“Where do you think Unionism is going?”

Currently unable to meet socially for coffee, conversations now take place on zoom or on the phone. Once we have shared our frustrations about Manchester United, recalled our memories of school days, in his case under the guidance of the Christian brothers and in mine, the local grammar school for a mainly unionist intake, we inevitably gravitate to politics. The question put to me was more challenging than John realised and is one unionists need to ask of themselves: ‘Where do you think unionism is going.?’

I needed to qualify my reply with reference to political Unionism and a growing number of individuals who, viewing the term unionist as politically ‘toxic’, prefer to designate as ‘pro-Union.’ In private conversations some elected unionists acknowledge a growing ‘problem’ and voice tacit support for pro-Union values and views but like ships waiting to see which way the wind will blow, they feel that to go public would jeopardise careers and livelihoods.  That works if you are an eagle soaring in the wind which may occasionally buffet but not an admirable trait in those who have a mandate to lead.

Political unionism has been described, even caricatured as a broad church. The choir, if there is one, produces a cacophony of discord. Whilst some prefer a one note melody, others opt for harmony both increasingly voicing different words.  In the case of the UUP, various leaders from 2010 onwards have fallen foul of attempts to quieten the din. Zig-zags and U-turns in tactics, electoral pacts and policies are a matter of record. Any ‘success’ which it could be judged to have delivered, has been short-lived. The party has suffered electoral decline in terms of Stormont MLAs and MPs at Westminster.

It is a long time since it held two local ministries and a sustainable presence in London, apart from peerages awarded to ‘grandees.’   Like most parties it has factions but this seems to damage the UUP most. Historically, the party operated as a Council of delegates from loosely amalgamated associations guarding their autonomy and resources jealously. Linkage from centre to periphery was always conditional and prone to strains; a party easier to lead than command and that is not saying a lot. The legacy remains.

Writing in The Ulster Unionist Party: Country Before Party, Professor Jonathan Tonge, one of a number of writers, noted at the launch of the book in 2019, that a significant proportion of the party does not support the Good Friday Agreement. This is a major flaw in a party that prides itself as having done the ‘heavy lifting ‘to deliver unionism as a signatory to the process. It is indicative of a significant portion of members for whom the Good Friday Agreement represents ground lost; a destination rather than a starting point. Party members may be right in seeing themselves, as Jonathan Tonge et al notes, as more moderate and less fundamental in religious terms than its major rival for votes, the Democratic Unionist party, but its ‘moving on’ from 1998, is clearly not complete.

Many UUP members continue to view Northern Ireland through a conflict-related prism and will react doggedly to what they perceive as any attempt to diminish the importance of rituals, symbols and flags to the detriment of making headway on economic issues, social concerns and reconciliation. Failing to bridge the sectarian and generational divide it produces a trust deficit in terms of confidence in its ability to build a just and inclusive society. It is ‘analog’ politics for a digital age; out of step with the vast majority of the United Kingdom and of limited appeal. UUP leaders are required to face in two directions or spin to hold on to chances of electoral success where local candidates have different views and appeal to ‘their’ constituency.

But, it is not working for the party. Increasingly, evidence shows that it is not going to work as the UUP places itself, with mild deviations, as competing for largely the same votes as the DUP which does tribal and ritualistic politics better. The party lacks a political profile of its own. Aggressive point -scoring at the expense of rivals just serves to come across as resentment. It is possible to disagree without being disagreeable. The UUP should bear this in mind. It switches-off voters focused on more pressing issues and, by association, misguidedly damages the Union.

The DUP, as the stronger of the two parties in terms of representation if not members, has had a greater claim on power but its record is far from unblemished. Increasingly its actions seem wayward with poor decision-making and under the current leader, fragmentation has emerged as never before with some insiders suggesting that misogyny is a factor. Too many scandals and lazy ring-fenced scrutiny of begging-bowl spending have produced a growing unease.

The very public disciplining of Ian Paisley Junior, MP, allied to RHI mismanagement, the ‘for the moment swept under the Covid-19 carpet’ wind-farm costs to all taxpayers in the UK, previous exposure of Red Sky, unethical management of a previous DUP Speaker’s expenses, nepotism and tactical adventurism over Brexit and Covid has damaged politics and unionism.

When self-centred government acts as if it has released itself from moral and social constraints, governance becomes a corrosive fiction. When the public, issues vital to their prospects, and constitutional preference are positioned as ‘other,’ the principle of ‘government of us for the greater good’ rings hollow.

Recently, a DUP Councillor, presumably thinking on battles ahead, posted the Latin quotation: ‘ Si vis pacem, para bellum’ which translates as ‘If you want peace, prepare for war.’ It may reveal more than the Councillor intended in terms of the DUP mindset and explain not an inch carve-ups, rage politics and the rocking horse policies which suggest movement but don’t actually go anywhere as the two major parties play out their attritional and adversarial rivalries.

The irony is that both damage not each other’s aspirations but their own. This is borne out by well-informed insiders at Westminster and individuals from Northern Ireland resident in Great Britain. Ulster Home Rule as exemplified in the DUP is seen as lacking inclusivity, efficient fiscal management and commitment to the consensual rationale of the Good Friday Agreement. All too often latent and unchecked sacred narratives, sectarianism and judgemental condemnation breaks through on social issues.

In a different way it widens the gulf as much as any border in the Irish Sea. Lacking any capacity for quality assurance it tries to solve problems by sowing the seeds of the next one and finds a willing partner in its main political opponent. All of this, along with the more quietly entrenched politics of the UUP, serves to define where unionism is and its direction of travel; but it is not the whole story.

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