Now the dust has settled on the turmoil at the top of the two main unionist parties for the foreseeable future, we’ve had a wide range of commentators telling us what challenges they face and what is likely to define their tenure of office. Many of them were from various hues of non or anti-unionist opinion advising unionists on the way forward.
But the two leaders (initially at least) would do better to focus on the thoughts and feelings of their own electorate. Until they establish their credibility among fellow unionists they will have no authority or leverage to do whatever deals are necessary in the months and years to come.
Last week on Slugger, Mick argued that Arlene Foster’s ejection as DUP leader “was the end of the Robinson experiment in broadening the appeal of the party.” That may well have been the position when Edwin Poots succeeded her. Indeed it may well be the position today and in perpetuity. But does it need to be?
My view is that the greatest contribution either Jeffrey Donaldson or Doug Beattie (ideally both) can make to the community they seek to lead, is to eliminate the ever widening disconnect between political unionism and the broad pro union community.
The evidence of various opinion polls indicates that our parties simply fail to reflect the attitudes of a predominantly secular “protestant” (yes, I get the obvious oxymoron in that phrase) community, and that the gap is widening. Hence the rise of Alliance and the Green Party in predominantly pro-union areas, and the lower turnout in such areas.
There is little evidence to make us believe most non-unionist voters in these areas have abandoned the union. Far from it. But as it stands, they have abandoned unionism and show little sign of returning.
Written from a unionist perspective, I have some suggestions for both Jeffrey and Doug if they want to regain traction with their electorate and genuinely strengthen both the pro union vote and the union itself:
- Don’t conflate your party members with your voters. Your membership is small and largely out of step with the community. In the case of the DUP it is disproportionately religious and reactionary when it comes to social change. In the case of the UUP it still consists of too many people who just didn’t feel strongly enough about anything to take part in any of the splits or defections to other parties. These people may have delivered leadership positions to you both, but they are not the people who will deliver electoral success or a strengthened union. Have the self-confidence to ignore them when necessary. Take them on when necessary. If you pander to them, they will be your undoing just as they have been to your predecessors.
- On broad social issues – such as but not limited to equal marriage and issues around reproductive rights – the PUL community is well ahead of its political reps and is frustrated about being misrepresented in the eyes of our fellow citizens across the UK. “Home Rule is Rome Rule” was a legitimate position until relatively recently and one shared en bloc by the unionist people. But it’s history in the Republic so we don’t want it replicated in our small part of the secular UK.
- While showing a considerate and constructive attitude to the needs and rights of others, avoid getting dragged into the myth of “progressive politics”. That’s just crass populism. Judge each issue on its merits and do what is in the best interests of vulnerable people and of the broader population. That is true progressive behaviour.
- Don’t abuse the petition of concern. It was there for a specific reason – to stop one of our two blocs imposing its will on the other. Arlene stating she would use it time and time again over equal marriage was a textbook example of holding the party but losing the people. Now that we don’t have a majority in the Assembly unionists may at some point need the PoC as it was intended. You can’t do that with credibility if you misuse it beforehand.
- Don’t look over your shoulder at Jim Allister or Jamie Bryson. For decades UUP was obsessed with what Paisley had to say about it. That was its downfall because it was never brave enough to ignore him. Don’t feel you have to take an issue seriously because they’re outraged about it. Be yourself and do what’s right. The people will go with you if you are strong enough to stick to your position and articulate it clearly and consistently.
- Do not allow loose cannons to embarrass and damage the reputation of you, your party and the broader unionist community. Not even if they are seen as party grandees. This was historically a problem for UUP leaders, but these people played a massive part in undermining Arlene’s credibility. Deal with them quickly, decisively and publicly as soon as they transgress. Your electorate will thank you.
- Stop thinking the British right are your friends or natural allies. Both your parties have done that time and time again throughout their history, and it has never worked out for us. The one major concession gained by any unionist party in the past 50 years was increased representation for NI in parliament. That was secured by the UUP from a Labour government and benefited all the people, not just the unionist element of it.
- Don’t cheapen the flag by draping yourself in it like Superman’s cape. Its our flag and we should respect it. The broad pro union community is happy with the modern UK so let them have the union they want, not an exaggerated version of a country that only existed in black and white movies (the same applies to the more overstated and embarrassing brands of Irish nationalism). Embrace it.
- Don’t adopt international causes because the other side has adopted the other side of THAT dispute. The middle east bears no relation to NI despite what people have claimed. Judge each one on its own merits and don’t get involved unless you actually understand the issue at hand.
In short. The only way you can truly represent us is to reflect us. To minimise rather than exaggerate the difference between pro-union people in Northern Ireland and our fellow citizens in Great Britain. Unionists simply cannot legitimately oppose the protocol (for example) on the basis that it differentiates us from the rest of the nation, while simultaneously defending a different level of human rights or morality from the broader UK. If you do that you will not only boost the unionist electoral position, but you will restore confidence of those from the broad Catholic community who were happy to co-exist within the union pre-Brexit and pre-Arlene.
I think you are both decent guys, very capable of doing what I’ve suggested, and I wish you both well. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.
Ian Clarke spent 36 years in sales & marketing for newspapers in Northern Ireland, England and Scotland – including the Belfast Telegraph, Wolverhampton Express & Star, Northern Echo and The Herald (Glasgow) after graduating from QUB in Political Science. Glentoran supporter.