Every time a DUP representative appeals for ‘unionist unity’, surely even the most brazen hypocrite amongst them must feel a little unease at the rich brew of irony which they knowingly stir. Jeffrey Donaldson, who waited until after the 2003 Assembly election before resigning from the Ulster Unionist Party, is the latest to lecture Sir Reg Empey’s party on ‘dividing unionism’. The hypocrisy could scarcely be more bare-faced.
I have recorded my scepticism about aspirations to make unionism more monolithic before, on several occasions. Unionism should be seeking to strengthen its overall electoral strength, reflecting the politics of as wide as possible a cross section of the electorate. It should not be seeking to close ranks along communal lines. That restricts voters’ choice, stifles unionism’s attempts to appeal across communities, exacerbates the sectarian carve-up of Northern Ireland’s politics and ultimately, therefore, weakens the Union.
Since Peter Robinson was snubbed by David Cameron and the Conservative Party, due to perceived differences in ‘content and tone’, his party has been either frenziedly attacking the UUP for entering talks with Tories or proposing ‘unionist unity’. If a satisfactory arrangement is reached ‘unity’ squealing will increase and the DUP will attempt to portray Ulster Unionists as resistant to their attempts to build a single happy cooperative unionist family.
Despite what the Democratic Unionists might believe, unionism does not begin and end in Northern Ireland, nor does it imply merely representing one community or background. The Ulster Unionist Party has an opportunity to create a much larger unionist family, to participate fully in the politics of the United Kingdom and to both normalise and de-sectarianise Northern Irish politics, much to the benefit of the Union. Too often in the past, the more retrograde aspects of unionism have held such vision back. Real leadership is required to ensure that on this occasion the same does not happen.