At Open Unionism Turgon appeals for ‘unionist civility’ but stops short of advocating ‘unity’, contending that a monolithic unionist party, in Northern Ireland, could not possibly represent the breadth of opinion which the pro-Union electorate encompasses. It is hard to argue with any call for more ‘civility’, whatever the context, and I believe that Turgon is right to argue that unionism would not draw strength from coalescing into a single Northern Irish party.
The essence of unionism is very simple, maintenance of the United Kingdom as a sovereign state. Its Ulster variant favours the retention and strengthening of Northern Ireland’s Union with Great Britain. Necessarily such a broad political mission statement must admit a wide variety of sub categories. Unionist parties, whether they are organised nationally, or stand only in one of the UK’s constituent parts, will subscribe to different interpretations of what Britain should mean, and will offer different strategies to underpin the Union.
It is sufficient for nationalist parties to offer a template for destroying the United Kingdom, but unionist parties are constrained by weightier responsibilities. Of course they must continue to develop policy with an eye to countering centrifugal and separatist forces, but they must engage primarily in the ordinary political discourse of a state. Northern Irish parties should not be the exception.
Naturally, where there is a pervasive threat from nationalism, those who wish to preserve the UK’s integrity should cooperate. And if a party purports to be unionist, it should offer policies which strengthen, rather than undermine, the Union. But membership of the Kingdom, and British politics, cannot always be centred on constitutional issues.
The Union will be safest, when parties’ unionism’ is taken as ‘read’, and real policy differences form their electoral battleground. In Northern Ireland that lies at the end of a significant process of normalisation, but it can be started now if voters here opt to participate in the next government of the United Kingdom.