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Progressive unity, not unionist unity, is the better option…

Ahead of a Young Unionist debate this week on the motion “This Party…believes progressive unity offers a more productive political future than unionist unity”, motion author Richard Price outlines some of his arguments…

Itu, Sao Paulo State, Brazil

Elections are to a large extent fought on dividing lines formed by the parties before polling – clear cut and simple choices put to the electorate of one alternative as posed to another.

So often in Northern Ireland though those dividing lines are cut along unproductive and over-rehearsed lines: the Unionist/Nationalist choice, with each visit to the polling booth treated as little more than another de facto border poll.

With choice then so crudely presented, underlying policy differences between the political parties on domestic issues are too often hidden in the shade. What is the DUP’s workable policy alternative on school transfer? Where do the SDLP stand on how to transform the balance of public and private sector in Northern Ireland? What would the Ulster Unionists do to cut crime? How would Sinn Fein set about revitalising town centres?

I, nor indeed many other members of the public, could not readily give the answers to these questions, because the unionist/nationalist presentational paradigm means the questions need neither be asked or answered.

Little wonder then that so many of our Executive Ministers struggle with their ministries, with few clear objectives advanced to the electorate before taking post, and a consequent lack of mandate when in post.

I propose then, that with the union safe for the medium term future under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, its time to move the dividing lines. At the next Assembly election, the clear cut choice to the electorate should be: Do you want a Fundamentalist (DUP/Sinn Fein) Executive, or a Progressive Executive (UUP, SDLP, Alliance)?

To present such a choice will take a determined effort by the UUP, SDLP and Alliance to frame such a dividing line, by agreeing a set of core agreed policies in advance of the election, and shaping their media strategy and programme accordingly. All the time the electorate will need to reminded that the progressive v fundamentalist destiny of the Executive is the stake at the election, and critiques of DUP and Sinn Fein ministries fashioned in this sense.

It will take political will from the leaderships of the three progressive Executive parties to achieve this, but the prize on offer is a worthy one: A 2011 Executive with a progressive majority and with a cross community mandate to deliver clear, and pre-agreed, policy objectives.

The price of failure is equally daunting: 4 more years of the current DUP/Sinn Fein sectional carve-up and the further cantonisation of Northern Ireland.

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19 Responses

  1. fair_deal says:

    “Do you want a Fundamentalist (DUP/Sinn Fein) Executive, or a Progressive Executive (UUP, SDLP, Alliance)?”

    1. This was tried and failed before in 2003 and 2007 by the UUP.
    2. Margaret Ritchie made it clear in her first interview she is not interested in this.

    “The price of failure is equally daunting: 4 more years of the current DUP/Sinn Fein sectional carve-up and the further cantonisation of Northern Ireland.”

    Incorrect there is the alternative of a United Unionism

    • Richard Price says:

      “there is the alternative of a United Unionism”

      I guess I didn’t go into a great amount detail on this one in the post, but to my mind “a United Unionism” sounds like, well just that, and no more. What does it actually achieve beyond “have what we hold”?

      It focuses all attention on to the constitutional question (which noone is currently asking right now) at the expense of the other policy considerations that DO need answering e.g. job creation, working class education attainment, cancer survival rates etc.

      As I try to explore in the post – in the climate, can’t we not afford to try and lessen the monopoly of the unionist/nationalist primary choice at polling, and challenge the electorate to give their politicians another type of mandate – on policy delivery.

  2. fair_deal says:

    PS there is the fact most of the UUP aren’t closet alliance party members as for “such a choice will take a determined effort by the UUP” not exactly the UUP’s forte is it?

    • st etienne says:

      As opposed to closet DUP members?

      Whatever your criticisms of the UUP to insinuate the Alliance have a more dominant raison d’etre is hilarious. Let’s be honest the biggest success to date for them has been a successful protest vote against Robinson, a man who endured an embarrassingly obvious campaign of shit-stirring from what passes for local media here.

      Moreover labelling anything and everything outside of tribal unionism as non-unionism really highlights the demographic cul de sac the united unionists/DUP would have us believe is actually the way ahead.

      • fair_deal says:

        “Moreover labelling anything and everything outside of tribal unionism as non-unionism ”

        I did not describe it as non-unionism that is an assumption you have jumped too. Please deal with what i say not you wish I said.

      • st etienne says:

        I did not describe it as non-unionism that is an assumption you have jumped too.

        there is the fact most of the UUP aren’t closet alliance party members

    • Richard Price says:

      Why do you automatically equate wanting an Executive that performs its primary tasks better and doesn’t obssess on green and orange issues with Alliance?

      Alliance aren’t the only people unimpressed with DUP and Sinn Fein ministries.

  3. thedissenter says:

    It is easier to unite with others, and for them to join with you, when everyone knows what the other stands for. So the first question (and only because of the post, the same question could be asked of any NI Party); ‘what does the UUP stand for’. Forget the rest. Just the UUP. What is the purpose, policy or principle that differentiates it from all the others.

    Then you can tell us what ‘progressive’ means. For example if Cameron is in a ‘progressive coalition’ then why isn’t the UUP sticking with the Conservatives/ Come to that, why is Naomi Long sitting apart from the Liberals at Westminister? See what happens when the obvious questions are asked?

  4. In my experience, “progressive” generally means whatever the speaker intends it to mean. It all depends on how you define progress.

    The Long question is also easy to answer – Alliance and the LibDems both suffer from the third-party problem of being coalitions of quite disparate interests. There are plenty of left-wingers in both parties who are uncomfortable with the Conservatives – the difference is that while the SDP wing of the LibDems have to go along with the coalition for the sake of party unity, Long is under no such constraint.

    • st etienne says:

      Long was never actually invited in the first place of course.

    • thedissenter says:

      The first part of the comment is the entire point. If you use the term progressive to wrap up a group of Parties as the post does, then it on the one hand the UUP and Alliance could already play the big card and stick with the ‘progressive’ coalition building on existing relationships. If that is not the progressive meant, then what does ‘progressive’ mean to the post’s author? Which takes us back to the first part of your comment.

    • Richard Price says:

      Indeed, “Progressive” is used as a descriptor by all sorts of political groupings and movements. And its the fluidity in its definition which makes it a very useable potential banner for UUP, Alliance and SDLP to work together under.

      If there’s any value in seeking to define it in the above context, it could be simply and briefly in the negative: “not DUP or Sinn Fein”.

      Or in less succinct longer form, “not putting disputes over flags, languages, emblems, histories, religious interpretations and personalities ABOVE the achievement of positive health, education and socio-economic policy outcomes”.

      The more important point being though, I think there is a thirst out there, from door step experience, to see an Executive that can really deliver, and led by partners at the top who, though of different views on the constitution, actually don’t mind each other too much, can get their heads down and get on with the job and have already scoped out a provisional list of agreed priorities to this end.

      The UUP and SDLP should make that pitch to the electorate, that they are those constructive and cooperative government partners in waiting, and they’ve already got their sleeves rolled up ready to start on Day 1 after the election.

  5. The suggestion made in this piece is similar to that of Professor Wilford writing for theBelfast Telegraph

    He says this

    “..Besides Sinn Fein, the only party to increase its vote share at the General Election was Alliance, capped by Naomi Long’s victory in East Belfast.

    In addition, Margaret Ritchie’s determination to resist electoral seduction by Sinn Fein, suggests that there may be the opportunity to forge a shared platform embracing the UUP, the SDLP and, perhaps, Alliance.

    Devising a campaign on common, cross-community ground rather than, in the UUP’s and SDLP’s case, diving for cover into their respective communal trenches would herald a decisively new kind of politics — though not as game-changing as the preparedness of a unionist to serve alongside Martin McGuinness as deputy First Minister, should such |circumstances arise.”

    I would not dismiss this idea at all. The Northern Ireland Electorate is yearning for Ministers to work together and this would be a genuine cross-community initiative. This would also be different to what has gone on before. In this instance, the electorate would be asked to send its second preference vote to a canddiate from a different community.

    It is true that the the parties could find difficulty with a common approach to education. The UUP would need to pull back its horns on parades but it should not be difficult for them to agree a set of common policies. The difficulty which could arise might be in relation to quota of candidates. For example, if the Alliance Party is to be involved, they would have to be given a little bit more than what they have now, owtherwise there is nothing in it for them.

    Could these three parties agree to such a common approach? I have my doubts but we should await the outcome of the UUP leadership election before throwing this idea into the bin.

  6. fair_deal says:

    St etienne

    Where did I describe the alliance as non-unionists?

  7. Ranger1640 says:

    A progressive alliance with the SDLP and Alliance. Are you for real. What working class Unionist voter will go for that.

    Before you float that idea, the elephant in the room is Sinn Fein. Until they are defeated electorally every working class Unionist will vote for the candidate that can keep Sinn Fein out.

    Take North Belfast, I don’t particularly vote for the candidate I want. I vote to keep Sinn Fein’s, Gerry Kelly out.

    • Richard Price says:

      “A progressive alliance with the SDLP and Alliance. Are you for real. What working class Unionist voter will go for that.”

      As I see it, working class unionists have the most to gain from an Executive that, united in purpose, succeeds in transforming our economy, takes measures to improve working class education attainment, strives in earnest to combat the poverty trap, sets about helping people out of worklessness and launches a real drive against drug pedalling and gang culture.

      Voting to retain the parties responsibile for Executive deadlock and under performance is, in this sense, in my view, against working class unionist self-interest.

      I agree though, thats not the way many people in working class communities see it right now (though some do).

      That’s why the need for a proper coordinated communications drive by the three parties in the year up to the election is crucial to changing perception of whats at stake at the election. I don’t underestimate the challenge.

      However, with the DUP and Sinn Fein combined representing 50% of the electorate in 2010, and UUP, Alliance and SDLP 39%, its a 3% swing from fundamentalist to progressive needed on each side of the fence in order that progressives can claim lead (if not quite majority) mandate. Its doable.

      “the elephant in the room is Sinn Fein. Until they are defeated electorally every working class Unionist will vote for the candidate that can keep Sinn Fein out”

      Granted, that is the current status of how many voters see their choice at the election. I’m advocating we try and change that perception of choice.

      The trouble is, more voters need to consider the flawed logic in voting DUP to stop Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein feed off the DUP and vice-versa. Alot of the Sinn Fein vote, I suggest, just like the DUP vote, consider “well at least they’ll stand up to them other lot”. A mutually reinforcing fear vote.

      If you then add “Unionist Unity” into the mix, watch Sinn Fein add another 5% to their vote overnight. At least. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction in a zero sum unionist/nationalist stand off.

      So neither unionist unity, nor DUP will ever actually “keep Sinn Fein out”.

      Making Sinn Fein seem electorally and politically irrelevant, out of step with the times and deficient in answers to the big problems of the day (as they are seen in the Republic of Ireland) might just change things though.

      Achieving that, means in part, giving the SDLP an opportunity to demonstrate they can be the nationalist party who really get meaningful things done for people. Which might be demonstrated through a progressive v fundamentalist paradigm, and hopeful Executive.

      Take North Belfast, I don’t particularly vote for the candidate I want. I vote to keep Sinn Fein’s, Gerry Kelly out.

      Well at least if we get AV elections you might be allowed to state your preferences more fairly at future Westminster contests.

      However, the progressive unity I’m suggesting would only apply to the Assembly election: a specific response to a specific problem – an underwhelming, underperforming and underachieving Executive 2007 to 11.

  8. Food for Thought says:

    Richard don’t let all these be-fuddlers get you down – you are bang-on correct in your analysis – and if the Young Unionists adopt the motion that “This Party…believes progressive unity offers a more productive political future than unionist unity” then that would be a significant step in lighting the way forward for the UUP.

    The UUP is on the verge of extinction – it desperately needs to free itself from the DUPs lethal ‘united unionism’ grasp – which could mean the end of not just the UUP but of Unionism – because a DUP-run ‘united unionist’ party would alienate all the voters it needs to win any ‘Principle of Consent’ referendum ( all the moderate pro-Union voters who currently vote for Alliance and other centre-parties).

    A ‘united unionist’ party would have huge difficulty even winning 35-40% of the NI vote. How on earth would it ever be capable of winning a consent referendum on NI’s place in the Union?

    Any UUP leadership candidate worth his or her salt should – absolutely and unequivocally – reject any idea of the DUP swallowing up the UUP, whether by a merger or a softer ‘unionist co-operation’ thing (as Reg and Tom seem to favour).

    The UUP should focus on working – for the interests of the future of Northern Ireland – as an equal partner with the SDLP – instead of being swallowed up as a tiny minor partner by the DUPs or Tories.

    The UUP is the Founding Party of Northern Ireland and it can stand on it’s own two feet without being a subsidiary to anyone else whether DUP or Tories!

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