It’s about time the unionist parties woke up to the fact we are not that Unionism anymore, …….

One of the features of the election campaign by the two main Unionist parties is the call to ‘Make Northern Ireland Work’ and the adoption of the term ‘pro-Union’ as opposed to the customary ‘Unionist.’

It echoes UUP leader Doug Beattie MLA when he was drawn into the media frenzy over historical comments on twitter. His response at the time: “the tweets are not who I am.”

Are the tactics of the main Unionist parties designed to suggest: ‘We are not that Unionism anymore’; to distance themselves from the toxicity that many referendum ‘pro-Union’ voters of all generations attach to political Unionism?

An attempt to change the tone perhaps?

Faced by data showing loss of support, non-voters and decreasing representation at Stormont and at Council level, is this evidence of the inclusive and progressive change authentic or merely an expedient camouflage to hide the hitherto unchanging nature of political Unionism; to fabricate re-engagement with a disaffected, previously Unionist, constituency?

It will be denied but it presents as an attempt at damage limitation with an unlikely increase in Unionist representation at Westminster albeit that the party share may alter.

The UUP certainly hopes so; to get some deckchairs on the deck.

Political Unionism may be better served in planning now for the next elections and take this one on the chin. Results will be telling. Success, if it emerges, may be fleeting and deceptive with demographics changing and a perceptible shift in generational preferences.

As I have written previously, a failing restaurant cannot be saved by changing the colour and font of the menu.

The outburst by former First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson and his attack on those who do not share his brand of political Unionism as ‘feckless, reckless and politically blinkered’ suggests that all is not going well in the DUP camp.

Not long ago, current leader Gavin Robinson MP made a not dissimilar appeal by suggesting that the DUP was best placed to secure the Union. Not sure if he used the word ‘safeguard.’ His sense of ‘cautious realism’ may have prevented it.

The inherent entitlement in the exclusion by Peter Robinson of his own party from his criticism says a lot more than he intended and renders any attempt to appeal beyond the narrow ground which it occupied prior to, during and after his leadership, futile.

It will have no appeal beyond the core vote which he now seeks to rally. It’s a tired message. People want more than the rhetoric of rocking-horse politics; movement but not going anywhere. In spite of this, the DUP’s inclination to revert to tribal identities lingers long.

The road it has followed is strewn with poor judgement, selfish party interests and strategic errors; in addition to a suspended MP, climate change deniers and a number of privileged Lords and Baronesses.

On nearly every issue it has made the wrong call – the Good Friday Agreement, St Andrew’s Agreement, an Irish Language Act, RHI, Brexit, ending para-militarism and sectarianism, dealing with internal unethical behaviour, contentious marches and bonfires, the NI Protocol and collapsing Stormont.

This is not an exhaustive list with sound and informed management of public services writ large. Still it invites the electorate to opt for more. It must have a death-wish for the Union it has acted to weaken.

What of the UUP wherein hope always seems to spring eternal? It too has resorted to claiming a pro-Union, inclusive and progressive identity. Yet, in many areas, to judge by the presence of election posters, it sets self-imposed boundaries to its appeal.

Northern Ireland is not North Down and the many Unionist captains, majors, colonels and commanders who once populated Stormont and Westminster lost their appeal some time ago.

Candidates posting social media images of their presence at single identity parades and exclusively PUL events, is a common feature. Canvassing teams where and when they appear reflect little diversity. Unionist political parties, it seems, remain unable to depart from their traditional routes.

Leadership is limited and limiting; a self-fulfilling prophecy of diminishing inter-generational appeal. You cannot argue with the electoral outcomes and where the problems are.

If you want to make Northern Ireland work for all, it is well to recognise that out-dated and insular Protestant Unionist failings need to be acknowledged and consigned to the past; that, as recognised within the Good Friday Agreement, no one or no group exists alone.

This is the space into which a growing pro-Union civic community, external and indifferent to political unionism for whom it has lost relevance, is moving.

Trying to play catch-up through the usage of still to be proven claims to inclusion and progressive thinking, where the evidence is contradictory, is delusional.

The toxicity of the past remains too much of a presence, physically and ideologically; too disinviting and reflective of a persistence for de-humanizing individuals into stereotypical categories.

This is often underpinned by doctrinal and denominational allegiances also embedded within our educational structures and still segregated communities.

Institutional loyalties, whilst claimed as cultural expression, are afforded and seek political influence.

Content to seek their electoral support, political Unionism is captured and ensnared into an entrenched binary that also serves to stall how we reconcile to the past and build a sustainable future.

This has been reflected in election debates and in election literature.

The focus is mainly on devolved matters and combative narratives with little aspiration to contribute to national debate on areas which impact on Northern Ireland as much as anywhere else in the United Kingdom.

The UUP Manifesto claims to offer an ‘effective and visible pro-Union voice’ but makes no reference to how it can contribute to managing a national debt that is 90% of GDP, reform the Civil Service, public services and our parliamentary democracy, progress the neglected issue of Disability Rights, make the UK an even more competitive and productive economy whilst creating and sharing wealth equitably.

An opportunity for Unionism to recover the credibility which has been forfeit to the throwback Britishness of yesteryear, evident in attitudes to inclusive social justice, rights and fiscal efficiency, has been lost.

The fundamentalist, self-indulgent and bigoted Northern Ireland Unionism often displayed at Westminster which presents as evidence of alien and anachronistic politics commodified to maintain support, remains.

Most British voters outside Northern Ireland hold a different view to the DUP’s present and former representatives as to who is an abomination; who needs the conversion therapy.

They are seen as a magnet with the polarity in reverse.

Political Unionism that wants to be pro-Union, inclusive and diverse needs a re-boot beyond electoral rhetoric and assertion. Actions will be the yardstick, not words. Talking louder does not guarantee that more are listening.

To make Northern Ireland work for all, locally elected representatives need to develop enhanced political, cultural and ethical competences.

Political Unionism, which should be leading the way, is struggling because its strategy and thinking, in so far as they are apparent, are misaligned with the values of a civic and pro-Union constituency which is rejecting traditional Unionist identity and ideology; no longer prepared to carry the baggage and negativity of the past.

As Ireland’s Future, civic and political Nationalism continue to gaze into the crystal ball of 2030 and why not, the benefits of sustaining linkage to the United Kingdom remains strong but the case is not well made by unionist representatives or reflected in electoral outcomes.

This is resulting in a growing discussion that they cannot do so; that this points to the need for a fresh and more strategic and rebranded pro-Union movement to emerge.

What could it look like?

This, would be issue and solution-centred, committed to civic and sectoral engagement and civic representation; to making Northern Ireland a more prosperous and aspirational place, educationally and economically.

It would be unwedded to narrow ideologies, denominationally unaligned, welcoming and diverse and committed to the consensual strands of the Good Friday Agreement, whilst remaining open to reforming the NI Assembly; supportive of a Bill of Rights, equality and greater accountability in fiscal affairs and the delivery of public services.

It would seek to learn from and build on proven good practice for governance.

All would be grounded in reconciling the community to what we have done to ourselves in the past and how we can ensure that it never happens again.

……….maybe at the next election?

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