A publication for Church leaders recently headlined ‘the rise of the ‘dones’; a growing number of people who are ‘done with the Church.’ They have not abandoned their faith but have ‘de-churched.’ Attendance figures bear this out.
One interviewee commented:
’they have heard it all and are tired of the same routine; being lectured to without any meaningful engagement or participation.’
Church scandals have played their part. The situation resonates with Northern Ireland as political parties exhibit a ‘this is the way mentality’; that without tight control and direction, everything will fall apart and decision-making will lose focus;
But this sort of detached leadership is becoming less attractive.
Bored with politics and politicians that convert every issue and political discourse into an arena for conflict and narrow political allegiances, a growing proportion of the population is not merely rejecting historical religious labelling and identities but their closely associated political affiliations.
Polling and university research on prevailing demographics show consistent growth in the middle ground with the mainline parties, nationalist-republican and unionist, left to engage in internecine electoral battles to win the biggest share of their chosen but steadily reducing constituencies.
The political Unionist cake is not growing. Only who wins the greater slice alters.
Within unionism, many continue to support the maintenance of the Union however it is not just millennials and those who voted to remain in the EU who comprise a sizeable proportion, increasingly de-motivated and feeling unrepresented; disenfranchised by the limited ambition and accountability of political Unionism.
An expedient unanimity of shared but tenuous, – if recent UUP spokespersons are to be believed – and divergent unease with and antipathy, across broad unionism, towards the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol, cannot mask what is hidden in plain sight.
Unease with the protocol, genuine as it may be, does not equate to support or approval for past and present decision-making by political unionism.
With its traits of being intolerant, legalistic and irrelevant to the lived experiences of many, a growing constituency of individuals are ‘done’ with it and want a shift of focus.
Where creative thinking is an imperative, unionists are offered robotic compliance by representatives entrenched in a culture of small mindedness; only comfortable in a culture bunker. This getting the meaning of the Union muddled with abstractions.
There is much evidence.
For the many who are placed on long waiting lists for healthcare if they are lucky, it is small comfort that as they suffer pain and maybe die, they do so under the Union flag.
If is this what the Union means, the many tattered flags which adorn lamp-posts offer a stark symbolism.
Too often unionist politics, pre-and post the Good Friday Agreement, are characterised by a failure to move beyond damage limitation and a lingering sense of ‘what has been given up’ crisis management.
When immediate pressure is relieved, a sense of false certainty results and unionism reverts back to old behaviour; lack of transparency, failed leadership models, limited sense of mission and exclusivity.
Capacity is not built to shape a long-term commitment to re-culturing and renewal; to build on growing success in key areas of the economy, education and culture to make Northern Ireland work for all; not seek to revert to ‘ ruling the roost.’
Rigidity in ideology and delusional claims to building reconciliation serve only to emphasise how unionism has facilitated the ugly scaffolding of the Good Friday Agreement to produce the ugly politics which have stalled or diverted the process inherent within the 1998 Agreement.
This runs counter to the rationale for the scaffolding and is out of kilter with many pro-Union individuals and groups who do not work this way in their lives or communal and societal settings.
Different civic organisations are gaining attention in numerous disciplines and sectors as vehicles for community building, promoting wellbeing and social change. Participatory actions and discourse challenge marginalisation and socio-political exclusion.
This is the opposite of regulated political unionism which, frozen in an orthodoxy dating from the establishment of Northern Ireland, remains uncomfortable with disruption and challenge, internal and external.
Such is also evident, not least in unionism’s willingness to operate and tinker at the edge of the Good Friday Agreement with little involvement or interest in North-South Bodies.
It may yet fall off the edge.
In 1998, Unionist and Nationalist-Republican parties, with others, were given the opportunity to emerge from prolonged conflict; to govern within a devolved continuum which did not shut out or call for the abandonment of long held constitutional preferences.
The challenge to each of the designated MLAs, not least within the largest parties, was to persuade a majority of the community to endorse their platform for change, or not; whilst adhering to a popular mandate to implement the three strands of the Good Friday Agreement to the benefit of all.
What has resulted is a fixed pattern of attrition, antagonistic populism and financial impropriety. This is a choice of the parties who populate the structures.
The co-guarantors in London and Dublin are not without responsibility in indulging the political eco-system that pertains. Cobbled together lifeboat measures like A Fresh Start and New Decade, New Approach have not delivered promised outcomes or clear direction.
Many pro-union voters have arrived at a point where they will no longer condone the complicity of political unionism in this power dynamic that staggers between ineffectiveness and posturing; crisis and erratic duration.
Results do not equate to the resources made available whilst the main parties remain wedded to traditional platforms as a camouflage for self-interest, tribal power and privilege.
Sometimes also to the benefit of relatives and family members who find employment funded by generous expenses.
For anyone wishing to promote the Union, this is a deficit strategy destined to deliver long-term failure; a structural and electoral blind spot, preferring safeguards to growth.
Unionism, like many groups and individuals, needs to move beyond its traditional binary interpretation and promotion of the Union by abandoning its PUL branding and creaking back of a lorry rhetoric.
It needs to expand its scope and incorporate inclusivity into its analyses and networks; become more aspirational for the whole community.
Build consensus by reducing space between people and move finally from tactics based on demographic dominance.
As the Union is de-constructed and re-imagined at Westminster an alternative form of politically inclusive and consensual unionism is an imperative.
It needs to draw on and make itself relevant to the lives of diverse sectors and groups which define the community.
On recent performance, it is a big ask for Unionist political representatives in parties which seem to value the past more than a better future.
Led by leaders and favoured cadres who promote blind loyalty, with silence used to monopolise power, there is limited evidence of any creative critique or strategic discourse.
Yet, the time is opportune to embrace and coalesce around peace, justice, equality, inclusion, humanity and well-being. However, discouraged from thinking for themselves, representatives lend their minds to the leadership.
This surely must produce a system of under-used assets and ignorance which filters into policies and practice; some views paramount whilst others are summarily dismissed.
Resulting distortion by a dominant and rigid ideology underpinned by normative values is a long-standing trait of political unionism ensues.
It is being eroded.
Women, LBGTQ, diverse ethnic communities, younger people, socially liberal and marginalised people who reflect the historic hidden experience of unionism now conclude and demonstrate that a top-down framework is not conducive to building vital consensus around social, economic, health, housing, cultural and education issues; addressing wasteful segregation and lasting reconciliation to make Northern Ireland for all.
Political Unionism needs to move beyond honeyed and condescending rhetoric when addressing non-aligned unionism and the community; grasp the possibilities; recognise and embrace the dynamic desire for a more pluralist and inclusive place, beyond narrow designations and identities.
The longer this takes, the greater will be the growth in those muted conversations which are taking place as to how Northern Ireland needs to work better for all.
There will be a cruel irony if the Union, currently on offer from those who value it most whilst going out of their way to distort its core purposes, acts as the author of its own demise.
Will those who are ‘ done’ with political Unionism come to a point were they are done with this Union?
It is not inconceivable that out of the continuing division and rigidity, a new mutuality will grow.
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.