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Post Unionist Unity…

Adding his voice to the debate on unionist unity, East Belfast TUV candidate David Vance says people have been turned off by negative politics and are looking for a dynamic form of leadership that focuses on providing better outcomes and more stable government. A united unionist vision has a role to play here and there is an urgency to bring this about before the next set of elections…

By David Vance

In the wake of the General Election results perhaps it is timely to ask the simple question; Is Unionism working? I think any objective commentator will have to conclude that the answer to that is a resounding “Ulster says No!”  We have fewer people than ever now turning out who can be bothered enough to vote Unionist, we have fewer Unionist MPs than ever and we face the grim prospect of the largest Party in the Assembly elections next year being Republican, not Unionist.  Amidst this chaos and discord rises the understandable cry for Unionist unity – but is this a political panacea or a constitutional chimera?

Twelve years on from the Belfast Agreement, I believe that a section of Unionism has become essentially “post-Unionist.”  These people are rather less interested in the durability of their British identity and are more concerned about what works for them here in Northern Ireland. Seduced by the Stormont Assembly they are relatively disinterested in traditional unionist values and even recoil from that which is branded Conservative.  A Sovietised economy and memories of historical betrayals make even brand Cameron seem toxic. UCUNF was perhaps a noble aspiration but it foundered because it misunderstood the mood of Unionist voters. TUV encountered similar problems in terms of message delivery and electoral response. A significant section of Unionism has been conditioned to accept that what we have is the best available and we just need to get on with it. Their Unionism broadly extends as far as the size of the block grant, the rest is detail.

The DUP perfectly encapsulate their ambitions and I believe this is why the DUP has become so ascendant in local tribal unionist politics. By morphing into an NI version of the SNP, Ulster Nationalism appears to hold a greater attraction for many of those who do vote. Essentially administrators of the block grant, the DUP variant of Unionism postures as wanting ”more” from the Exchequer, indicating a preparedness to even enter into an anti-English pact with the other fringe Nationalist Parties.  However as well as administrating the block grant, the DUP also works as a co-partner with Sinn Fein/IRA, a party overtly dedicated to the destruction of the Union.  So Unionism is now entrusted to a Party which is Ulster Nationalist in outlook and which is quite content to work with Irish Republicans committed to the destruction of the Union.

The real political challenge lies with those who value Unionism but in a broad British context.  These are the people who need to unite in some way and offer a big vision alternative in contrast to small minded Ulster Nationalism. If they try to unite with the Ulster Nationalists, they will of course be devoured.

The challenge lies in constructing attractive policies around a solid narrative that can energise unionist voters into seeing that the best future lies within the United Kingdom.  It needs to be a pluralist unionism, leaving rancid sectarianism in the past. It needs to be an appealing Unionism that people can see being relevant to their daily lives. I am certain people are turned off by negative politics and are looking for a dynamic form of leadership that focuses on providing better outcomes for our people and more stable government. A united unionist vision has a role to play here and there is an urgency to bring this about before the next set of elections.

Perhaps the critical issue is whether Unionism chooses to look outwards over the next 12 months or instead prefers to navel gaze. Will short-termism trump strategy? Unionism cannot go back in time. What is done is done. However those with common interests can now choose to set aside petty rivalry and engage in a positive debate where the objective is a united unionist vision for a better Northern Ireland within this United Kingdom. Have we the courage to embrace this?

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12 Responses

  1. Chekov says:

    I’m very open to the way your thinking in the post David, but is the problem not that ‘unionism in a broad British context’ is in essence divided, because it is aligned around the same faultlines which exist in UK politics as a whole?

    • thedissenter says:

      I would be more sympathetic with this post and believed it more credible in seeking a positive note had the TUV not run an entirely anti-DUP campaign and seemed only to put across a Mr Angry persona throughout.

      Chekov, you are exactly right. I was responding to this when I realised I had almost written a blog piece, which is what I am off to do and intend to have it completed by the weekend.

  2. slug says:

    A good piece by David Vance.

    ” The real political challenge lies with those who value Unionism but in a broad British context. These are the people who need to unite in some way and offer a big vision alternative in contrast to small minded Ulster Nationalism…It needs to be a pluralist unionism, leaving rancid sectarianism in the past. It needs to be an appealing Unionism that people can see being relevant to their daily lives. I am certain people are turned off by negative politics and are looking for a dynamic form of leadership that focuses on providing better outcomes for our people and more stable government. A united unionist vision has a role to play here and there is an urgency to bring this about before the next set of elections.”

    Essentially this means a united unionism must leave off the DUP because it’s really ulster nationalism. I agree with his assessment of the DUP’s type of unionism. DUP’s unionism “does not go beyond the block grant” – well put.

    Chekov says there are left, liberal, and right faultlines in British unionism.

    But Alliance look so at home with Lib Dem thinking that they surely represent that strand – not of “Unionism” (to be fair they don’t want that label) but of historical liberal UK politics.

    And if UK Labour were to stand – and locals in that party do want to – they can cover that base without being unionist. I think they will, eventually.

    I noted on H&M that Nigel Dodds was VERY keen that the UUP break their Conservative links-I am suspicious of his motivation. I would suggest the link should be kept but mot given such prominence.

  3. fair_deal says:

    Blaming the voters is an understandable but unwise rationalisation

  4. Orangeman says:

    I’m baffled by the “Ulster nationalism” charge directed at the DUP. Nationalism is about changing existing constitutional relationships with different ones. There is nothing in the DUP’s programme geared to this end. The DUP is simply playing the existing devolved settlement to maximise NI’s advantage. That might appear parochial but it’s not nationalism.

    Unionists are good at creating artificial points of difference to justify in-fighting (see the devolution-integration joust of yesteryear). The pluralist v. traditionalist one has been around a long time. Graham Walker in his book on the UUP shows that unionists at different times in the 21-72 period emphasised each strand as was believed to be appropriate to circumstance. But this was done within the context of a broad church political movement where differences of opinion were not permitted to damage the unity of the movement as a whole.

    Both main unionist parties have little substantive between them. Both support devolution within the UK under the Belfast Agreement. I suggest one important reason reason why unionists are not turning out to vote is a protest vote against the constant bickering and in-fighting. No one can claim that unionism over the last 40 years has benefited from this. With the UUP’s decline showing no sign of ending, and with Paisley Senior and (hopefully soon) Robinson out of the picture, perhaps a new kind of unionism can emerge.

    Unionist unity is no panacea, but if a broad consensus can be found as to the best way to run the institutions over the next 20 years, then what is the point of unionists going on ripping each other to pieces?

    • slug says:

      “Nationalism is about changing existing constitutional relationships with different ones.”

      No it’s not.

  5. David Vance says:

    Thank you for the feedback guys.

    Can I try and add a little extra context.

    Chekov – Good point. UK fault-lines are a significant factor which we should reflect upon however given the essential constitutional position of the new Government, unionism should try to find ways to learn from it, to integrate within it, and to look beyond our six counties?

    Dissenter – I write this as me.

    Slug – you get it.

    Fair Deal – Should we not question why so many unionist voters chose not to vote at all? Isn’t it reasonable to wonder what made them stay at home and how, if it all, can we motivate them to come back out? Or do we accept ever dwindling voters?

    Orangeman – The DUP does seem to resemble the SNP by the day. I would welcome a reversal of this so we can find ways to unite.

  6. fair_deal says:

    The relevance of your question to my point is exactly what? You are implying a rejection or denial of something I simply didn’t do.

    As to your point, the more people who vote for a political idea the better, its a no brainer. However, as politics morphs slowly into something closer to normality then we have to acknowledge the drops in turnout are a common problem of western democracy (what makes them more noticeable in NI is historically higher turnouts as our baseline). If we see the problem in its broader context then it leads to a broader based answer that should yield greater results.

    I would also point out that vote turnout is down vote share has remained relatively stable over the last decade (despite all the predictions of an ever-expanding nationalism).

    There is also a world beyond political messaging that has a role to play in pushing up turnout and that is doing basic politics better – registration drives, on ground activism, marked register research, door-to-door outside of elections, proper canvas during elections etc. However, too many are tempted by ‘marketing’ ‘messaging’ call it what you will being our central solution. Hard graft has a greater role to play.

  7. David Vance says:

    Fair Deal

    I posit how a Unionist Party that works closely with those plainly dedicated to the destruction of the Union, and which contemplated being part of an anti-English little Nationalist coalition, works to strengthen the Union? Maybe you could try and address that central tenet of what I argue? I can see a great argument for unionism providing an alternative to Ulster Nationalism, but not part of it since that implies a rejection of our UK values.

  8. fair_deal says:

    I have dealt with your argument – it’s a false construct to rationalise failure based on a number of misrepresentations and caricatures e.g. Ulster nationalism with a good mix of confusion thrown in e.g. a TUV candidate trying to reinvent themselves as some sort of UCUNF lite.

    People haven’t been “conditioned” at all – the TUV produced a critique but didn’t provide a plan of how their alternatives could be achieved and also none of their three alternatives delivered what it claimed. Don’t blame the people for the poverty of the TUV’s proposals.

    You fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the power-sharing arrangements as if their existence means the political battle has been somehow abandoned or lost. It hasn’t. The struggle between Unionism and nationalism has moved to the corridors of power with the ultimate determinant of the future the ballot box.

    I do not share the ‘hero’ worship of some of the abilities of Sinn Fein and I believe that they can be out-worked, out-thought and out-maneourved in the corridors of power but the area we have failed to match them is in political organisation. That is why one of the reasons why Unionist unity is worth exploring to see how that can be improved.

  9. Ulster Times says:

    The future should involve the mainland parties all standing here while at the same time, a Unionist task force should be created to maximise the Unionist vote. Such a task force should involves all types of Unionists: Roman Catholic, Protestant and Others.

    Co-operation is not sectarian. Nationalist parties work together across the British Isles. Unionist parties should do the same: Conservative & Unionists, Labour, Lib Dems/ Alliance, DUP, TUV.

    There is a large Roman Catholic minority in Northern Ireland. Attracting some of their votes will be the key to maintaining the Union.

    http://ulstertimes.blogspot.com/2010/05/ulster-conservatives-and-unionists.html

  10. Andrew says:

    David

    Thanks for this, I agree in spirit.

    Chekov said

    ‘I’m very open to the way your thinking in the post David, but is the problem not that ‘unionism in a broad British context’ is in essence divided, because it is aligned around the same faultlines which exist in UK politics as a whole?’

    I have wondered about this too. At present I tend to think this doesn’t matter. At one level the idea of a monolithic unionism has been the problem all along. If unionism is simply the political and legal union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain then our unionism as a narrative cannot rise above sectarianism. Unionists will coalesce around the party that they perceive to be best equipped to assert ‘the unionist proposition’ against the opposing Irish nationalist proposition of a United Ireland. This will always define the battleground, it not only defines but it is also the medium through which all political discourse arranges itself.

    It is a little like that hymn ‘If I could touch the hem of His garment’. This is what we have made unionism, if we could only just be part of the United Kingdom we will draw virtue from it (The DUP, incidentally call virtue ‘The Block Grant’).

    The opportunity that has arisen, and I hope this is what David means, is that for the first time in generations there is an opportunity to challenge this narrative, because of the DUP oddly enough. But the change in direction required is not just ‘outward looking’ and other hackneyed aspirational phrases but a complete change in mindset of what it means to be a unionist.

    I have said this on David’s blog and I don’t mind saying it again. A socialist cannot be a unionist in the same sense a conservative is a unionist. There are other political philosophies and I think they, more or less, follow through in the same way. This does not mean that any unionist party must be as rigid as a Presbyterian in a barn dance, within political traditions (conservative, socialist, whatever) there are differences, so I’m talking about broad schools of thought here.

    I’m sure this will divide what we presently call unionists, but then that is the whole point. Common denominator unionism is simply not good enough. And to perpetuate it will leave us fighting the same anti United Ireland battle forever. Which is ever to Sinn Fein’s advantage.

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