‘Nurture youthful leaders’
Unionism needs to radically focus on youth, targeting those who have just received A-level results, as unionist frontline representatives of 2021
By Geoff McGimpsey
Unionism can reasonably assert that it’s got a lot to be proud of. Northern Ireland’s constitutional status has been dealt with; Northern Ireland is a more inclusive and stable society; power sharing is bringing power closer to communities and individuals; and all sections of society support the rule of law.
Unionism has played a central role in effecting political change that makes this a better, more productive and rewarding society to be part of. Yes, the system is still imperfect but it’s working more perfectly than it ever did.
What do unionists have to fear? Is a United Ireland detectable on the horizon? Not to my eye. Should Unionists fear the notion of Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister? Emphatically not.
If the majority of constitutional nationalists vote for Sinn Fein then he could be First Minister. If Unionists accept the will of fellow citizens (however displeasing) and respect their choice it demonstrates the integral strength of Northern Ireland’s democracy. To do anything else confirms the worst that Unionism’s critics would say of it. Besides, FM/DFM are joint posts – is the sky crashing in right now?
The worst is most likely behind the Unionist populace. Looking ahead, three things can help promote future success. Unionist parties must: fast-track talent (and retire ‘bedblockers’); invest heavily in communications; and finally, campaign on positive propositions (remember that disastrous DUP Euro election).
Take the first of these – fast-tracking talent. Anyone remember Tyrone Howe? Here was a young guy, a well-known sportsman with an international business degree and fluency in languages, who ought to have been groomed as a future MEP. But that didn’t happen. Discouraged and ignored, he quit representative politics within two and a half years.
By 2021, I’ll be in my late 40s. By that stage I would like to see frontline Unionist politicians who are in their early 30s. Or in other words, the frontbench Unionist of 2021 has just got his / her A Level results. What are the parties doing to engage them?
That leads me to the second issue – communications. Unionist parties already possess the raw material to sell themselves (committed people; experience in government; and real power to influence change in communities), they need to refine the sales pitch and transform their communications.
Unionist party media operations are overwhelmingly calibrated for a single audience – journalists. But in a fragmenting media landscape, it’s now vital that they should look beyond traditional media. If the Union in 2021 is to mean anything to a 2021 audience, then serious resources (people and money) needs to be invested in modern online and digital communications.
Political parties need to innovate and self-publish – they need to speak directly to target audience groups rather than through media middle-men. The fundamental relationship is between the elector and those who seek election – that relationship predates journalism. Online and social media permits a purer, more authentic and direct form of engagement, and I feel that this is central to ensuring Unionism connects with and radicalises young people.
But what of Unionist unity? Will that be key to attracting those young people into politics? Probably not. The concept of unionism being based around sectarian headcounts is a thing of the past. In truth, Unionist unity may be counterproductive in so far as it loses ideas which only emerge through the white heat of competition. A more constructive tone to inter-party relations is desirable, but at this stage I’m unconvinced that it should be anything more.
Unionists have much to be proud of. They have in effect realised their vision and they should now be prepared to campaign positively on the strength of their records. Younger people and disaffected voters will be inspired by positive, constructive messages – the ‘stop the shinners’ line has had its day. No more tilting at windmills.