Is the assertion by Gavin Robinson MP in the Irish News, supported by parliamentary colleagues in the Belfast Telegraph, that Unionism needs to find ways to ‘augment, enhance and solidify the Union’ a wake-up call or a case of pro-Unionism for slow-learners?
In either case, the reference to Peter Robinson’s view that Unionism needs to get ready to contest a unity referendum must seem like a belated Christmas gift to those whose narrative, in the face of contrary advice from Taoiseach Micheál Martin TD and others who aspire to Irish Unity, is that such a referendum is likely and must be prepared for.
Is Gavin Robinson recognising that political unionism has failed in that after 100 years it has still to persuade a secure majority that the constitutional status delivers for all. To avoid failure, you first have to try. It is not the only factor but success might have avoided much of the trauma from 1968 onwards.
Built on fear and in-built numerical strength that was taken for granted and manipulated to deliver and hold on to power, it has promoted a brand of politics which has rendered the term Unionism ‘toxic’ to the extent that many who are ‘pro-Union’ no longer identify as such; and it is not all young people.
They reject the term, what it represents and the numbers are on the increase. Some representatives must have concerns about their positions. But surely that would not be the motivation for the sudden conversion?
Peter Robinson has recently suggested that Northern Ireland was not created as a state meant to last. Some will debate this. What is not up for debate is that it is a state not guaranteed to last and this has been the case throughout its history.
Somewhere along the line political unionism got lost in a heroic narrative of what it believed itself to have achieved and nurtured a sacred and sealed orthodoxy of ‘Unity is Strength’ to which unionists were expected to comply. All of this was underpinned by security powers greater than what effective politicians should need and confident politicians should seek. What was promoted as a strength became a weakness.
The rest, as they say, is history.
What has developed under the DUP’s watch is a type of Ulster Home Rule or in some cases, Ulster Nationalism, largely exclusive to a Protestant majority and, alongside a distrust of Westminster, has run like a faultline through political and institutionalised unionism.
Fed on insecurity and an unwillingness to take risks, it has resisted cultural and social equality, lack of parity of esteem and an uncomfortably entrenched resistance to change and fresh thinking. Initiatives, where they have occurred, have foundered as betrayal or been tinged with the air of expediency and survivalist tactics which, over time, revert to type when they have achieved their purpose.
It is past its sell-buy date.
Clearly Gavin and Peter Robinson [no relation] recognise that the DUP and other types of unionism have brought unionism to this point. But, what is beyond the rhetoric that there is need to make a stronger case for the Union? Is the DUP, of which both are members, or other political unionist groupings capable of delivering this?
In the case of Brexit and the performance of the DUP thus far, there seems little cause for confidence.
The Irish Sea trade border seems to have also introduced a barrier between the DUP at Stormont and the MPs at Westminster. On the one hand there are the parliamentary ‘over the top utterances’ of, I don’t do masks, Sammy ‘Away to the Chippy’ Wilson MP and the ‘screwed over’ (his words), drama-queen grand-standing of the much-travelled Ian Paisley Junior MP.
Having emerged from behind their Pro-Trump banner, they blame everybody, but the DUP, for the impact of the NI Protocol. On the other, comes the sometimes-errant Stormont reserve team, licking its wounds, trying to limit the damage. Factions seem to be facing in different directions. To think that leading the Ulster Unionist party was once viewed as the political job from hell.
This is the group that is now telling pro-Unionism that it needs to present an enhanced case for the Union. Why would you go to a car-wrecking company to re-model your car? The best you could hope for is a clapped-out banger finished in fading shades of orange which can only go in one direction, unable to avoid the bumps and obstacles in the road it has put in its own path; no GPS, not even an old map to avoid the many cul-de-sacs it has a propensity to seek out. Brakes are likely to fail when colliding with political realities.
Did someone mention Brexit?
The message is clearly getting through but politics is playing catch-up. The community, in increasing numbers has had enough. It has adopted a pragmatic and positive approach to making Northern Ireland a home for everyone. It has had to as politics shut down and performs erratically following restoration.
With the limited investment that is available, entrepreneurs and a skilled workforce are building a better economy. With labels which define fellow citizens as objects being cast aside, inequality and prejudice is reducing. With an increasing desire to end segregation, celebrate pluralism and diversity, change is happening for the better.
Recognising that identity is fluid and contextual, there is a growing constituency that will not give its endorsement to identity politics and wants to see issues addressed and consensual solutions delivered for all, not least in regard to job creation, regional inequality, ever-lengthening hospital lists, human rights, climate and environmental conservation.
In the case of those who are pro-Union, they will not troop obligingly to the sound of the dog-whistle or the beat of a lambeg drum into the voting booth. Invisible to a media focused on personalities and distracted by political spin, a civic pro-Union and evidence-based energy promotes discourse and debate, challenges out-dated binary attitudes, seeks out the voices of marginalised groups and rejects any agendas that might take Northern Ireland backwards.
It sees no threat in embracing Gaelic culture and language or engaging with Nationalism and the Republic of Ireland within the Good Friday Agreement process to explore matters of mutual interest and benefit.
Added to the obvious benefits which already accrue from being part of the United Kingdom, when or if the Unity referendum that Gavin Robinson anticipates happens, this is an approach to ensure that voters, unlike Brexit, will have a clear understanding of what they are giving up.
Does this enhance and solidify the Union? Time will tell. It is the right thing to do to make Northern Ireland better and that should be good enough for now.
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.