“The best way for unionism to have a debate with itself is to have a meaningful choice of parties.”

As ever Newton Emerson’s got it right. The best thing that could happen to unionism now is that it has a huge fight over its future. Voters whether actual unionists or those happy to remain UK want something more than the usual reflexive defensiveness or clarion calls against the other tribe.

As we wrote in A Long Peace (now a long time ago, but sadly still relevant to a still too inward looking Unionism today)…

Defensiveness is far too predictable a strategy. A genuinely disruptive politics must shape the terrain on which future contests for the Union will be fought, opening up alternatives, rather than shutting them down. It relies on democracy – a Northern Ireland that cannot govern itself will always be a brittle and unstable entity.

For too many Unionists, Ulster Says No is still a reflex. Understandable given how their main Nationalist opponents in Sinn Féin have pocketed concessions on releasing killers early and then turned the heat on forces of the state who for the most part tried to prevent the escalating harm of all terror campaigns.

The strategic power of saying no dribbles away over time if it is the only strategy. The one for you two for me ethic of the various DUP and Sinn Féin duopolies which have dominated Northern Irish politics since the November 2003 Assembly election ultimately robs everyone of their futures.

Through an enlightened self interest should tell unionist politicians that poverty in West Belfast should be their concern as much as Nationalist ones, since there will be no easing of the post industrial malaise in inner East Belfast without having a macro strategy to bring new jobs to Belfast as a whole.

And, as Newton points out…

Unionist unity is a demand that always leans to the right. Yet the closest unionism may have come in a generation to coalescing around a single party would have involved Donaldson heading left, back to the UUP, which he quit in 2003.

This is absolutely priceless and should provoke some general questions. Where is the political centre of unionism? Who decides where it is? Why is there a debate over unionist unity but not a debate over unionist variety?

Unionism has failings of insecurity and extremism unique to Northern Ireland, plus more common problems in politics of seeking authenticity in the wrong places. Its weakness for protests and loud voices would be familiar to any British Labour MP, although all would be horrified by the comparison

But rather than a failing this, argues Newton, is a hidden strength:

Although nearly every unionist opposes the protocol they do so from a wide range of positions, with pragmatism looking very much like the centre of gravity. The UUP and an estimated 40 per cent of unionist voters backed Remain in the Brexit referendum and the protocol appears to have been a minor issue in the election that took place after it was signed.

The best way for unionism to have a debate with itself is to have a meaningful choice of parties. That is also the best way to maintain its support, as choice brings out voters who transfer down the ballot. A party containing Beattie and Donaldson would not be helpful – at least not until or unless the debate produces a way forward.

As we said back in 2003:

People need elbow room. There must be space for enterprise, an audience for new voices, room for fresh ideas. Unionism would do well to cultivate a certain restlessness; to allow the questioning of hallowed principles; to let mavericks have their head; to encourage experimentation on a small scale to see what will work on the large. Ultimately, this is a battle for people and not for land. [Emphasis added]

Elbow room to broaden the agenda beyond tribal identity to something that others can willingly buy into. That is a matter of choice for the electorate. But in order to be able to make a choice they have to be offered one in the first place. And create a consensus that nationalists and others can happily buy into.

The question is not simply a matter of changing and growing the nature of the union and how it operates more broadly (broadly outside of the control of any Northern Irish party) but to change and grow the nature of relationships within Northern Ireland itself. Be the change you want in others, as the man says.

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