Friday, 4 June 2010

Stop 'defending' the Union and start participating in it.

THE BRITISH general election has precipitated a period of very public soul-searching by the main unionist parties. The DUP leader, Peter Robinson, provided one of the election’s most notable scalps, losing his East Belfast seat to Alliance’s Naomi Long, and the Ulster Unionists’ link up with the Conservatives suffered electoral wipe-out, failing to return a single MP. 

As the two parties pour over the tactical failings of their campaigns, and assess the respective positions of their leaders, they face a more profound dilemma. The overall proportion of the vote claimed by unionism was well down.  None of the unionist options available to the electorate captured its imagination.
Anti-agreement unionism, in the form of Jim Allister’s TUV, performed worst of all. Its leader, the only candidate from the party to claim a substantial number of votes, was still trounced by Ian Paisley junior in North Antrim.  Had not a wildly inaccurate pre-election poll persuaded some Ulster Unionists that Allister could catch the despised Paisley, he might have been beaten into third place by a little known Conservative candidate.
Meanwhile, the DUP sought to sell itself on the party’s track record in the Stormont Executive and as a robust defender of the block grant, believing it was set to wield disproportionate influence in a hung parliament. It suffered decapitation and lost a seat.  It has reached the limits of its ambition, as the predominant voice in Irish unionism, and can only hope to tread water.
Ulster Unionists, during the election campaign, argued the advantages of representing Northern Ireland from within a Tory Westminster government. They emphasised, intermittently, the cross community credentials of their arrangement. 
But these became less convincing after prospective Catholic nominees quit ‘Ucunf’ frustrated at the slow pace of change, and the Conservative/UUP hybrid agreed to support a ‘unionist unity’ candidate in Fermanagh South Tyrone.
Indeed, in the election’s aftermath ‘unity’ has become a clarion call, based on its supposed popularity on the doorsteps. How this concept might, in practice, be defined, rather depends on who is doing the defining.
For some, unity merely denotes a sense of civility between unionist parties, who could work together on matters of broad strategy and common interest, such as voter registration. To others it entails a full merger and unionism accommodating its various strands within a single party. 
In actuality, it is difficult to envisage unionists agreeing any substantive aims, beyond a shared desire to maintain some type of link with Great Britain. Even the extent of the political relationship which unionists want with Westminster is a matter of bitter dispute.
Champions of ’unity’, who claim that efforts to build a single group are driven by a groundswell of public opinion, are either being disingenuous or facile.  To the extent that unity is the antithesis of division, of course it is a popular concept. Voters on the ground are consistent in calling for cooperation between politicians of all hues.
Indeed the most common complaint against politicians is that they are too focussed on constitutional rather than ’bread and butter’ issues.
Rather than counteracting a disconnection between unionist parties and the electorate, a single unionist party would exacerbate it. Far from showing signs of strategic thinking, it represents a panicked crawl back to the bunker. 
You only have to listen to unity’s keenest advocates, men like the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson, Ulster Unionist David McNarry or Orangeman Robert Saulters, to recognise the poverty of imagination at work. Their arguments invoke hoary slogans like ’united we stand, divided we fall’. They talk about uniting around a single identity, rather than a programme of policies.
The problem with the current unionist parties, as Alex Kane has identified, is that their role is to provide an equal and opposite response to republicanism. 
The polity of Northern Ireland is part of the UK, even the most hardened republican accepts this, they just wish to change that fact. The relationship that unionism wants is already in place. Yet unionist parties align themselves around the nationalist notion that it will not endure. No wonder the allegation, so often levelled at unionists, is that they lack confidence.
Ironically, the DUP attempts to portray itself as an emblem of unionism’s resurgent self-esteem. It sells the miserly fruits of a mutual veto, held in conjunction with Sinn Féin, as a series of tactical victories. In truth they are the political equivalent of chest-puffing. A symptom of the party’s failure to articulate an inclusive case for the Union.
The UUP, with its Conservative alignment, showed signs of strategy, but, on its first Westminster outing, it failed. This happened for two reasons: firstly, the Ulster Unionists were weighed down with Orange baggage, which they were unable or unwilling to jettison convincingly. Secondly, not all unionists are Conservatives. 
It is the latter point which commentators have seized upon most eagerly, but it is likely that the wrong lessons will be learned. 
The Conservative link, from its inception, was sold half-heartedly, and then as a magic elevator to whizz the UUP to its previous prominence. When David Cameron was doing well in the polls, and before talk of recession and cuts, Ulster Unionists believed they merely had to cling to his coattails to return a significant cohort of MPs.
As soon as it became apparent that national politics meant a change in content and style, rather than simply waving the union flag even more adamantly, cracks began to appear in the relationship. And as opponents began to attack the Ulster Unionists on the basis of Conservative policy, its flimsy foundations became self-evident. 
Ucunf squabbled and fought its way toward the election, briefly galvanised for a three week campaign, then collapsed into acrimony after the results were announced. Its sceptics then pronounced principles which they hadn’t signed up to, hadn’t properly understood and repeatedly undermined, a dismal failure.
The Conservatives and Unionists promised to reach out beyond communal boundaries which many members were defiantly happy to remain within. It attached to the UUP a set of modern, liberal conservative values which some of its representatives couldn’t articulate and others actively repudiated. If UCUNF wasn’t convinced of its own merits, how could it possibly hope to persuade the electorate they were worth voting for?
The fact remains that unionism, if it retreats further into its communal ghetto, cannot attract new voters. It will simply wither and die, choked by unfavourable demographics. The value of the Conservative link was that it offered unionism a means of looking outwards, to the rest of the United Kingdom and the benefits of Union, rather than inwards, with morbid fascination, to its own anticipated demise. 
In an age of devolution, parties throughout the UK have to make concessions to regional distinctiveness. One size does not fit all. However, unionism’s lifeblood is an allegiance to Westminster and if it cannot provide a tangible connection to the broader currents of British politics, then it will atrophy. It must stop defending the Union and start participating in it. 
The DUP, incurably parochial, and an anathema to the British mainstream both politically and socially, is not well placed to provide this participation. Even the party’s current opposition to spending cuts is less anchored to a considered analysis of economics than an overweening sense of entitlement. Perhaps an age of financial austerity coupled with a spell alongside Labour on the opposition benches, can help locate its ideas somewhere recognisable on the British spectrum. 
The UUP’s Conservative link is likely to be rethought, at the very least. However, a growing group of enthusiasts is coalescing around some of the Ucunf election candidates. Vehemently opposed to ’unity’, they are unlikely to go quietly down that road. A split, and a bolstered Northern Ireland Conservative party, positioning itself as a moderate, secular force, committed to the Union, but not to unionism’s traditional shibboleths, could yet emerge.           
However the unionist tectonic plates might reform after the election post-mortem, it is crucially important to unionism’s health that a secular manifestation, focussed on equal political citizenship within the United Kingdom, does not disappear. 
If Northern Ireland becomes more and more a political basket-case, a limbo-land held at arm’s length by the British government, then unionism has suffered its final defeat. Because unionism worth the name is not about the existence of Northern Ireland, it is certainly not about various strands of Ulster Protestant culture, it is explicitly about the maintenance and quality of a political link to Great Britain. 


Andrew said...

Great article. I agree with most of it, although I do have a few quibbles.

I tend to think that a unionism that defines itself only as political/legal misses the point. It sounds a bit like being in the union for the sake of being in the union.

At one level that must be true of unionism but it doesn't really tell us what kind of union we want it to be.

This will involve questions on the role of the state but if it only involves questions of the state I find that a bit lackluster. If what we mean by union is some ahistorical, secularised society, kind of like an out-of-town shopping centre, then I just wonder what point is there in the union at all? It doesn't really matter what sterilized government collects my taxes.

Anonymous said...

David Cameron is unlikely to abandon his UK credentials.

It is however possible he will ditch the still openly orange UUP and consider a new centre pro union party without the Conservative name and hope to attract 'liberal' UUP members and voters.

Could it work?

Anonymous said...

Devolution, as was often stated, is at odds with electoral integration both because it forces politicians to look inwards but more because it creates a supplicant class to be bought off, rather than by getting involved with Westminster.

That did for the Campaign for Equal Citizenship, for the Conservative Party with its pitiful vote after 1987, and the failure of UCUNF. The continued DUP success last month says it all, despite double jobbing.

Watching OFMDFM in Downing Street yesterday said it all. Devolution pits you against London.

Yet London is now committed to devolution in the long term and not just here.

The answer is not Unionist unity (excepting better arrangements for Westminster elections) but for the parties to encourage participatory options for those interested in UK and wider affairs. And for individuals to offer themselves.

Watching Doddsy being the second leader of the opposition at Westminster proves that assistance is needed from beyond the sect and the dynasties.

The local Conservatives’ value was that they had an in with the party and thus did participate in UK politics and policy making. UCUNF was no substitute for that.

The NI Conservatives cannot take off electorally with devolution being the policy of the Conservatives nationally any more than the Scots Tories can break back into Westminster.

The Orange issue is irrelevant.