and frankly illogical. Unionism needs to better investigate the facts. The paranoia over the Irish language was a key example that was utterly damaging to Unionism as it presented Unionism as being insular, paranoid, and intolerant. Many other examples can be made and this ultimately boils down to Unionists frequently being unable to put forward a solid case for the Union. For example, the bridge to Scotland sounds like a good idea, in theory, however, it’s something Boris Johnson has uttered without thinking it through and repeated to play to the DUP gallery. Despite structural engineers and experts in the field of bridges coming out and saying that such a bridge is impossible, political Unionism dismissed this and continued to pursue it all because Boris Johnson gave an utterance of approval. At no stage did anyone within political Unionism seek the advice of a professional to find out if such a bridge was viable, they just arrogantly pursued this eutopia. If a bridge can be built, I will more than happily concede I was wrong, however, at the moment I can only rely on what the experts say.

 

Education

I have made this point a few times before, but educational underachievement flows through Unionism, Protestantism, Orangeism, and Loyalism and is something that does need to be addressed. It’s baffling that political Unionism has not grasped this issue and it should be a big-ticket item going forward. With Peter Weir as the Education Minister, there should be no reason why this difficult issue cannot be tackled. Of course, underachievement from all demographics should be tackled, however, as it’s is particularly bad within Unionism it illustrates a problem here that needs to be remedied.

 

Loyalists and Loyalist Paramilitaries

When David Ervine passed away, Loyalists lost their main spokesperson and influencer and Unionism lost a very considerable talent. David Ervine represented that rarity within Unionism in that he was well informed, pragmatic, and progressive whilst being respected inside and outside of Unionist circles. With the PUP (David Ervine’s former party) now reduced to a handful of Councillors, Loyalists have turned to the DUP for direction and the DUP has turned to Loyalists for votes. The problem here is that this is a very awkward and uncomfortable relationship. Loyalists don’t fully respect the DUP and on many issues will find them aloof whilst the DUP publicly at least will not want to be seen to be getting too close to Loyalists representing paramilitaries. This has created huge issues, Loyalism feels that to some extent it is disenfranchised from the political process, and with this, there has been ongoing paramilitary and criminality from certain elements. If the DUP are representing Loyalism then it needs to bring stakeholders from Loyalism into its ranks and have them stand in winnable seats within their boroughs. Political Unionism has to work with Loyalism to ensure that they are being properly represented but also to ensure Loyalism is committed to exclusively peaceful means and that there is accountability if this is not happening. Paramilitaries are long past the time when they should be wound up and political Unionism must be responsible for this. It benefits nobody to have Loyalist at the edge of society feeling angry and left behind. They have to have a stake in a modern Northern Ireland that is solely peaceful and supportive of the rule of law. This has to be aided with political representation, jobs, education, and regeneration of their areas so that communities have a chance to flourish. Under David Ervine Loyalism as a political movement would be further along today, there is an onus on Unionism to continue this journey to a solely peaceful conclusion.

 

East-West and North-South Relations

Unionism should be more active in developing better relationships with regional partners in England, Scotland, and Wales in areas of mutual interest. This has been more visible to some extent during the coronavirus pandemic, however, if we are to be a part of the UK, we need a strong and productive relationship with our partners within the UK. For example, has anyone asked Nicola about this bridge?

During the pandemic, I have been outspoken in my desire that there should be an all-island strategy to deal with the coronavirus and I am happy that this has happened to a large extent. In Fermanagh, we straddle the border of four counties from the Republic so an all-island approach is just common sense and in no way enhances or undermines anybody’s political identity. The same can be true of trade, particularly in a post-Brexit world, businesses here need to be able to trade in the Republic and vice versa and we need to be working with the new government in the Republic to ensure that everything possible is being done that encourages all Ireland trade. This is a win-win situation for both parts of Ireland and there should be enough goodwill on each side to encourage this as much as possible.

Also, with the establishment of the new government in the Republic, a new and professional Unionism must reach out to develop a strong and genuine relationship with this government, we have many areas of mutual interest and it makes very little sense to have Unionism being hostile towards the Republic. Being hostile towards the Republic will only undermine Unionism – there is nothing to be lost and everything to be gained from a positive and generous approach. On that note, Unionism should reflect on the lack of support given to Senator Ian Marshall during his tenure and if Ian Marshall returns via the new administration, this is a link that should be better developed.

 

Remove Fear, Sinn Fein and the IRA from all Discussions

When a Unionist does something wrong, the response is but look at what Sinn Fein and the IRA did. When Unionists are asked about the benefits of the Union the conversation will make its way back to the IRA. When Unionism talks about the future it will be about Sinn Fein. When Unionism stands for election it will be focused on fear and Sinn Fein. If political Unionism was a human then the prognosis would be a trip to the doctors or even the psychiatrist. This is an unhealthy and hugely unappealing attribute within Unionism, we are so focused on what we don’t want that we end up being bereft of any ideas on what we do want. Fear along with “IRA” and “Sinn Fein” should be removed from all discussions concerning Unionism’s future.

 

It Won’t Happen in my Lifetime

Radically I almost think a referendum on Irish unification is needed to generate a productive discussion on the future of Northern Ireland. As Unionism is no longer the majority in Northern Ireland, I have no idea why Unionists continually indicate that unification “won’t happen in my lifetime”. It is based on a false premise and completely ignores the changing landscape. At the moment if a referendum was called Unionism would play “project fear”, that almost caused Scotland to leave the UK and played a huge role in Brexit. I dread to think of the outcome here if such a card was played. We need to take seriously the possibility of unification and work towards averting it and that involves developing a positive case that is not based on fear.

 

Conclusion

As I indicated in the opening paragraph, agreeing a plan that the bulk of Unionism can sign up to will be hugely difficult and that is not taking into account what non-Unionists will think. This article will likely attract its fair share of criticism. However, as a Unionist, I feel the current direction of travel is unsustainable and damaging. With poor leadership and no strategy, Unionism has retreated to living as a community in fear, reacting to events that are increasingly out of its control. If Unionism is to maintain Northern Ireland’s membership of the UK then it must change and evolve – otherwise, it will become a footnote in a forgotten story.

Good old North wind.. January 1st 1801” by fernando butcher is licensed under CC BY