In his a guest post for Open Unionism, The Dissenter suggests that the vexed issue of a possible Sinn Fein First Minister is short-termist – the bigger strategic problem for Unionism lies in the failure of Sir Reg Empey to stabilise and provide purpose to the UUP and the DUP’s failure to dismiss the TUV altogether and to regain momentum lost in 2009. These reflect something of the deeper malaise within unionist parties, the blogger says…
The focus of that debate on the future of Unionism appears to have centred around numbers; focused on whether in the forthcoming 2011 election Sinn Fein might gain a position where it may be able to lay claim to the post of First Minister.
Since the changes following the St Andrews Agreement any party with the votes and seats necessary can lay claim to the post of First Minister. This provides for more equitable power-sharing in that it does not create a hierarchy of parties – theoretically anyone can be a First Minister. Would it make a great difference for Sinn Fein to be First Minister? If you accept Sinn Fein as a partner in Government then why not?
The focus on the issue of First Minister is a tactical one – a means to give purpose to closer co-operation between the parties (if not merger). Yet the real issue is not one of tactics to meet short-term and tokenistic outcomes. The failure of Sir Reg (lost seat, lost leadership) to stabilise and provide purpose to the UUP, the DUP’s failure to dismiss the TUV altogether and to regain momentum lost in 2009, reflect deeper malaise within unionist parties.
Ironically, the arrival of the TUV brought unionist voters to the polling booths and increased the overall unionist vote would suggest that disunity has its advantages, allowing the fractious and independently minded unionist voter an avenue to express discontent with established parties.
Addressing unionist unity from a structural perspective is bound to disappoint. Political party realignment is merely mixing decks and dishing out the job cards in a different order. The electorate is hardly likely to be impressed. Identifying a loss of voter, by class or aspiration, does not address the message sent at the Westminster election: none of the leaders of unionism presented a coherent and inspirational purpose for unionism in the twenty-first century.
A unionist should feel proud to fly the Union flag, and should not feel that it is somewhat diminished when wrapped around those who seek to lead Unionism. It should not be worn in anger, it should not cover embarrassment, and it should not be wrapped around a backroom deal. Discussion on the Union should be a matter of substance, not tactical number crunching: it is a matter for open discussion, not whispers behind closed doors.
Unionist Parties may be under threat through a loss of relative electoral strength. That does not mean that the Union is under threat: which is not to say that the Union cannot be lost. On The Dissenter there is a longer exercise in looking at the outcomes of the Westminster election and reading the runes. There are a few pointers which may shape consideration of the future for Unionists.
- The overall nationalist vote appears static.
- Nationalist voters appear just as disengaged as unionist voters.
- The UUP might consider its future within a regional/national and liberal conservative context, but is otherwise nothing but a fading reflection of better times.
- The DUP built its presence on becoming biggest: now it is, what next?
- The unionist voter seemed uninspired by any of the unionist Parties’ offers.
- The overall unionist vote benefits from disunity, not unity.
- The SDLP was dominant in 1998. What happened?
- If Sinn Fein is a worthy party for Government, and to hold a post co-equal to the First Minister then why shouldn’t it hold the post of First Minister?
- The issue of a Sinn Fein First Minister is a narrow tactical argument that distracts from the lack of attractive leadership from either the UUP or DUP, or from anywhere elsewhere in unionist circles.
- Short-term tactical considerations will not address the future of unionism as a political cause.
- The Union is safe: at least that rests with the electorate and not the politicians.
The Westminster election changed very little. The points above have been matters for varying degree of consideration for some time. The election has simply brought them to the fore. Much of that discussion has taken place at Open Unionism and in the pages of the press, and probably around the lunch tables of Stormont buildings and meeting places elsewhere.
Tactical considerations of stopping a Sinn Fein First Minister are given an air of immediacy, including an urgency on discussion of political party restructuring. The larger and more important issue of the purpose and sense of Unionist cause is receiving less attention, perhaps because there is no personal or party gain in thinking outside the box? (It is a lonely place outside the box, and risky.) How does the discussion move beyond the tactical and party political to a more central discussion on the nature and future expression of Unionism fit for the twenty-first century?
Without a common understanding of the central tenets of Unionism there is little chance of Party political unity among unionists. Unionists must know what the Union is for, holding common purpose; it must not be defined by what it is not, what it is against. The electorate wishes positive, not negative, Unionism. With that central understanding would party political unionism mean anything anyway? Is unionism an ‘ism’ at all? How do we move beyond a position of being in defence of the Union to advancing and deepening the Union? These are the questions to be the subject of Looking Forward: Part 2. Later.