Peter Robinson has appealed for more cooperation between unionist parties, yet in the same interview he attacks Sir Reg Empey as a ‘puppet’ of David Cameron. The irony is not lost on the Ulster Unionist leader. It might suit Robinson to play down differences between Northern Ireland’s two main pro-Union parties after the DUP’s dismal European election result, and to appeal for ‘unity’, but far from ‘pushing in the same direction’ as the UUP, the very language in which the First Minister articulates his understanding of unionism is anathema to the stated purposes of the Conservative and Unionist project.
It would be wrong to claim that the Ulster Unionist party itself has rid itself entirely of the baleful habit of describing unionism as a ‘community’. I criticised Jim Nicholson during his successful European election campaign for referring to the ‘unionist people’. But whilst the UUP must rid itself of a linguistic tic which betrays an old way of thinking about pro-Union politics, from which the party leadership is determined to move away, the DUP and its leader consciously ground their unionism in the notion of a monolithic community, defined along cultural and religious lines.
According to Robinson, the existence of three unionist parties, ‘is not in the best interests of the "unionist community"’, ‘let's have better relationships within the “unionist community”’ he opines. The emphasis from Conservatives and Unionists should be very different. Giving pro-Union voters a choice of candidates for whom to vote is necessary and widens the overall base of support for the maintenance of the United Kingdom. Let’s persuade people of the merits of Union, whichever community they perceive themselves to belong to. Let’s have better relationships within the community in Northern Ireland. Let’s have better relationships within the United Kingdom and let’s build political alliances on a UK wide basis.
The DUP shares a perception with its Irish nationalist rivals that unionism comprises a small, culturally homogenous community of people who live in Northern Ireland and nominally adhere to the Protestant faith. Conservatives and Unionists are clear that unionism describes a broad swathe of opinion, spanning the nation, which believes in the maintenance of the United Kingdom. Unionism is about Britain rather than Northern Ireland and it is predicated on political belief, rather than membership of a perceived community.