A positive unionism open to all would demonstrate the narrowness and restrictiveness of Irish nationalism…
The debate was characterised by the term ‘New Unionism’. What we have seen since then has been the outworking of that debate.
For someone who was deeply involved in the discussions around ‘New Unionism’ it became apparent to me there was a division within those who used the term.
Some simply wished to find a term to hide their intellectual poverty and desire to cut a deal at any costs with nationalism. Others wanted it to mean a Unionism better at all that it did including negotiations.
I was never among the former group, the defeatists but I always wanted a better, more strategic, confident and professional unionism.
With the Belfast Agreement the defeatists got their way. With such poor foundations the results were predictable – political instability and never ending concessions that were debilitating to unionism.
When the DUP took the lead in negotiations, you saw what those committed to a better Unionism could do. Unionists went to the negotiating table and came away with something better than what they started with.
The result has been stable devolved government that was able to square the policing and justice circle. Although, I accept that the form of devolution that we now have is not perfect and further changes need to be made in order to make it a better form of government.
What does this background have to do with 2021?
Because it is was this debate in 1990’s unionism that has shaped the Northern Ireland we live in today.
The poverty of vision of the defeatists was implemented and exposed. The mantle of delivering a better unionism and Northern Ireland had fallen to the DUP.
The DUP’s 2003 Assembly campaign of “It’s time for a fair deal” made clear they wanted to lift that mantle. The UUP refused to learn anything from its defeat and chose to carry on regardless with its weak-kneed approach.
That is why after the 2003 election I, like tens of thousands of former Ulster Unionist voters, moved to the DUP. Yet the tasks of this better unionism did not end with an agreement that delivered political stability.
Our task for 2021 and beyond is to build a new shining city on the hill. A city built on the values of excellence, enterprise, family, limited government and tolerance.
A gateway into this city will be the Ulster Protestant identity but it will not be the only one.
The mistake civic/liberal unionists make is that they believe they can build a new city upon exclusion of those who come to Unionism on the basis of identity. They are wrong.
They wrongly present people’s political choices as one dimensional. Unionism will be its most successful when all its gateways are open and it has a message that aims to attract the greatest number to the cause of the greater good.
Unionism can have a breadth and depth to it that can make it relevant to more people than the narrowness and restrictiveness of Irish nationalism.
Unionist unity could help deliver such a vision. The idea of the new city is an inclusive one. It is an idea that a credible and sustainable broad church could be built around.
It can create space for Unionism to adopt new approaches. The human and financial resources of Unionism can be focused on delivering a positive vision for Unionism and Northern Ireland rather than back-biting and sniping.
Some have jumped on the Fermanagh and South Tyrone result as an electoral argument against unionist unity.
However, they omit that their predictions of an energised nationalism were incorrect (the nationalist vote fell).
They also wilfully ignore that a divided unionism delivered a 10 per cent drop in the unionist vote.
However, beyond the statistics they fail to grasp how strong and powerful an idea unionist unity could be built around.
Arlene Foster is a DUP MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone and the minister for enterprise, trade and investment