Friday, 16 October 2009

Let's hear the pro-pact UUP voices, loud and clear.

The Irish News columnist and South Belfast Ulster Unionist member, Roy Garland, does not like his party’s alliance with the Conservatives. He has written another virulent piece defending his constituency association’s call for ‘unionist unity’ in South Belfast and rubbishing the UUP’s decision to run joint candidates with the Tories. Garland also rejects any notion that stepping down to let the DUP have a free run would amount to a return to sectarian headcount politics, citing, as evidence, his own record of cross community engagement.

I have not the slightest problem with Garland’s efforts towards reconciliation. Neither do I question the sincerity of his commitment to working class communities. I do, however, object to the ethno-nationalist bent which colours his understanding of Northern Ireland politics and I have difficulty with a strain of unionism which identifies the little Ulstermen of the DUP as fellow travellers, yet dismisses pan-UK unionism as an illusion created by perfidious Englishmen.

During the early days of ‘Three Thousand Versts’ I wrote, with disapproval, about ideas propagated by the Union Group, which Garland organises. I found that its documents were based on a purely ethno-nationalist interpretation of the divide in Northern Ireland. Its aspirations towards bridge building were sincerely felt, but its unionism accepted too many of Irish nationalism’s assumptions. It discarded, carelessly, everything which could and should distinguish unionism from nationalism. In so doing it ceded to nationalism unionism's best arguments.

Arthur Aughey’s definition of nationalism: an attempt to infer the inseparability of political allegiance and cultural identity comes to mind, reading the Union Group’s material. In contrast, I argued in my old blogpost,

“The task for liberal (Northern Irish) unionists should be articulating unionism in such a way that the Irish national identity is comfortably encompassed within the philosophy, as it is in actuality within the United Kingdom.”

I was hinting at an attempt to imagine a more conventional political cleavage within Northern Irish politics, as opposed to the entrenchment of our form of identity politics envisaged by the Ourselves Alone coalition. An effort to sever an automatic connection between identity and allegiance if you will. From reading Garland’s articles, I can only assume that he is intractably opposed to such a vision.

It is, I would suggest, a strange inversion of logic to castigate the UUP leadership for “looking over their shoulders even though a united Ireland, as traditionally understood, is not on the cards and rhetoric about “saving the Union” is now obsolete” or giving up on a “bright new future” of enhanced relationships, whilst simultaneously seeking to cement candidates chosen along sectarian lines. In this future, which Garland champions, where a united Ireland is not a possibility, why would any ‘unionist’ candidate be more acceptable than, for example, a moderate nationalist? If the Union is safe, then why wouldn’t everyone in Northern Ireland be given the chance to choose the UK government? That is a basic political right which should accompany their British citizenship and Northern Ireland’s membership of the Kingdom.

I can understand the anxiety which UUP members with traditional socialist beliefs feel when confronted with an electoral pact with a party they dislike. Given that the Conservatives and Ulster Unionists had been estranged for a generation, there was bound to be a disgruntled rump that opposed the deal, and even a chance of resignations.

Sir Reg Empey was right, however, to suppose that such possible divisions did not form a compelling reason not to pursue reconciliation. Under David Cameron the Tories are articulating a new conservatism, wedded to ‘One Nation’ ideals, which lends itself to consensus. Meaningful involvement in UK politics is too great a prize for any thinking unionist to reject. And, from a purely tactical perspective, the UUP was desperately in need of an idea in order to reinvigorate its electoral chances.

Although a degree of intra party dissent was inevitable, its tenor has generally been rather poor. We’ve had a saga around new Labour loyalist, Sylvia Hermon, which has dragged on interminably and has included a campaign of rather disingenuous sniping in the media. We’ve had Roy Garland’s column, with its disparate concoction of alleged class betrayal, anti English jingoism, appeals to communal (Northern Irish) unionist unity and SDLP esque, ‘mustn’t upset the apple cart by involving a British government too closely in Northern Ireland’ shtick. His constituency party in South Belfast has demanded an agreed candidate and there have been other more mooted hints of protest from vested interests within the party, notably the Assembly group, nervous about threatened fiefdoms.

There is one element of Garland’s analysis which does motion towards the truth. “The UUP’s dalliance with the Tories is a desperate attempt to stave off oblivion”, he alleges. The alternative to the Conservatives and Unionists pact is certainly discredited oblivion for the UUP and half hearted commitment to the deal is the best means to ensure that the party consigns itself to a moribund future of fringe irrelevance. It is time that proponents of the deal within the Ulster Unionists began to make themselves heard as loudly, clearly and unequivocally as the doubters.


Anonymous said...

Garland is a part of the past not the future, there will be a CU candidate in all 18 constituencies regardless of his opinions.

Some candidates will be from both parts of the CU's.

Anonymous said...

Very few would object to a broader base unionism, to bring in non-traditional groups, however, without a pact in SB there will be (most likely) a nationalist elected, opposed to unionism of any shade. That will be bad for ethno-nationalist unionism, or broad civic unionism, equally.

Anonymous said...

Have you been drinking?


Chekov said...

Will this post isn't a short, contentless, ill-informed anti-Tory rant with a nice line in John Coulteresque tabloidese.

fair_deal said...

"around new Labour loyalist, Sylvia Hermon"

What is the basis of that other than she doesn't buy into Cameron and did vote for 42 days?

Her voting record shows her to be closest to the Conservatives and DUP.

Chekov said...

FD - she's been fairly explicit about her preferences, rejoicing in the so-called Brown bounce to take one example.

fair_deal said...

A preference for brown over cameron can be a personality thing rather than an ideological matter.

Chekov said...

If it's a personality thing, rather than a political choice, and she is choosing to express it in public, then she should reevaluate her choice of profession.