Open Unionism


A forum to discuss new ideas and perspectives on Unionism…

How do we move beyond defence of the Union, to advancing and deepening it?

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…

King chess piece lying on chessboard

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.


Filed under: DUP, guest blogger, power sharing, unionist unity?, UUP, , ,

6 Responses

  1. I feel like one of those lonely people outside the box. Although I would rather NI remained part of the Union, I would rather see an end to a divided Northern Ireland Society. The irony is that efforts towards the latter objective are more likely to stave off a majority vote to leave the Union in a future referendum.

    Today, a majority of people in Northern Ireland from all age groups from 28 and under are from the Catholic community. Yet so many Unionist commenters and politicians just do not seem to want to face up to this fact. Liam Clarke, journalist, is an exception. In his latest Article to the Newsletter, he points out that it is in the interests of Unonists to take religion out of politics. I quote:

    “If religion remains the main indicator of voting preference, as it is now, then the union will be weaker because, on present projections, the Catholic population is increasing marginally faster than the Protestant population.

    The tipping point may come in 40 years or sooner, who knows?

    In the meantime, it is in unionism’s obvious interest to weaken the link between religion and politics”

    By implication, Clarke is also saying that Politicians who support the Union must begin to engage and campaign towards the Catholic community.

    The Ulster Unionist version of unionism is tainted with sectarianism and there is little that can be done to clean up that ideology. Campaigning in the Catholic Community about the Union is more likely to be counter-productive. In that context, your last bullet point is exceptionally important.

    The best way to handle it is to suppress discussion about the union and campaign on bread and butter issues. For some unionist politicians, that would not be easy but they need to make a start. When journalists ask questions about the Union, tne answer should be

    ” look that issue is not part of election politics – that is for a referendum in the future – I am here to talk to you about the things that affect people’s every day lives – the economay, tax, jobs, education….”.

    Perhaps that is easier said than done. If that can not be achieved, then it is time for the non-designated political parties to have their time.

  2. thedissenter says:

    When do the press ever ask about bread and butter issues at election time? What are the ‘bread and butter issues’ – pure cliche. So wanting to get onto policy I presume you will be setting up a policy group to bring papers forward for discussion?

    If Unionism is an ideology, who wrote the book? Where is the manifesto? What are the central tenets of ‘Unionist’ social, political and economic policy?

    The ‘outbreeding’ argument is as a sectarian a proposition as any other, and one that should simply never be entertained.

  3. Seymour Major says:

    When do the press ever ask about bread and butter issues at election time?

    In Northern Ireland, the press have hitherto not been so ‘hot’ at probing politicians on ‘bread and butter’ issues. As far as one Newspaper is concerned, I now expect that situation to change following the recent publication of a series of articles in the Belfast Telegraph.

    What are the bread and butter issues – pure cliché?

    Yes, it is a cliché. The common understanding of the term ‘bread and butter’ issues, in the context of Northern Ireland Politics, is basically any political issue which affects the lives of ordinary people and which does not concern the border and cultural issues of a tribal nature. Such issues do exist in Northern Ireland politics but they are largely relegated in importance by the existing crop of politicians at Stormont.
    If Unionism is an ideology, who wrote the book? Where is the manifesto? What are the central tenets of ‘Unionist’ social, political and economic policy?
    Your third question above suggests that you believe that an ideology has to have a social and economic policy. There is more than one definition of ideology. The one I prefer is a set of ideas reflecting the aspirations, beliefs and interests of a nation, group, class, culture. There does not have to be a manifesto or a book. However, there are certainly books published which make references to Unionism as an ideology.

    The ‘outbreeding’ argument is as a sectarian a proposition as any other, and one that should simply never be entertained.

    “Outbreeding” is your choice of language, not mine and your reference to sectarianism suggests that you want to slam the door on any discussion about demography. Liam Clarke suggests that the Union can survive only if it (unionism) delivers (on promise of equality, opportunity and prosperity) better than Nationalism can. He writes

    “If it can, then the union will be secure, not just in 2021 but in 2121 and beyond. If it can’t then no amount of circling the wagons and calls for unity will be able to shore it up indefinitely. Why should they?”

    You can call the study, analysis and discussion of population changes as “sectarian” if you like but that will not prevent thinking unionists from taking the issue seriously.

  4. oneill says:

    “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.)”

    There’s an unfortunate conundrum for Unionism there; long-term strategical thinking doesn’t bring short-term benefit (personal or party) and since most of the Unionist political elite are now professional politicians (and the wrong side of 50) what is in it for them to plot out a path which might have a detrimental effect on their own future?

    • thedissenter says:

      Oh yes. That is a conundrum. The other, for the DUP, is that their best was focused on Westmiinster. They are still there, which means there needs to be a big influx of talent to the Assembly to compensate for the departures due to ‘double-jobbing’ etc.

  5. […] has contributed to The News Letter’s Union 2021 series of articles. David is a blogger who has contributed guest posts here in the past – his blog can be found The Dissenter. This latest article appeared in the […]

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