Watching the events which led to the resignation of First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster MLA and the subsequent declaration of his candidacy by Edwin Poots- initially understood to be for both position there was a deluge of reaction on social media some of it bordering unnecessarily on vitriolic comment. Not a lot is gained from such.
More measured words were reflective of strong opposition to and distaste for the perceived insensitive nature of DUP politics. Clearly, many people across all ages do want to live in a home where life in forfeit to the politics and personal morality of Edwin Poots and his following.
Now, in the case of the UUP another leader in the person of Steve Aiken MLA has ‘bitten the dust ‘and political unionism, lacking in any sure-footed strategy that is apparent to the observer, is being dragged to the table but still to claim a place for social inclusion, parity of esteem, reconciliation and the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.
Instead it is opting for policy stances that are set up to fail and on which political, civic and business unionism is not united; the NI Protocol being one example.
This could sound like music to those currently calling for a Border Poll and cause alarm in Dublin where decision-makers may feel that the island is on a trajectory towards becoming one political entity but “Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the wee donkey, not just yet, please.”
But what could it mean for political unionism and the pro-Union constituency? Will the default juxtaposed position of ‘papering over the cracks’ in both main parties represented by traditional unionism of the past and pro-unionist thinking that embraces compassion, generosity, inclusion, diversity, reconciliation and equality, now more prevalent in civic groups and community organisations, at last become untenable?
Will the many who vote uneasily for unionist parties or those pro-Union voters referenced in the recent research of Professor Peter Shirlow who do not vote or migrate to the Alliance party, have a clear choice in elections. at last?
Unionist parties exist on a spectrum of core commitment to the Union but with uneven patterns which ebb and flow; different but not distinct.
It has led in the past to the UUP being designated as DUP-lite; a term which jars in that party. But, if a significant section of the party lingers after pre-Good Friday Agreement days and pacts with the DUP are not a source of discomfort, the perception is an obvious one. It is reinforced on the common ground of the NI Protocol, the Irish Language Act and cross-border Bodies.
Within the membership there are those who show similar social conservatism as the DUP; they act as a bulwark to a less legalistic view of personal morality that limits the room for manoeuvre for a leader who is unwilling to risk losing members even where it is possible, support could be drawn from a different constituency of voters.
The latter are disenfranchised or go elsewhere and leaders are replaced.
The now interim UUP leader claimed recently that the party is ‘progressive’ but this is not a view widely shared, particularly amongst those below middle age.
The party is too consistent in displaying its inability to adapt to the contours of the time. It avoids opportunity to show constructive creativity and forward thinking. Stern looks imply excessive certainty but betray insufficient confidence; occasionally saying the words but missing the point.
The DUP as the biggest unionist party has come to the same position.
Polls and research necessitate a more inclusive strategy but if the vote on gay conversion therapy was the decisive factor in the removal of current Leader Arlene Foster MLA, the parameters set for a successor whose views are different to Edwin Poots seem set between fixed points.
Will a new leader of the UUP experience the same?
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP has talked of the need to persuade voters of the benefit of the Union but if you are going to have difficulty persuading your own party, the omens are not encouraging.
Members who want change need to stop pretending they believe things they say but do not actually believe, to preserve careers.
Faux orthodoxy may centralise power but is unprincipled and unethical. It will eventually corrupt the democratic process where voters seek integrity and transparency. It is founded on a desire to exercise the social and political control of a perceived constituency.
Former leader Peter Robinson, aware of the demographic shifts pointing to numerical decline, tried to lead the DUP away from policies out of step with growing attitudinal changes but to retain power and hold the party, proven tactics were favoured. Expedient tactics they may have been but given the recent history of election results was this leadership?
Has Unionism been strengthened in the long-term?
If, as Arlene Foster suggests, the DUP is not the party she joined is there a tug-o’-war going on between a mildly secular DUP and one which prefers to merge Protestant religious clichés and platitudes and essentialist Unionism? How influential are external organisations, closely associated but with no mandate, allowed to be?
Where does this leave a pro-Union voter? Much in the same place as with the UUP with a pro-Union preference cocooned in unpalatable social conservatism and cultural exclusivity
This is surely not a message likely to appeal to those identified as in need of being ‘persuaded.’
A fresh coat of paint has never yet cured dry rot and Sir Jeffrey may find he is painted into a small corner.
The problem exists and needs solution not further entrenchment with the cracks in the DUP no longer hidden from view.
Unionist voters and those who are pro-Union need choice not Unionism which has frozen itself.
There are those within the two main Unionist parties who could provide this but not if they continue as they are. Failing to change unionism from a warrior position to a reconciling one will not break through the suffocating political binary.
A belief system is not necessarily a value system and unionism needs to deconstruct its meta-narrative. It might as well. The community is already doing it.
Edwin Poots and his supporters may be terrified of a language and seemingly wedded to resistance to challenging thoughts but they are entitled to their view that there is ‘our way and the wrong way.’
However, it’s akin to a new energy company addicted to fossil fuel planning for a sustainable planet.
If this mantra becomes the main platform of the DUP it will have the right, through discourse, to seek support but not at the cost of allowing the electorate no alternative where party survival based on silent compliance to malfunctioning politics becomes paramount.
Any doubt that this cannot work has long since been removed. Unionism as a brand is compromised, many will no longer use the term. Much of this is self-inflicted. Musical leadership chairs do not produce confidence.
It is at a critical juncture and pro-Union voters need an alternative to the incoherent messaging of the parties.
Current choices serve only to spread the damage.
If Edwin Poots gains the leadership of the DUP and shapes it in the image of those who share his views, will his best contribution to the Union be to provoke a radical response which sees a transformative unionism emerge?
Showing commitment to acknowledging mistakes and making amends; showing fresh understanding of communities and their needs and offering leadership that inspires consent as opposed to conspiring to stay in power, would be a good place to start.
Failure to do this so may direct more pro-Union voters to the Alliance party and therein lies a different question. Will Alliance de facto revert in practice to the pro-Union position adopted by Robert Cooper and Oliver Napier? Stephen Farry MP and others would surely find this hard to reconcile with an avowedly non- if not anti-Union stance.
If a pro-Union vote becomes more widespread across different parties, how will a Secretary of State gauge support for a Border poll?
The selection of Edwin Poots MLA as DUP leader, could have several intended and unintended consequences.
A more inclusive and welcoming Unionism may stand to gain the most by breaking from the religious-political fusion which he epitomises to carve the fresh path that an increasing number of the pro-Union constituency favour.
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.