Fair Deal has produced a pair of exhaustive essays on Slugger entitled ‘Euro 09 and the DUP’. Fewer words have been expended on some university dissertations and one has to be awed, perhaps even ashamed, by the sheer bloody-minded seriousness and tenacity with which he approaches his subject. When all is said and done, however, his topic remains the DUP; its impoverished vision of unionism and the dour tribal politics which it thrives upon.
In his conclusion Fair Deal manfully wrestles with the notion that the DUP might advance a coherent ‘narrative’. Whatever this might comprise, and he is (by his own admission) much more lucid prescribing what it should NOT consist in, it is unlikely to outline with any conviction the party’s vision for how Northern Ireland can best contribute to and participate in the politics of the United Kingdom.
The DUP ‘narrative’ will also almost certainly fail to address what membership of the kingdom should mean to the people of Northern Ireland, or to ponder the political, historical and cultural bonds which bind the UK together. Whilst it is easy to sneer at their opponents’ erstwhile slogan ‘Simply British’, it is more difficult to explain why a party which identifies itself as unionist should show so little interest in how its own Britishness is defined through its relationship to the rest of the kingdom and that kingdom’s politics.
Fair Deal contends that, “it is unlikely that the election will offer anything radically new in the battle of ideas between Unionism and Nationalism”. Whilst the type of thinking which has precipitated the Ulster Unionist / Conservative force is not exactly freshly minted, it nevertheless consists in ideas which have been reinvigorated. And although their reintroduction has yet to be tested at the polls, electoral unionism has been offered intellectual dynamism on a realistic platform.
After previous flirtations with pan-UK ideas, Ulster unionism has begun to explore properly the interface between it and its Great British cousin. It is offering unionism which examines, not merely what it means to be Northern Irish and opposed to Irish nationalism, but what it means to be Northern Irish, British and an eager and willing participant in a big United Kingdom.
Specifically, in his two articles, Fair Deal is discussing the forthcoming European election. During this campaign, the Conservative and Ulster Unionist message must of course dwell on issues particular to the European Union, as well as those pertaining more widely to the politics of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. But in comparison to the moribund and reductive type of politics which the DUP specialises in, there is a clear opportunity to articulate uplifting, forward thinking, outward looking unionism at its best. If it is to be a battle of narratives, then the UU / Cons are possessed of much the more compelling.
Not that I am naïve enough to believe that a positive or invigorating brand of unionism will necessarily translate into immediate success at the polls. It could quite plausibly emerge that Northern Ireland’s electorate is still motivated primarily by fear of the other side and mobilised most readily by a negative campaign which plays on that fear. Perhaps it is unionism defined by a communal rather than a civic impulse which will prevail again; unionism which is marooned on an island of Ulster particularism, with little ambition to build integrative political causeways to the rest of the UK.
The point remains that the ideas which animate the Conservative and Unionist project are the right ones. They express unionism at its most constructive and they locate it within a sure philosophical framework. The European election is the first opportunity to begin advancing a project which stands to benefit the Union exponentially, should it gather the electoral momentum it deserves.
Whether Jim Nicholson tops the poll or not, it is Conservatives and Ulster Unionists who have a new message to sell to pro-Union voters, and it is the best message which those voters have available to them. As the DUP cast around for a ’narrative’ for this particular election, the UUP / Cons should draw strength from this realisation and begin to tell their own story with maximum conviction.