Civic unionism has been a concept much discussed recently: one of the major problems has been the definition of civic unionism. It can be seen as everyone who is not defined as a non civic unionist. Non civic unionists are often pejoratively labelled tribal, ethnic or otherwise “bad” unionists.
Let me throw out an exemplar of a civic unionist: lets say late 30s, university educated, married with children, fairly well paid job, has worked outside Northern Ireland, travels widely with work, attends mainstream Protestant church; brought up outside Belfast but has spend most of their adult life there, some relatives originally not from NI and others who have moved away; not a member of any loyal order.
The civic unionist has been pursued by the liberal wing of the UUP for many years. In the UUP’s Trimblesque guise the civic unionist was “the decent person” or was “simply British” both utterly nonsensical concepts but ones which the civic wing of the UUP (egged on by Stephen King, whilst himself a decent bloke, holder of the award for world’s worst spin doctor) were convinced would lead them to political power. Under Reg Empey the civic unionist at first seemed defined by being more pro agreement than the DUP before beginning the ultimate civic unionist experiment: the Conservative link up.
Here the concept of civic unionism seemed to change a bit from being essentially a liberal unionist analysis of the constitutional position along with some socially liberal views to a right of centre economic analysis. This position was again socially liberal but somewhat confused about the constitutional question which of course remains the main differentiator of political affiliation in Northern Ireland. It was suggested by some that having Conservative and Unionist MPs, MLAs etc. would strengthen the union. Others claimed that the constitutional issue should be parked and within that latter group some suggested this parking to be union neutral whilst others regarded it as union secured.
The downfall of the CU pact has been chewed over in exhaustive detail. The civic unionists cannot agree on why this failure occurred: some regard it as because the NI electorate are not that Conservative minded; others that the CUs still had too much of the UUP about them. The only consistent position was that there are actually loads of voters itching to vote for civic unionists: almost all non voting prods and indeed many Catholics are, without being asked, co-opted into being civic unionists.
After the failure of the CU pact, civic unionism (or at least the UUP part) seemed to unite around Basil McCrea. It has largely turned its back on the right of centre largely, economic analysis of civic unionism and has concentrated mainly on being internally civic within Northern Ireland.
As alluded to above, within this concept of civic or liberal unionism there are enormous variations and indeed contradictions. There are considerable differences between economic liberalism, social liberalism and liberalism regarding the union and unionism. There seems to be a tendency to conflate these concepts in a fashion which is wholly illogical and indeed nonsensical.
What unites all forms of civic unionism, however, is the desire to gain votes from non voting Protestant unionists and pro union Catholics. It seems to be an article of faith that the non voting Prods, the garden centre unionists, are predominantly middle class and overwhelmingly liberal in terms of their unionism. The only election where there is any evidence of these unionists being liberal seems to be the referendum on the Belfast Agreement where the turnout was significantly up on the recent trend. Even in that election, however, most now accept that the majority of unionists actually voted No.
When anyone questions the liberal or middle class nature of these civic unionists, or points to the lack of empirical evidence for their existence assorted assertions are made recycling the same tired rhetoric that the only way back for the UUP is civic unionism and that anything else will prove disastrous.
A number of commentators have questioned the basic assumptions about the garden centre unionists: Ed Curran has recently characterised main stream unionism in a fashion far from the liberal stereotype beloved of the civic unionists. Furthermore those who have looked at the voting figures against the electoral register have tended to come to the conclusion that the non voting Protestants are predominantly working and not middle class: this has been consistent to my knowledge across Northern Ireland and applies to Belfast as to Enniskillen. Far from being garden centre unionists the non voting prods are more likely to be shell suit unionists.
There will no doubt be some non voting middle class unionists: again, however there are problems in ascribing liberal values (especially on the union) to these people One of the problems is that those who support liberal unionism tend to project liberalism onto those of their colleagues and friends who report not voting in elections. There is a severe danger of less liberal types doing the same thing in reverse but in my experience the non voting middle class unionists with whom I am friendly tend to report anything but liberal views. A number indeed are non voters because they are not on the electoral register due to being in senior positions within the security forces and, hence, wanting to avoid as much as possible any public record of their home addresses. Most of these people (of whom I know a few) are unsurprisingly very hard line in their constitutional views.
Even amongst non security force related middle class unionists liberal views are by no means uniform. Many middle class unionists are actually very hard line. Far from being the unicorns of civic unionist fantasy they are at least as likely to be DUP, hard line UUP (or even TUV) voting ogres. Most of these people do vote but some have stopped feeling that the whole enterprise is utterly corrupt and incompetent and that unionism’s leaders are failing them by being not illiberal but too liberal on the union. The fact that they may find the DUP’s stridency a little embarrassing does not mean that they are actually looking for a liberal form of unionism: rather they desire maybe a more subtly presented but equally hard line unionist position.
The next problem is of course the well known tendency of people to tell untruths about their voting patterns. In F/ST in mixed company claiming one does not vote is absolutely routine especially in the work place in order to avoid unpleasantness between colleagues. This tendency, whilst maybe heightened in F/ST, is unlikely to be confined to west of the Bann (or west of Lough Erne where everyone claims not to vote: given the lie by the turn out figures). Not only may people tell untruths about not voting but they may also lie about whom they would vote for and indeed in the liberalism of their attitudes. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the assorted Northern Ireland Life and Times Surveys which are frequently trumpeted to show that most people in Northern Ireland want integrated education, would be delighted to see their children to marry “the other side”; that they do not care about the union / united Ireland and that they are all going to vote for Alliance, the UUP or SDLP. Then of course comes the election and all these liberal majorities vanish into thin air. This problem was well recognised especially during the late 1980s and early 1990s in GB with the underestimation of the Conservative vote: pollsters created correction factors to account for the embarrassment which prevented people from admitting they voted Tory. As far as I know no one has created a similar correction factor to take account of the similar tendency in Northern Ireland.
Focus group research is usually somewhat more accurate than opinion polling and if professionally done can avoid many of the problems attendant in surveys. I ask as a genuine question whether any focus group work has been done investigating the non voting unionists and their garden centre vs shell suited characteristics? The DUP are well known to use professionally designed focus groups but I have heard no reports of similarly conducted work by the champions of civic unionism.
Of course the Holy Grail for the Civic Unionists is the unionist Catholic. There is no doubt that this unicorn does exist and in a referendum on a united Ireland it is more than likely that these unicorns will ride to Ulster’s rescue. However, like Welsh dragons, which will only arise at Wales’s darkest hour of need, these Catholic unicorns will only appear when the union is threatened: then the sun may indeed glint on their horns as they charge us to victory in the border poll. However, until then they seem disinclined to answer civic unionism’s call.
It may be that those pro union Catholics who have come of voting age since the troubles ended will one day vote for a unionist party. However, I would submit that that day is at least half a generation away. Again an honest question: is there proper focus group work with this social demographic to see whether they would vote unionist and what the impediments are to this? Alternatively are the unicorn tamers actually simply dreaming up what they think might attract unicorns? The unicorn tamers need to remember that they themselves are not these fabled beasts and anthropomorphism is a common mistake. Again it is not enough to read the NI Life and Times survey and talk to a few Catholic friends to establish the level of potential Catholic support for a unionist party: that would require very prolonged focus group research. There is also a danger that in order to attract the unionist Catholics (and liberal Protestants) the changes any civic unionist party made would result in the votes gained being well more than surpassed by the number of Protestant unionist votes they lost.
This is the bind the UUP finds itself in: the evidence the unicorns exist is actually limited: there are some no doubt but the shell suit unionists (if we want to continue fantasy creature analogies maybe orc unionists) and the middle class ogres along with the west of the Bann unionists (let us call them trolls) seem much more numerous. Pursuing those members who vote DUP but might return looks a more favourable strategy than the unicorns’ pursuit. However, the ideal might be to try having a party which contained both civic unionists and non civic unionists. Now may be the time for the civic unionists to swallow their pride and work with Tom: alternatively if they really believe they can create a political earthquake maybe they should set up a civic unionist party or even a right of centre (and left of centre) union neutral party: that has been tried before but if they truly have the courage of their convictions then maybe they should.
A final illustration of the problem re civic unionists: At the start of the article I mentioned an archetype civic unionist: it is in the second paragraph; take a look at it. That is me: in view of my know views I would not fit into the new civic unionist party. Those liberal unionists now wrapping themselves in the “civic” flag need to stop looking at all their middle class friends (Protestant and Catholic) and imagining that politically speaking they are looking in the mirror.