When will unionism change and learn Sinn Féin’s organisation, coherence and sense of progress?

Assembly Speaker Alex Maskey and Sinn Féin Vice President Michelle O'Neill at Hillsborough Castle, Co Down.Assembly Speaker Alex Maskey and Sinn Féin Vice President Michelle O'Neill at Hillsborough Castle, Co Down.
Assembly Speaker Alex Maskey and Sinn Féin Vice President Michelle O'Neill at Hillsborough Castle, Co Down.
The respect shown by Sinn Féin towards the death of Queen Elizabeth II and in meeting King Charles recently elicited little in the way of a similarly generous response from unionist leaders, who instead preferred to criticise the media’s over emphasis on Sinn Féin.

This indicates two things: SF has confidence and unionism does not; Sinn Féin knows how to use change while unionism does not.

Doug Beattie’s point that criticising SF, whether directly or indirectly, when its leaders showed such goodwill was mean-spirited is hard to dispute, but there is perhaps something more significant at work – the inability of unionism to accept change.

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Even in the context of possible continuity change is dangerous, destabilising and seen as inevitable demise. Unfortunately, for unionist and loyalist communities, the inability to acknowledge this is the biggest threat to the Union.

Most of the problems unionism faces with regards to the Union are of its own making. Add to that the deep loathing that exists between the DUP and SF and how much the DUP is fearful of being seen to enable SF objectives and you have the ingredients not just for predictable reaction, but stasis and deterioration.

During the elections Doug Beattie made an important comment in one of his speeches. He said that it was time to replace dogmatic unionism with pragmatic unionism.

It was probably the most important comment from all the unionist leaders and yet, in the heat and anger of the Protocol dispute, it sank without trace. What might this pragmatism look like?

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First, the need to shape a new attitude about the possibility of change that depicts movement as gain rather than loss, with immediate small-scale wins being used to build cumulative impact.

Second, building and applying a strategic plan that consistently and coherently identifies where change is needed as well as being clear about who will do it and how. And third, relating all plans and objectives to the overall aim of making NI more inclusive.

Paradoxically, one might expect unionism to be reasonably good at dealing with diversity given its convictions about being part of a Union (and so a collaboration) that is based on the accommodation of difference within a binding context of belonging and identity.

The problem with this assumption, however, is that it does not recognise how much the Union is perceived by unionism as a threat to the very existence of unionism itself. A situation made worse by shifting demographics, debates about identity, newly emerging patterns in geopolitical relationships all of which unionism appears powerless to influence.

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Unable to draw from progressive aspects of Scottishness, Welshness and Englishness to promote a more adventurous social spirit, unionism remains obsessed with protecting its own internal limitations and, contributes further to its own isolation. Why has this happened?

The GFA is a starting point. Rather than celebrating it as a major advance for power-sharing and peace unionists got hooked on the issue of decommissioning which slid from being a pre-condition, as unionists insisted, to a requirement and then a possibility that all the while made the unionist case look less effective and weaker.

Reinforcing the danger of change the DUP stood outside the negotiations attacking the UUP for reaching a deal and capitulating to the demands of republicanism and nationalism without weapons being handed over.

A vital moment that should have been used to promote the advantages of a new opportunity was lost and perceived disadvantages started to dominate. Unionism has never recovered.

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Rather than viewing the GFA as the start of a positive transformation that would further promote the advantages of the Union many unionists saw it as means to prevent change.

And while for nationalists and republicans the Agreement was a stepping-stone to a new dynamic of possibility for unionists it was a means for copper-fastening what already existed. The emphasis was clear, it was the past that mattered and the future could only be a threat to that past.

A lack of interest amongst much of unionism in developing social solidarity and positive cross-community relationships reflects the absence of a compelling narrative about what people can look forward to.

Without such a narrative hope merely becomes a dream that things won’t get any worse rather than get better.

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In a way, stasis offers a sense of security, but it is also unrealistic in a changing world and encourages a lack of tolerance or receptiveness towards new thinking.

It also means one is subject to the force of movement rather than able to influence its direction. This refusal to participate in new and emerging debates is politically disastrous and fails to meet the needs of those communities who are not only poorly served by such representation but left behind as wider society moves on.

Unionism seems unable to learn from SF’s organisation, coherence and sense of progress. All of which looks particularly impressive when compared to the glaring absence of imagination and confidence within unionism itself.

Promoting an inclusive NI through areas of social importance such as education, employment and investment, where smaller short-term gains can be used to help complement wider strategic objectives, offers an alternative to the constantly articulated prospect of a united Ireland.

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A NI that moves from the dead end of political exclusivity to a vibrant landscape of social inclusivity starts to dilute the appeal of a united Ireland. All of this is premised on a key point – the need to see movement progressively rather than destructively.

Many obstructions hinder this possibility such as political divisions, disputes and the clamour to prove rigidity is better than the ever-present accusation of being a contemptible Lundy.

But until unionism wakes up to the realisation that it has to think about change and plan strategically to bring it about it will remain in a situation where its presence will be increasingly determined by others and it will continue to find itself weaker and weaker in the process.