Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The Choice

Tomorrow, when the polls open in Northern Ireland, voters will be presented with some very distinct choices. Will a substantial proportion again place their X beside candidates whose movement has, until relatively recently, engaged in a brutal campaign to murder their neighbours?

It seems almost certain. We should never forget that that is the clearest articulation of tribalism and hatred we see at the polls, in any part of the UK, never mind Northern Ireland. It is, by some distance, the most damning electoral indictment of the society in which we live.

Nevertheless there is also a battle for the heart of unionism in progress and it has its own weighty connotations.

In this election in particular, it is not just a party political battle, it cuts to the philosophical core of pro-Union politics in Ulster. The choice for unionist electors has rarely been crystallised so clearly.

They can opt to bolster unionism which is outward looking, orientated towards the rest of Britain and based on a positive political allegiance to the United Kingdom. Or they can choose ’unionism’ which looks inward, feeds on fear and suspicion and whose Britishness is little more than a mark of difference from Irish Catholic neighbours.

Nobody would claim that UCUNF is perfect, that it is the finished article or that it comprises a completely pure vessel for UK unionism. But it is, by far and away, the best that we have got at the moment and the best that there has been for a long long time.

The Conservatives and Unionists offer the most lucid vision for Northern Ireland’s inclusion in mainstream British politics since partition and they are bidding to position Ulster unionism within a pan-UK movement, aimed at strengthening the political integrity of our Kingdom.

Whatever happens in tomorrow’s poll, positive, UK orientated unionism in Northern Ireland will not die, but there is a chance that its popular electoral expression could be strangled at birth.

That would be a deplorable outcome for anyone who places a value upon our place within the United Kingdom. However you might assess the benefits of a Conservative government, or the economic arguments which are unfolding between the three national parties in this election, if Ulster unionism retreats back into its ‘parochial stupidities‘, it will be to the Union’s detriment.

If the Conservatives and Unionists succeed, all national parties will unavoidably have a stake in Northern Ireland. It becomes increasingly difficult for Labour and the Lib Dems not to follow the Tories’ lead and become directly involved. Conversely, if they do not succeed, the idea that Ulster is intractably a ’place apart’ is strengthened.

In the worst case scenario the Conservative and UUP pact could disintegrate, if sufficient Ulster Unionists rally round party figures who would take them back into the tribal ghetto. That route leads to Orange, protestant, identity unionism, which cannot hope to broaden its appeal, and maintains only a flimsy link to the broader UK polity.

Which would be a tragedy, not only for the parties concerned, but also for the idea of the Union itself. It means Northern Ireland, increasingly isolated and sidelined within the United Kingdom, increasingly remote from the mainstream.

It means a dwindling, moribund, stigmatised ‘unionism‘, unable to offer any philosophical justification for its existence beyond stale Ulster nationalism. 'Unionism' trapped for ever within its self-imposed communal boundaries.

The alternative is so much brighter. It offers a strategy to drive forward Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom through inclusion and participation. It promises to advance the goal of equal citizenship, which extends basic democratic entitlements to people who have been deprived of the chance to elect or remove their government.

The job won’t be finished if Conservatives and Unionists take seats at tomorrow’s election. Far from it. But it will move the Union forward in a way that the DUP never can.

It gives impetus to a project with the potential to copper-fasten our place within the United Kingdom, to make it meaningful and to change our political culture for ever.

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