Open Unionism


A forum to discuss new ideas and perspectives on Unionism…

Devolution: Learn How to Lead…

Guest blogger St Etienne considers that an end to what he describes as ‘the immature and irresponsible behaviour’ of devolved politicians is the one cut that could command popular public support in the post-CSR period…

Reproduced from HM Treasury flickrstream

Both the SNP and Labour have huge opportunities to tell a story not just about standing up to London and for Scotland, but taking national leadership, and telling a narrative which is about the kind of public services we want. And central to this is challenging trade unions to be constructive, proactive and imaginative in a way they haven’t been about work, jobs and organisation since the heyday of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders nearly forty years ago. Whoever can dare to move out of a bunker mentality could position themselves well for years to come, long after recession and ‘cuts’ have become part of our national folklore like the 1980s and the poll tax.

As Scottish commentator Gerry Hassan broke ranks last month to call on their regional government to display a sense of leadership in the ensuing government cutbacks, on our own Northern Irish politicians should display a similar sense of leadership.

As it stands however the regional fiefdoms are awash with non-revenue raising politicos telling us how the Westminster government is penalising our poor souls with unnecessary cutbacks, pertinently without giving any form of solution to the deep rooted issues themselves.

It’s easy to glibly shout ‘NO CUTS’ to your budget when all you do is sign off on where the money goes without thought for where it is coming from i.e. we the taxpayers. If the dire straits exhibited by Greece earlier this year weren’t reason enough to mobilise the forces of austerity, you’d think the latest in a series of economic beatings our neighbours down south have endured since would have concentrated minds on the threat lurking just under the surface.

Not so.

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Filed under: business, Coalition Government, devolution, economy, guest blogger, , ,

UUP leadership contender outlines his vision for uniting the party…

UUP leadership candidate Tom Elliott has penned an exclusive blog post for Open Unionism outlining why he is the candidate best placed to unite the Party…

By Tom Elliott MLA

There are so many questions for Ulster Unionist members to get their heads around in this Leadership contest. Who has the best plan for economic revival? Which candidate values health services the more? Will Tom or Basil do more for my children’s education? And so it goes, key policy question after key policy question.

But as I travel the country for Party meetings, one question has emerged as the clear, critical concern of our membership. Which candidate can unite the Party after the vote on the 22nd of the month?

Whoever wins needs the audience to leave the Waterfront Hall smiling for the media, who will be hovering, on the hunt for the slightest whiff of discontent. Whomever wins must ask the UUP Assembly team to join him on the steps of Stormont the next morning for a photocall. Whoever wins has to keep the Party united as we move once again into Election mode.  Which candidate can do all that? Me!

This Party needs to change, but we need that change managed by a Leader who has a vision for progressive, planned, pragmatic change. Pushing too far too fast is the story of our decline since 1998. Pushing the Party machine too far too fast could be terminal to the Party.

We need discipline. We need to stop washing our dirty linen in public. We need to stop and think things through before we press the send button on the computer.  I hear Basil promise a new regime of discipline on one hand, but confirm we are a party of dissenters who like to have our own mind on the other. What I do not hear is how he is going to square that circle.

The only answer is to elect a Leader the members will respect. I believe I have served the Party long enough, with values of honesty, hard work and a bottom-up approach, to be that Leader.

I want an inclusive Party, just as I want an inclusive Northern Ireland, where everyone feels comfortable with their contribution. That does not mean everyone has to be all things to all men. But it does mean we must push ourselves for the greater good.

On the campaign trail, I am learning that the members want the next Leader to push himself beyond his personal comfort zone. I have never flinched from a challenge like that. If I can put on a soldier’s uniform and patrol the lightless fields of Fermanagh during the Troubles, you can rest assured I will not be found wanting if I am elected Leader.

Filed under: guest blogger, UUP leadership election,

Guest blog: Tom Elliott represents change that’s ‘planned, tested, surgical in nature

Open Unionism has requested blog posts from supporters of each of the candidates running for the leadership of the Ulster Unionists. The first is from Mike Nesbitt who outlines his view as to why Tom Elliott should be the next leader of the UUP.

By Mike Nesbitt

I am quite taken with a story attributed to Charles Handy, the influential management guru, about a particular type of South American frog. If you put this frog in a pot of cold water, and slowly heat it, the frog dies, because it will not spot the existential threat in the changing environment.

I do not wish to be the type of unionist that fails to spot the evolving threats around us. But when it comes to change, I am also the sort of person who says “be careful what you wish for.” Change for change’s sake could turn out to be as big a threat to the Party as inertia; neither is an acceptable way forward; either could be the end of us.

Prune a rose bush in the right way, at the right time, and you will see it grow. Hack it to bits and you will kill it.

The change I want to see is planned, tested, surgical in nature. I am not afraid of a little pruning back this winter, if it yields a better blossom in time for next year’s elections. But makes sure the secateurs are in the right hands!

I want a link with the Conservatives, but our candidates to stand as Ulster Unionists. That’s Tom.

I want co-operation with fellow unionists, but no unity. That’s Tom.

I want to improve the relationship between UUP Headquarters and the Constituency Associations. That’s Tom.

When I started my broadcasting career many years ago, I was attracted by the shooting stars of the industry, presenters and producers alike. There were other “steady Eddie” types, but I could not figure what they offered. I know now, because it is they and their organisations that survived and thrived.

In my career, I had to make a difficult decision between wanting to be liked or respected. I choose the latter, and it’s a value that informs all my big decisions today. Because earning respect in this context means listening to what your members want, making difficult decisions, and spotting when the water’s getting hot.

Mike blogs at

Filed under: elections, guest blogger, UUP, ,

How do we move beyond defence of the Union, to advancing and deepening it?

In his a guest post for Open Unionism, The Dissenter suggests that the vexed issue of a possible Sinn Fein First Minister is short-termist – the bigger strategic problem for Unionism lies in the failure of Sir Reg Empey to stabilise and provide purpose to the UUP and the DUP’s failure to dismiss the TUV altogether and to regain momentum lost in 2009. These reflect something of the deeper malaise within unionist parties, the blogger says…

King chess piece lying on chessboard

The focus of that debate on the future of Unionism appears to have centred around numbers; focused on whether in the forthcoming 2011 election Sinn Fein might gain a position where it may be able to lay claim to the post of First Minister.

Since the changes following the St Andrews Agreement any party with the votes and seats necessary can lay claim to the post of First Minister. This provides for more equitable power-sharing in that it does not create a hierarchy of parties – theoretically anyone can be a First Minister. Would it make a great difference for Sinn Fein to be First Minister? If you accept Sinn Fein as a partner in Government then why not?

The focus on the issue of First Minister is a tactical one – a means to give purpose to closer co-operation between the parties (if not merger). Yet the real issue is not one of tactics to meet short-term and tokenistic outcomes. The failure of Sir Reg (lost seat, lost leadership) to stabilise and provide purpose to the UUP, the DUP’s failure to dismiss the TUV altogether and to regain momentum lost in 2009, reflect deeper malaise within unionist parties.

Ironically, the arrival of the TUV brought unionist voters to the polling booths and increased the overall unionist vote would suggest that disunity has its advantages, allowing the fractious and independently minded unionist voter an avenue to express discontent with established parties.

Addressing unionist unity from a structural perspective is bound to disappoint. Political party realignment is merely mixing decks and dishing out the job cards in a different order. The electorate is hardly likely to be impressed. Identifying a loss of voter, by class or aspiration, does not address the message sent at the Westminster election: none of the leaders of unionism presented a coherent and inspirational purpose for unionism in the twenty-first century.

A unionist should feel proud to fly the Union flag, and should not feel that it is somewhat diminished when wrapped around those who seek to lead Unionism. It should not be worn in anger, it should not cover embarrassment, and it should not be wrapped around a backroom deal. Discussion on the Union should be a matter of substance, not tactical number crunching: it is a matter for open discussion, not whispers behind closed doors.

Unionist Parties may be under threat through a loss of relative electoral strength. That does not mean that the Union is under threat: which is not to say that the Union cannot be lost. On The Dissenter there is a longer exercise in looking at the outcomes of the Westminster election and reading the runes. There are a few pointers which may shape consideration of the future for Unionists.

  • The overall nationalist vote appears static.
  • Nationalist voters appear just as disengaged as unionist voters.
  • The UUP might consider its future within a regional/national and liberal conservative context, but is otherwise nothing but a fading reflection of better times.
  • The DUP built its presence on becoming biggest: now it is, what next?
  • The unionist voter seemed uninspired by any of the unionist Parties’ offers.
  • The overall unionist vote benefits from disunity, not unity.
  • The SDLP was dominant in 1998. What happened?
  • If Sinn Fein is a worthy party for Government, and to hold a post co-equal to the First Minister then why shouldn’t it hold the post of First Minister?
  • The issue of a Sinn Fein First Minister is a narrow tactical argument that distracts from the lack of attractive leadership from either the UUP or DUP, or from anywhere elsewhere in unionist circles.
  • Short-term tactical considerations will not address the future of unionism as a political cause.
  • The Union is safe: at least that rests with the electorate and not the politicians.

The Westminster election changed very little. The points above have been matters for varying degree of consideration for some time. The election has simply brought them to the fore. Much of that discussion has taken place at Open Unionism and in the pages of the press, and probably around the lunch tables of Stormont buildings and meeting places elsewhere.

Tactical considerations of stopping a Sinn Fein First Minister are given an air of immediacy, including an urgency on discussion of political party restructuring. The larger and more important issue of the purpose and sense of Unionist cause is receiving less attention, perhaps because there is no personal or party gain in thinking outside the box? (It is a lonely place outside the box, and risky.) How does the discussion move beyond the tactical and party political to a more central discussion on the nature and future expression of Unionism fit for the twenty-first century?

Without a common understanding of the central tenets of Unionism there is little chance of Party political unity among unionists. Unionists must know what the Union is for, holding common purpose; it must not be defined by what it is not, what it is against. The electorate wishes positive, not negative, Unionism. With that central understanding would party political unionism mean anything anyway? Is unionism an ‘ism’ at all? How do we move beyond a position of being in defence of the Union to advancing and deepening the Union? These are the questions to be the subject of Looking Forward: Part 2. Later.

Filed under: DUP, guest blogger, power sharing, unionist unity?, UUP, , ,

The big task that’s facing the next UK government…

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By St Etienne

Just a quick(ish!) note to highlight an important contribution from respected journalist & historian Max Hastings on just how big a task the next government will have in the UK. Food for thought, and locally is indicative why we need a strong showing not just for the Tory-UUP alliance at the next election but for the idea within conservatism generally that the tenure must be prepared to lead a wide-ranging rethink on British lifestyle and attitudes.

For those unwilling to register to view the article, a synopsis follows:

As if emerging from a shelter after an air raid, many people look around, behold an apparently un scarred landscape and say: “Was that the financial crisis, then? It wasn’t so bad.” Such a view seems to represent monumental self-delusion… It seems hard to overstate the pain in store when the next government embarks on the steps necessary to restore the public finances. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have wrecked the economy.

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Filed under: Conservatives, finances, guest blogger

Why a NI Fianna Fail is a threat to cohesion…

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By St Etienne

Two years ago Fianna Fail registered as a political party with the UK Electoral Commission.  While nothing more than a fringe entity for the time being, I feel a wider debate is needed on the impact of adding this particular brand of nationalism to NI politics.

For one, the step marks the departure of FF from their somewhat token ‘joint-government’ neutrality stance.  No longer can the party claim to play an effective part in any bilateral arrangements, as they are now one of the protagonists within NI itself.

The Conservative and Unionist New Force has been the centre of much debate within unionist circles.  Many commentators have speculated on a seemingly analogous linkup between the SDLP and Fianna Fail.  In reality such an arrangement would be highly contradictory, especially so for the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

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Filed under: Fianna Fail, guest blogger

GUEST BLOG 1: Bring it on Labour, says Sir Reg

[picapp src=”e/9/f/a/The_Labour_Party_7888.jpg?adImageId=6479229&imageId=6660755″ width=”380″ height=”271″ /]

By Sam McBride

News Letter political correspondent

Ahead of the Ulster Unionist Party conference, I interviewed UUP leader Sir Reg Empey about the state of the party, his own future and the Tory alliance.

But, as ever with these things, only so much could get onto the allocated page in today’s edition of the News Letter. At Bobball’s invitation, I’ve pulled out some of the interview which didn’t make it into the paper because of space.

Much of what Sir Reg had to say was a stout defence of the Conservative link. Those comments were made ahead of the open letter to Sir Reg released last night by Chris McGimpsey, Roy Garland, George Fleming and Newtownards Councillor Ronnie Ferguson, calling on him to ditch the Conservatives.

There is little prospect of that happening unless there is a massive uprising from among the roughly 3,000 Ulster Unionist members but it will definitely be one of the talking points at the conference. One of the interesting things Sir Reg said was that, although firmly aligned with the Tories, he would like to see Labour putting up candidates in Northern Ireland elections.

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Filed under: Conservatives, guest blogger, UUP conference

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