Holy Grail refers to an elusive goal continuously pursued. For many Unionists, ‘the Holy grail’ is Unionist unity – politically. It harps back to the days of ‘United We Stand, Divided We Fall’; a framed picture of which adorned the walls of many buildings used by the Unionist party when it was, by far, the main political party of Unionism; that, and a picture of the reigning monarch.
Hopes will have been raised at the sight of the leaders of four Unionist parties standing together at Stormont to issue a shared declaration on the NI Protocol. Those have been quickly dashed with the latest Newsletter column by former DUP leader Peter Robinson in which he rather spitefully targets UUP leader Doug Beattie MLA.
It’s as predictable as a cuckoo in springtime. Younger, post-GFA, DUP members and hardworking MLAs must have cause to regret that the party has for too long been over endowed with political figures who can start a quarrel even before they open their mouths.
Talk of an election is in the air, so you aim at what you perceive to be your biggest threat; undermine confidence, sow fear and doubt. When you are associated with a party whose strategists helped to create the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol, you have to try something to deflect attention by seeking to nurture nostalgia for a ‘past’.
In doing so, political unionism is being taken to a place where it is more synonymous with catastrophe than cause.
Doug Beattie has surely faced worse than this back-handed compliment and should abandon any notion, he might have had, that the older DUP leopards can change their spots. True to form, they continue to shape a party strategy without which, according to Ian Paisley Junior MP, Northern Ireland would no longer exist.
He wants to do serious politics; just can’t get the hang of it as he tries to usurp sacrifice and long-standing endeavour around his political legacy and pre-fabricated tribal mayhem. There is nothing uglier than an orthodoxy without understanding and compassion.
Does long privileged access to power diminish one’s grasp on reality? People will come to their own conclusions, and that is what many voters and non-voters are doing right now.
Local elected representatives across all the Unionist parties, in most constituencies, are well aware of this as they begin to review the quotas with an election looming.
Research figures show that over 50% of voters who are pro-Union do not vote for Unionist parties; ¾ of non-voters are pro-Union. The Union is not the sole property of political Unionism with political choices now embedded in personal needs and experiences.
When Basil Mc Crea, at the time an MLA and leader of a fledging NI21, launched the party he was at pains to explain it was for the maintenance of the Union but did not deploy the label – Unionist.
His political adversaries scornfully insisted that if the party was for the Union, then it was Unionist. With the demise of NI 21 the issue did not surface until the last few years.
Now, it is common to differentiate between those who support the maintenance of the Union as pro-Union and political Unionism. For them, the past which too much of political Unionism craves, is tainted with cronyism, corruption and corrosion; in need of political sewage treatment.
Old certainties and binaries are collapsing and Unionism needs to develop its own fresh and inclusive co-ordinates. If not arrested, support for the Union is on a trajectory towards a post-political unionist period, determined by referendum. This is more than a generational shift.
Evidence shows that those who are pro-Union want constructive, inclusive and accountable cost-effective politics which are evidence-based and issue-centred; that address the problems encountered day and daily in homes and workplaces.
They are not fully convinced this is available within a political unionism complicit in the social, medical and economic turbulence that firmly pre-dates Covid-19 and Brexit.
Bonds of blood wherein the past casts too long a shadow and appeals to distant supremacy have lost their appeal. Blind loyalty is a diminishing commodity, as it should be.
Cookie-cutter unionism based on old recipes no longer offers relevance or appeal to a large swathe of a potentially pro-Union electorate which eschews the political term ‘Unionist.’
Many within the pro-Union electorate have moved on and want to re-define their politics in terms of positive social relationships and radical actions that focus on economy, employment, health, climate change, diversity and education for the here and now.
Political Unionism needs to re-align to realities and fresh priorities. Too often, if you know what the community is saying today, you know what Unionism will be saying in 5 years. Mike Nesbitt MLA recognised this during his time as leader of the UUP when he warned that it was ‘on the wrong side of history.’
He did not carry the party but judging from what some party members are saying on social media and in conversations, he may just have unlocked a door for the new leader.
Socio-economic issues are the priority and successful solutions to many of the underlying problems related to these would solve tensions arising from latent sectarianism, bigotry, segregation and strained community relations.
Unionism needs to build and seek consent for interdependence and universal values but you cannot re-construct if you are not willing to de-construct first. It is these which will secure consent for a sustainable Union, not claims to geography and territoriality.
Communities are seeking substance and not window-dressing acknowledgement that talk about mental health and underlying injustice impacting disability but fails to deliver solutions. Leave that to the opposition.
The Good Friday Agreement was once the future and political Unionism in the form of the UUP and smaller unionist parties were part of a political agenda that promised a pathway to better times. Since then, too many obstacles have been put in the way to slow progress.
Political Unionism needs to get ‘back to that future.’ Change will not wait for party consensus. The new UUP leader seems aware of the task. For now, he needs to bring those who want to start the journey whilst keeping their feet firmly on the ground behind the starting line, with him.
Failure to do this will ensure that as leader, he will not be leading, but merely going for a walk along a too familiar traditional route for former leaders within political unionism.
It does not have to be a sprint but getting political Unionism out of reverse gear will be a positive beginning.
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.