There is a big opportunity for a new generation of unionist politicians to reflect about ideas and policy, and to fashion new narratives to appeal to a new generation of electors. A single unionist party is unlikely to encourage that. It is time for unionists to look outwards rather than to retreat within, writes academic Arthur Aughey…
By Dr Arthur Aughey
Unionist unity is the spectre that perpetually haunts political debate in Northern Ireland. As a chapter in the book of Unionism it would begin with the line: ‘And with a leap and a bound they were free’. That literary device is a convenient way to avoid the illogicality of plot, poor sequencing of events but above all, failure of imagination. Unionist unity is the political equivalent. It isn’t convincing in literature and it isn’t convincing in politics. What is the narrative of unionist unity?
The immediate tactical purpose behind Unionist Unity seems to be to prevent Sinn Fein becoming the majority party in the next Assembly election and thus taking the post of First Minister. This possibility, of course, was something into which the DUP leapt at St Andrews in 2006 and into which we now are all bound.
Parties, as Lord Gilmour once wrote, are like armies because they march on their stomachs. And the partisan calculation is that the unionist electorate will not stomach a Sinn Fein First Minister and as a consequence unionist representatives will face the wrath of their community. The concern is with sectarian victory – but whose victory is it?
Lateral thinking might suggest that the greatest victory for unionism would be to have Martin McGuinness as the international spokesman for Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom (perhaps there is a lesson to be had here from the experience of a Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast?). Indeed, Lord Bew once wrote shortly after the Belfast Agreement of 1998 that unionists had won but didn’t realise it.
McGuinness as First Minister could be another example of unionists winning but not knowing it. And since, thanks to Sinn Fein, the position of Deputy First Minister is joint and not subordinate, he would have a unionist minder anyway. Rather than devoting political energies towards the objective of unity would it not be best to start promoting that message?
The longer term strategic purpose is what, exactly? Is it as an end in itself? Or is it a means to an end? The only end would be to increase the turn-out of those who support the Union. Would unionist unity achieve that? My wager would be no.
What is needed is a new generation of politicians with new ideas who can reflect the diverse currents within that electorate. I would suggest that a single unionist party is unlikely to encourage that. The unionist voter is often considered primitive in outlook, fearful and anxious. However, as Anthony McIntyre wrote in the aftermath of the recent General Election, unionist voters had shown the capacity to think and to act on that thinking, especially in East Belfast:
‘Unionism, long considered obstinate and incapable of change, usually fared poorly in the eyes of the international community compared to their nationalist opponents. Now a considerable swathe of unionist opinion has demonstrated its lack of regard for the less that wholesome behaviour of its key leader.’
He concluded that ‘unionism has been considerably strengthened by seizing the moral high ground. Coupled with the Tories being back in office the future might not look orange but it certainly looks bright for the union’.
Now seasoned followers of McIntrye may say that he has an agenda here and it is to pour scorn on the Adams agenda. However, he does tell truth to Provo power and it is important for unionists sometimes to see themselves as others see them.
It is a positive message repeated by Liam Clarke in the News Letter. ‘Nobody believes’, he wrote, ‘that a united Ireland is one step closer because Naomi Long, and not Peter Robinson or Trevor Ringland, won East Belfast. Sinn Fein aren’t predicting that we should stock up on euros just because Alasdair McDonnell held on in South Belfast’. And I think he gets to the heart of the matter here:
‘The issue of the Union fails to engage many voters because it is not endangered by election results. It can only be changed by a referendum and that may be why the so-called Prods in the garden centres, the non-voting unionists, are unwilling to be corralled on this issue every time a politician wants their votes.’
The only moment that I felt the Union was in danger recently was when credence was given to the absurd proposal for a ‘progressive coalition’ which would have put the fate of the United Kingdom government into the hands of the nationalist parties and made the Union a bazaar – or bizarre – of Celtic bargains which would have outraged England and provoked disaster. But that nightmare on Downing Street has gone. And the irony of all the media nonsense about the Conservatives intervening in Northern Ireland is that the current MP for East Belfast is by allegiance part of the Con-Lib Coalition.
Unionist unity is the sort of thing associated with cold sweats at 3AM when you awake after nightmares of the end. Having in the past suffered those cold sweats, I can understand the appeal of the argument. However, I do not share it. My point is that there is a big opportunity in present circumstances for the new generation of unionist politicians to reflect about ideas and policy, to fashion new narratives to appeal to a new generation of electors without constantly worrying about the end.
It is not unionism which is under threat, it is the republican project which has imploded. I think mobilising for unionist unity is to play yesterday’s game and waste political energy that could be better expended elsewhere in these favourable political circumstances. Blogs like Open Unionism show that there is a fund of political intelligence to be tapped and Open Unionism should be the motif of contemporary political debate. It is time for unionists to look outwards rather than to retreat within.
Dr Arthur Aughey is a senior lecturer in the School of Economics and Politics at the University of Ulster. He was awarded a Senior Distinguished Research Fellowship by the university in 2004 in recognition of his contribution to the study of Conservatism, the politics of Northern Ireland and constitutional change in the UK.