The quote above is from Scorpions in a Bottle: Conflicting Cultures in Northern Ireland: John Darby (1997). A lot has changed in Northern Ireland since then. The community is in a better place with periods of relative tranquillity and less political violence but then something ‘shakes the bottle’.
When a local member in Sinn Féin in Derry in 2016 stated that BREXIT was going to be a ‘game-changer’ no one could have foreseen the extent to which the referendum result and the Ireland/NI Protocol which followed, would prove this to be the case, not least within Unionism with its politicians now vying for seats in a stalled NI Assembly.
With a few independents in the mix, voters inclined to vote to sustain the Union have the choice between the TUV with an over-developed sense of rage, the DUP with an over-developed sense of original sin and the UUP with a slowly developing realisation of how to build support for the Union through an inclusive, reconciled and respectful pro-unionism.
In the case of the latter, it continues to exhibit some baby steps as it changes the labelling without fully re-constructing what it represents. Learning the words but not yet fully into the rhythm or the tune.
Speaking at UCC recently Doug Beattie, UUP Leader and First Minister hopeful – (his words)- referred to the flying of Israeli and Palestine flags in Northern Ireland. He suggested that when one side puts up one flag, the other side puts up the oppositional symbol to signal different allegiance: ‘That’s the way we are.’
Actually, it’s not how we are.
Many who support the Union offer little support for the behaviour of Israel since the 1967 Six Day War when it ignored the United Nations and remained in the areas occupied during the war and has, over time, built settlements and deployed methods against Palestinians which have served to radicalise Palestinian youth and flaunt world opinion.
In another example, there is a noticeable softening in the line on First Minister with the UUP now intending to enter into negotiations on a Programme for Government before deciding to enter an Executive.
The ‘Union of People’ which originally suggested that ‘the Union is inclusive and for all’ has shifted towards a ‘bringing together of everyone in Northern Ireland to make it work for all.’
Alongside this, there is noticeable referencing in statements and publications, to ‘pro-Union’ rather than Unionist.
Trying to form pro-Unionism into the image of the UUP, perhaps?
Yet, with regard to being a ‘Union of people’, there is limited outreach to voters not viewed as being ‘of the Unionist constituency.’
Locally in Foyle there are few UUP posters in areas on the city side or West Bank where traditionally there is stong support for Sinn Féin and the SDLP.
The local candidate is active on social media and motivational strap-lines but how does the UUP expect to reach out and persuade if you do not communicate and knock on doors other than within a binary socio-political context you aspire to challenge?
Is this not worth a few posters on a bonfire in August?
The UUP leader makes much of the UUP role in the Health portfolio and credit where credit is due but the lack of health provision and being fit for purpose in terms of GP services, the ambulance service and late diagnoses has been on the UUP’s watch.
Many who are highly vulnerable to Covid or on lengthy waiting lists do not feel well catered for.
They are also part of the Union and it is the UUP Minister who has determined how well Northern Ireland is not working for them.
They are effectively disenfranchised.
Appointing Health ‘champions’ merely appears gimmicky if you are on the end of a lengthy phone call trying to get a GP, waiting for a hospital bed or appointment for a consultant.
Now, the UUP Leader is allowing himself to be dragged into a spat over what he sees as DUP over-emphasis on a Border Poll; whipping up fear if Sinn Fein wins the election and takes the position of First Minister.
This is undoubtedly DUP strategy but why feed it?
Further, there is a genuine concern within the broad Unionist constituency that whilst the position of First Minister is symbolic, if Michelle O’Neill – and it may not be her- obtains the key to the office of FM, Mary Lou MacDonald TD who frequently appears at Stormont to take the lead at press briefings will hold the second set.
Another one of Gerry Adams’ ‘trojan horses’, perhaps?
If as she anticipates, Mary Lou takes the Office of Taoiseach and also has input into the governance of Northern Ireland beyond any GFA Bodies or Shared Island initiative, why would she, as leader of Sinn Fein and one who wants “England out of Ireland”, not seek to shape the future to which she aspires?
When you have no persuasive policies and regular polling undermines grandiose claims and indicates your project is running out of road, holding and manipulating power is the only option.
The solution is not the ‘lambeg’ politics of protest but, in offering a viable and pluralist alternative designed to sustain support for an inclusive pro-Union position, the UUP needs to extract itself fully from the bottle and leave it to the scorpions.
Be more ambitious and less risk averse; with focus on doing more than just imagining a preferred future.
This will only be the beginning for one area of political Unionism which retains a paternalistic and toxic tinge from a past much too comfortable in a professed insecurity and communal insularity that justified the mantra of: ‘What we have we hold.”
No genuine Unionism would have produced or promoted such a history yet did so by casting aside transformative thinking deemed challenging to a too robust orthodoxy, as being undisciplined and disloyal: in need of being fixed.
Unionist conversion therapy in full flow.
Unionism cannot separate itself from this history without distortion and should learn from its past.
Voters, suffering from peace process fatigue, territorial wrangling and dated identity labelling want delivery; less vote management and more leadership.
With growing argument over the future of the GFA structures and if they have a future, it seems collective politics does not know where to go yet remains determined to take us there.
We live within a political jigsaw where the final piece is always missing.
To advocate making things better in these circumstances is not ambitious enough.
Civic Unionism and being pro-Union is not about making Northern Ireland better from a low base but aiming to be the ‘best.’
Being content to be better sets the bar too low; not least in failing to escape from the binary identity vortex reflected in the words of the UUP leader at UCC.
Protestant and narrow political Unionism needs to be consigned to the past and comprehensively re-framed around political convictions grounded in issue-centred creativity which puts these first, rather than attaching them as an add-on to constitutional populism and the clichéd platitudes being exhibited by some candidates on social media.
Some have been in local government for a time yet now only seem to be discovering worthy causes.
Others are playing catch up with change and social justice instead of having been in the lead.
This indicates an uneven and unconvincing pattern of progressive thinking, scattered priorities and shallow commitment within political Unionism; unprepared for the future and not fully attuned to the possibilities.
Is this pointing to yet another strategic misstep and wasted opportunity?
Consent as defined within the GFA will not be secured in head-counts or identity.
Those days are gone.
Rather will it be sustained on the basis of the accountable promotion of social and economic issues which deliver a quality of life built on reconciliation, equality and clear social, educational, economic, environmental and health-related outcomes with matters of faith, religion, identity and cultural diversity given a meaningful and respectful site of belonging beyond party politics.
If such a vision is compelling enough, people will apply their best thinking and effort to figure it out.
They already are.
We are hearing this from some Unionist politicians yet actions and throw-away remarks continue to reveal values and attitudes limited in terms of transformation.
The greatest barriers may it seems, remain inside a failure to realise how to achieve future impact beyond party political packaging and appeal to emotions.
This is why many, not all, who decline to identify with political Unionism have adopted usage of the term ‘pro-Union.’
It aspires to nurture a mindset and a pattern of behaviour and is evident, sometimes unacknowledged and unheralded, in communities, neighbourhoods and workplaces where, as we continue to emerge from conflict, those who yearn for change through consensus, those who are leading it and those who can and need to bring it about are growing collaborative relationships focused on building a positive future.
Being colour blind and denominationally unaligned it aims to dismantle barriers and bridge gaps that limit co-operation. Cognisant that the community cannot solve problems by sowing the seeds of fresh disagreement which will delay progress and keep our politics in deep freeze, the focus is on setting the bar higher.
At its core is the belief that unionism must stop living down to its negative stereotypes and parodies; that it can only have a future if it creates it by ending historical allegiance to an unbending sense of identity perceived to be under attack from within and without.
The maintenance of the Union is no longer solely in the gift of unionism.
It cannot, nor should it, be sustained by blind loyalty to emblems, slogans and unchallenged assertions. This serves only to encourage closed thinking and an anachronistic clinging to historical supremacy.
It undermines attempts to build the civic and ethical unionism now desired by a broad swathe of unionists many of whom do not vote or have rejected traditional unionist parties. It betrays the civility which should be the cornerstone of invitational unionism.
Evidence of the dividends which can emerge is apparent in the positivity of young people and advocates for change who, whilst politically marginalised with a limited voice, are prepared to embrace social justice, challenge division and promote reconciliation.
Unionism does not have to hold to the view that for unionism to succeed, others have to fail. Individuals and groups can work respectfully as a supportive community with common bonds to find mutual understanding in the midst of diversity and secure a future better than our past.
It is a participative model of how we can do better. It requires the abandonment of negative political behaviour and the acknowledgment that through challenging our own prejudices and confronting our difficulties we come to know that there can be no interest greater than the common interest especially when it is focused on securing peace and overcoming the causes of age-old conflict.
This is the civic pulse of the community to which Unionist politics, maybe until now, has seemed oblivious.
It is the preferred option of a growing constituency but may as yet not yield the electoral outcome desired by those beginning to embrace it, tentatively in some instances.
If it is more than a tactic and a new fashion, it should not be abandoned recklessly as has been the case in the past.
“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up.”
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.