Better late than NEVER, NEVER, NEVER…..writes Terry Wright

In encounters with Sinn Féin groups in what they chose to term ‘uncomfortable conversations’ and individuals promoting a future Ireland in line with their nationalist, usually republican ideology and agenda, I have failed consistently to get an answer to the question: “What will this new Ireland that you envisage look like?”
Terry WrightTerry Wright
Terry Wright

The stock answer is usually spun around a need to engage on a range of matters - economic, cultural, educational, the long-standing movable feast of reconciliation and symbols.

The territorial geography is pre-determined and politically frozen. There is no going back. Numerous glossy booklets are available. The emperor’s new clothes come to mind.

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Now that the much-rumoured courtship between the DUP and the UUP is in the open with the hopes of advocates of Unionist unity raised, probably over-optimistically at this stage, a similar question and others arise:

“What does this Northern Ireland that Unionist leaders believe should work for all, look like?”

Presumably this is not the case at the moment and whilst Unionism has not had sole responsibility for government in Northern Ireland for over 50 years, some accountability must accrue.

At what was termed a debate between the leaders of the two main Unionist parties at Queen’s University recently there was limited acknowledgement of this from Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP in referring to ‘forefathers getting some things wrong.’

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There was little reference however to strategic misjudgements what both Doug Beattie MLA and Sir Jeffrey now refer to as ‘political Unionism’ since the signing of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement; a better place to start in current circumstances.

However, there is acceptance, at least, that both of their parties have lost the electoral support of a large swathe of pro-Union voters who either do not vote or withhold support from avowedly unionist parties.

There are a variety of reasons for this but the leaders would be foolish to ignore that for many, the image of Unionist parties is damaged and for young people in particular, unionism associated with the lambeg politics of enraged unionist viewed as toxic and nasty.

It’s a big turn-off; out of touch with those who want politics to help them live their lives, not control them.

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It’s just not relevant to those paying off student loans, facing financial stress over rents or mortgages and childcare in addition to other costs.

Worryingly for the advocacy of ’Making Northern Ireland for All’ adopted by both leaders, when speaking to a group of younger voters and non-voters about the discussion, the response I got was: ‘that boat has sailed.’

There is clearly a credibility and trust issue; a suspicion that the apparent mood change within Unionism is prompted by a tactical need to address the fall in the number of Unionist representatives and the electoral success of nationalism and Sinn Féin republicanism.

If this is the case, it will not work.

Voters need to know what ‘Making Northern Ireland Work for All’ looks like beyond the Deputy First Minister playing camogie and the Minister of Education’s conversion to the value of preserving the Gaelic Language and culture. Welcome as they may be.

UUP leader Doug Beattie MLA talks of a ‘Union of People.’

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On the basis of what he said at QUB, referencing NATO, the USA, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and Unionism having no identity, this central core of his political messaging presents as, at best, nebulous, at worst, confused and confusing.

Perhaps, I do him a disservice

His assertion of his ‘no tick-box’ British-ness and that his approach to fixing problems is always framed within the context of the United Kingdom speaks to a more integrationist age and is not universally shared, nor does it have to be, in a post Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland; especially by that 20% of unaligned electors who are clearly ringing the alarm bells within political Unionism and whose votes will be crucial in any Irish Unity referendum.

Currently, polls suggest that a majority would vote against constitutional change.

As Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, MP referenced several times in his presentation and in his response to questions ‘political Unionism must develop the art of persuasion.’

Better late than…… NEVER, NEVER, NEVER!

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A reality check appears to have landed. He reiterated, as the opportunity arose, the need for a clear direction for Unionism going forward, finding ways to engage especially with young people whose politics are not informed by unbending ideology and flags, recognising that Northern Ireland is now more diverse, inter and intra-cultural, for unionism to be more positive and meet the challenge of a drop from 70% to 40% in electoral support and to continue the work begun under the recent agreement which facilitated the return of the Assembly.

With a limited response from his UUP counterpart, he called for greater cohesion and collaboration in protecting Unionist representation in the next General Election.

A nod to agreed candidates which the UUP seemed in no hurry to accept.

On a more personal note, he referred to his being on a journey over the last 25 years and being more comfortable in acknowledging his ‘Irish-ness’; something he would not have been inclined to do during the violence that ensued from 1969 to 1998

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His final comments were words to encourage young people to become involved in politics that: ‘It’s your future.’

Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect detail on the evening and a seed is being sown for a timely fresh start for political unionism, particularly the DUP, but it would have been useful to go beyond the aspirational.

He may want the DUP to re-visit the contradiction to what he is saying; evident in reluctance to commit to not collapsing the Assembly in future

Reference to climate and environmental concerns was notably absent.

The message to Unionism is loud and clear.

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Northern Ireland is no longer a place where people, not just the young, are content to be labelled and commodified as electoral fodder; to be spoken for.

They will respond to credible and accountable leaders who show integrity but they will not be commanded.

They live and work alongside those who may have attended different schools and different churches who, like them, want issues addressed and pressing problems solved; outcomes delivered

Historically, they have been physically segregated but thanks to the impact of travel, education, global communication, cultural interaction and an unwillingness to be told what to think the segregationist reducing.

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Gaps in evolving change remain and herein lies an opportunity for unionist leaders; not least in the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

It is time for political Unionism to engage fully with all 3 Strands of the Agreement.

They are the prism through which Northern Ireland can work for all.

Value for money politics, sound management of public finances have been absent for too long, alongside the over-indulged and unlimited provision of segregated schooling.

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Over-capacity in education needs to be solved successfully where Area Planning failed.

Some sacred causes will have to be challenged; sensitively.

All the blame for current financial difficulties cannot be laid at the door of Number 11 Downing Street; albeit that it has been a major contributor through policy delivery and by remaining historically impassive in the face of the squandering of resources in Northern Ireland.

Unionism is not blameless.

There remains too much social, economic, skills, educational and health-related marginalisation and inequality.

Can political Unionism respond to the challenges?

Can it stop fighting old battles predicated on myths and fiction?

Can it stop the erosion of support?

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To do so it will need to be radical, creative and mission-led.

Any persuasive case for sustaining linkage to the United Kingdom must be framed in the promise of inclusive values, skills and imagination in addressing housing shortage and regional imbalances that have been well hidden; to disrupt old discredited patterns of behaviour and discard any reluctance to take risks.

As Fergal Keane writes: ‘Fear is a questionable ally.’

There is one important area in which it has been remiss; namely, promoting civility and reconciliation.

Groups and individuals who would be identified as Unionist or pro-Union are ahead of the politicians who purport to speak for them.

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Realising that getting to know one another is a requisite to addressing the challenges of disagreement, they listen and seek to understand those who may differ in their preferences.

They have learned to live with our shared and costly history and deepest differences whilst celebrating diversity and retaining their core but non-binary identity.

The past will never be forgotten but the burden of hurt and painful memory will not be a barrier to a better future.

They expect no less from those who seek their vote; from whom they want to see relation-centred consensus and constructive change.

Rage and polarised politics have had their day.

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Elected assemblies more akin to political Jenga that serve as a spectator sport have outlived their questionable value.

Unionist orthodoxy has been as guilty of others in being too sure of its own ‘rightness’.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP has voiced his concerns and thoughts but is political Unionism open to the spirit of change which his words imply?

There will need to be some historic accounting.

There are narratives behind the diminishing support.

Has Unionism been found wanting in sustaining peace, promoting reconciliation, cultural and social belonging?

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Has it been too ready to point the finger whilst ignoring that we are all part of the big picture, the same humanity; whilst pursuing populist opportunism and the politically expedient?

It has been suggested by one commentator that Northern Ireland’s problem is that we do not know where we are going.

In the case of contemporary Unionism, it is equally valuable to drill down into where it has come from to understand better its current predicament.

It will enhance any hopes for persuading others to endorse approval for where and how it wants to lead; how it intends to make Northern Ireland work for all.