Regardless of the quality of the individual contributions about the idea of a United Unionism, it has been more a spasm than a proper debate and it is a proper debate that is needed.
Opponents of the idea have been keen to portray a United Unionism as some sort of monster. This is premature considering there had not been anything approaching serious discussion let alone any formal proposals or agreement. They will argue that they are warning of the possible dangers in such a process. However, the dirty rush and negativity seems more to kill the debate at birth.
Others have advocated Unity under a model they personally prefer. However, this approach will hamper the discussion as well. Any examination needs to be as open to a breadth of ideas not bog-downed in an individual model. So what is the basis of the United Unionist debate? What form should the debate take?
The Westminster Mathematics
Any debate must be based on honesty and the Assembly projections for both the DUP and UUP based on the Westminster results are reasonable. The DUP are well-placed to retain largest party status and the UUP should maintain their present size with scope for modest growth. Therefore, there is no short-term electoral necessity for it. However, this is not an argument not for trying rather it is an argument for it.
In any negotiation you need a Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA). This gives each negotiator something to assess any proposed deal against. A negotiation is healthiest when the respective parties have a good BATNA and both the DUP and UUP do. Although, the longer-term strategic benefits of Unionist Unity should prove better than their BATNAs.
Furthermore, a Unionist Unity borne out of short-term necessity could be quite possibly the worst form. It would be a shot-gun marriage most likely destined for a bitter and early divorce.
Beyond the BATNAs there needs to be recognition of the strength of a known brands. The fact the DUP was able to come through the testing times it did in a strong position is a demonstration of the endurance of brand loyalty. Similarly, despite the multiple somersaults and Janus like approach of the UUP in recent years, tens of thousands still go out and vote for them regardless.
Brand development, innovation and amalgamation are perfectly possible. Also neither the DUP nor UUP brand is perfect but any new United Unionist brand has to be clear on how it can be at least as strong as the existing ones and preferably even stronger.
Moving Forward and Reaching Out
The discussion must also examine the two long-term strategic challenges for Unionism – the fall in turn-out and the need to expand beyond its traditional community. It will need to be clear that the fall in turn-out is in working class areas and turning it round will involve serious and sustained work on the ground. Anyone who tries to peddle the myth of a problem with garden centre prods should be taken to such a centre and introduced to a large shovel until they recognise the evidence of box turnout and voter registration shows a working class problem. The core reason the UUP has been unsuccessful in tapping this vote for the past decade or more is because it isn’t there.
The assumption of critics is that the consolidation of unity would take the form of circling the wagons. However, it could equally be a consolidation to create the space and organisational capacity for growth beyond Unionism’s traditional community. Such work must be on a realistic basis. Minority ethnic groups need to be considered as much as the Roman Catholic community. Growth will be limited and slow. The work needs to be through direct engagement with such voters, not using civic society groups as ciphers.
It will also give the opportunity to examine the role of identity politics and whether it is possible to provide credible and compatible messages to different audiences. To suddenly pretend that there isn’t a relationship simply isn’t credible but neither should it be the sole basis of Unionism.
The Value of the Debate
The debate is worth having as Unionism does not do enough internal debate about itself. The debate is worth having at tackling some of the mutual myths about the parties that develop as false barriers. It gives an opportunity to get Unionism beyond than the ‘who did what when and why’ during the peace process. The debate is worth having because regardless of overall success, it should create better and more productive working relationships. The debate would facilitate people to move beyond a guttural reaction to the idea towards something more considered.
The debate needs to be structured so that it includes the party officers and representatives, memberships and general public. This is to ensure that any progress is built upon a meeting of minds at all levels. The debate needs to examine the benefits of Unionist Unity, its risks (and potential means to manage them), the different levels of intensity it could take and the organisational options. This should involve the production of public consultation papers, debates and town hall meetings.
The debate also needs to be time-bound. The party conferences in October and November seem to provide a natural and obvious end date. This would enable any new entity the lead-in time it would need before the Assembly election or if it fails sufficient time for their parties to make the necessary preparations for the Assembly.
It would be helpful if a local newspaper would be interested in facilitating such a debate – although that would have some problems. The News Letter’s reach is not as wide is as needed and the Belfast Telegraph is sceptical of the idea. Although possibly its scepticism could prove healthy and if it proved ultimately persuaded by the debate a worthwhile boon to any developments.
A properly managed debate would reduce the risk that of any failure leading to renewed bitterness and finger-pointing.
The difficulties in such a process should not be under-estimated with many seeking to undermine it throughout and many a bear trap of personality clashes to avoid. However, a thorough, intense and constructive debate threatens no section of Unionism and would be good for Unionism overall.