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…
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.