Upon reading a press release from DUP deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, last week, I had intended to write a piece arguing that it represented something of a statement of intent. In the forthcoming European election, squeezed between hardline rejectionist unionism advocated by Jim Allister’s TUV and a pan-UK unionist message issuing from the joint UUP / Conservative campaign, the DUP will appeal unashamedly to atavistic, communal self-interest. It will seek to portray itself as protector of the Ulster protestant community and defender of Orangeism. Somehow, though, I got waylaid and meanwhile O’Neill has written persuasively about this very topic, arguing that a clear divide will emerge over the next year and unionism is approaching ‘a fork in the road’.
Without wishing to retread ground which the Unionist Lite piece more than adequately covers, I do think it is especially appropriate that O’Neill has contrasted Dodds’ statement with comments from shadow secretary of state Owen Paterson and Conservative ‘Battleground Director’ for the UK, Marion Little, which lay out their vision of inclusive unionism. It bears the question, how will pan-UK, British, inclusive unionism stand up to a buffeting from exceptionalist, ‘Ourselves Alone’, little Ulsterism? I believe the answer depends on Ulster Unionists holding their nerve, remaining calm under attack and persisting with a consistent message which stresses the merits inherent in Union, the inclusivity of British citizenship and identity and the importance of full involvement in the United Kingdom.
There is no guarantee that such a strategy will pay immediate electoral dividends, but in its intellectual clarity it will allow the new force to build momentum over a period of years, towards changing politics in Northern Ireland. At the very least, the ‘unionist community’ might be forced to examine the character of its unionism. Does it spring from a meaningful, modern sense of Britishness or does it consist of little more than a nominal, sentimental attachment of Ulster Protestantism to the Union Flag? Although this introspection might become a turbulent process, at least it will focus the electorate’s mind on what exactly it is that they will be voting for, when they choose to back a UUP / Conservative candidate. A clear dividing line provides a clear sense of purpose. Ulster Unionists should not get nervous when they see one developing.
Although expertise brought to bear by Little and her team will offer Conservative and Unionist candidates in Northern Ireland exponential benefits, Tory central office is not accustomed to running campaigns against a rival as malicious as the DUP. The party has made its own a uniquely abrasive style and has built its success on vituperative abuse aimed at nationalists, politicians from both Britain and Ireland and the special venom which it reserves for attacks on fellow unionists. The new force will be bombarded with the worst of the DUP’s ire. Tories will be depicted as meddling outsiders who have no place involving themselves in Northern Ireland’s politics and the irony of so called unionists offering this critique will be lost in malignant rhetoric. Doubtless there will be an anti-English slant too and the implication that North Down Conservatives, with their effete supper clubs (as the DUPes see it), are some how out of touch with the rest of society.
Most of all though, the DUP intends to bang the Orange drum. Its candidates will contend unashamedly that they are standing up specifically for the Ulster protestant against the Irish Catholic. They will claim that they have improved the lot of the Orange Order and have secured ever greater funds for Ulster Scots projects. There will not even be a veneer of pretence that the DUP aspires to fair treatment for all communities. As regards the current dispensation at Stormont, this analysis makes some sense. We have a carve-up government where communal interests are traded off against one another. It is a lamentable way to govern, it does unionism harm and it prevents Northern Ireland normalising itself as regards the rest of the UK, but that is the way the system currently works. At Westminster and in Europe things are very much different and this approach is transparently counterproductive.
How should Ulster Unionists and their Conservative partners respond to these lines of attack? The answer is with forbearance, patience and determination not to be drawn into the sectarian morass which the DUP will do its damnedest to ensure envelops the parties. As far as the Orange Order is concerned, the new force should defend and promote the legitimate expression of all cultures within the United Kingdom as a whole and Northern Ireland specifically. Respect and support should be afforded to the loyal orders, but equally to Irish language groups, for instance. Of course where the Orange Order has legitimate grievances they should be addressed, but equally this should not be to the exclusion of a variety of other interest groups representing other specific cultural aspects of our society.
The argument for Northern Irish participation in a main UK party at the European Parliament is a strong one. Yet more so, the case that Northern Irish representatives, participating fully in the Westminster government. would benefit both Northern Ireland and the Union. And whatever the dynamic which ‘carve-up politics’ has brought to devolved government here, does the electorate really aspire to a continuation of this system in perpetuity? Surely it would be better to build normal politics, inclusive politics through which decisions are made on their merits, rather than as part of a process of sectarian horse trading? If voters wish for something more, for efficiency, for a modicum of accountability, then a vote for the DUP or Sinn Féin makes little sense.
Finally, when the DUP takes its communal approach in order to attack Conservatives and Unionists, the new force’s rejoinder should be unashamed espousal of purist, political, civic unionism. We believe the United Kingdom offers the best political framework for the benefit of its peoples. We are proud of our Britishness and proud of Britain, proud that Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom. We want to play a full role in the politics of our nation. Our unionism extends to participation and contribution; it offers action rather than mere words. We wish to promote the advantages of Union to all the people of the Kingdom, without prejudice to their ethno-religious background or perceived identity. That is the message candidates and canvassers must hammer home over the coming years. This is about the United Kingdom and Britishness, rather than just Ulster.
Few supporters of the new electoral force are either naïve enough to think that immediate success will come easily, or believe that if progress is achieved quickly, it will take the form of an overwhelming turnaround. But Cameron and other Tories have repeatedly stressed the long term commitment which they bring to this project. Simply by a forthright, consistent delineation of principles and a professional approach to campaigning, the foundations of a recovery will be laid. That basis must not be undermined by ill discipline or hot heads when the election brickbats begin to fly. All those who support Conservative and Ulster Unionist campaigns must remember that it is because the DUP knows its 'unionism' is incompatible with most visions of modern Britain, that it will be so vehement and so vicious.