Friday, 29 October 2010

'New unionism' frustrated or just a marriage of convenience? The fallout from UCUNF.

In 2008, when the UUP and the Conservatives declared their intention to pursue pan-UK unionism, alongside other commentators, I was justifiably delighted.  Not, as some people were quick to suppose, for petty party political reasons, or out of spite.

It did genuinely appear possible that a positive, outward looking connection to national politics could transform unionism in Northern Ireland, for the twenty first century.

That optimism has taken a battering over the past two years.  The disappointment built gradually, until, finally, UCUNF became the chief fatality of a spectacular electoral car crash.  Various groups are now picking through the wreckage to see whether anything is salvageable.

The Conservatives are considering whether they have a future in Northern Ireland politics, Tom Elliott has been asked to prepare a paper detailing his suggestions for the two parties’ relationship and an enigmatic ‘2010 Group’ has emerged within the UUP, pushing a pan-UK agenda.

I hope that the various interested factions look a little deeper than the ‘realpolitik’ of forthcoming elections.  Because I believe that the source of UCUNF’s downfall was more profound than sloppiness or poor organisation.

There was a much more fundamental failure to properly develop underlying principles and cohere around them.  The project’s philosophy was under-thought, under-realised with the result that it was eventually delivered stillborn to the electorate.

The Conservative and Ulster Unionist connection was supposed to roll out the full political entitlements of British citizenship to everyone in Northern Ireland.  We were finally to enjoy representation and participation which the rest of the UK takes for granted.  

A strong unionist force, stretching across the Kingdom would counter regional nationalism by making a positive case for the Union.  In Northern Ireland, where unionism had often relied on a zero-sum argument with nationalists, that meant a dramatic shift in focus.  Unionists here would finally be on the front foot, arguing the benefits of the United Kingdom, rather than the horrors of a 32 county Republic of Ireland.
Some of these themes certainly found their way into Conservative and Ulster Unionist literature - speeches, newspaper articles and so forth - but it’s fair to say that the ideas they hinted at were never thoroughly worked through.

There is a simple enough explanation for that failure. Although there were senior figures within both parties who were on the same page, consensus about which values the United Kingdom should represent or the merits of its citizenship, didn‘t run particularly deep.    

While the UK’s pluralism, its multi-national nature or its layered identities can be presented as strengths, equally, even within unionist circles, there are those who regard those qualities as weaknesses.  

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since 2008, but I suppose that, over the past couple of years, my support for UCUNF was animated by a hope that a ‘new unionism’ would become mainstream within the UUP and Conservatism.  That a certain body of ideas, which have always existed in the margins of unionism, in Northern Ireland at least, were about to come of age.

That hope has been dashed.  The ’new unionist’ mood isn’t about to hit the mainstream any time soon.  But I now wonder whether it ever actually existed in the first place and, if it did, whether it bore any relation to the reality of UCUNF?  Or did the ’New Force’ merely borrow some of its clothes?

Was there actually an identifiable intellectual energy underpinning the project, which is still there to be harnessed, or was it just coincidence that two parties’ marriage of convenience struck a chord with the rarefied concerns of a few Northern Irish unionist eccentrics?

I don’t exactly have the answer to those questions, although I do have some thoughts, which I hope to develop over the next while.  And I‘d be interested to hear what other people think, particularly those fellow travellers for whom the idea of a UK wide politics struck a particular chord.

Is there anything to be salvaged?  And I don’t necessarily mean in a party political sense.  Is there a mood or an intellectual energy which is still there to be tapped?  A ‘new unionism‘ for want of a better phrase.

I was inspired to write this piece by Arthur Aughey’s contribution to ’Progressive Unionist Voice’.  Against mounting disillusion and cynicism it reminded me of the ideas which attracted me to unionism in the first place and which I'd hoped would gradually become common currency as the Conservative link developed.

Arthur, I think, is an enemy of fatalism among constructive, thinking unionists and I battle to share his optimism.  In terms of party politics, a sunny outlook is difficult.  Ulster particularism is the order of the day in Northern Ireland.

The exact configuration of unionist candidates in the next election, and the fallout for both of the parties who formed UCUNF, is important, of course.  Far more important, in my view, is the health of the ideas behind unionism, in Northern Ireland and beyond.


rutherford said...

the problem being that while a healthy questioning is a necessity for an ideology without 'grassroots' personalities working it on the ground there is a danger it can be merely passed over and ignored.

For example, had Alliance come out and said what Robinson did regarding integrated education no one would have batted an eyelid. Robinson got the press first and foremost because he is the NI first minister, and you'd assume what a leader says carries weight.

Lee said...

You should read the introductory parts of Arlene Foster's Union 2021piece about past forms of the UUP and 'New Unionism' and how it was abused.

Progressive Unionist said...

It did genuinely appear possible that a positive, outward looking connection to national politics could transform unionism in Northern Ireland... a positive case for the Union.... In Northern Ireland, where unionism had often relied on a zero-sum argument with nationalists, that meant a dramatic shift in focus. Unionists here would finally be on the front foot, arguing the benefits of the United Kingdom

Agree deeply with these sentiments - apologies if you feel I have quoted you selectively.

For what it's worth, I think one of the weaknesses of the UCUNF project was that it placed an unnecessary focus on being pro-Tory, and thus divided moderate and progressive unionists on pro or anti Tory grounds who otherwise shared a lot in common.

I quite appreciate the view at the time of those friends of mine who advocated the Tory-link that this was an imaginative leap forward for the moderate pro-Union cause - but I still feel that in terms of generating political critical mass, the more viable focus would be on moderate/progressive non-sectarian unionism. (which could have united people of left, right and centre within moderate unionism)

There may have been a lack of appreciation on the part of the more enthusiastic supporters of UCUNF about how moderate unionists of a more centrist/centre-left persuasion felt about the Tories.

Going forward, Alan McFarland's piece in Fortnight is well worth a read:

The other alternative is for the UUP to resume its trail-blazing role on behalf of all of the people of Northern Ireland, seeking to create a better society, free from the tribal politics and sectarianism that presently blights many lives. This would be a difficult, lengthy and perhaps unpopular quest, but it would give the UUP a clearly defined purpose, and it might be 'doing the right thing', in much the same spirit as the Party approached the Agreement negotiations...

The Ulster Unionist mission 'to maintain the union' might be better served by creating a Northern Ireland in which all its citizens are comfortable. A society in which daily life has settled down, and in which a majority of both nationalist and unionists would not wish to risk the hard won peace by voting to change the status quo...

The next UUP leader will need to decide between joining in common cause with the DUP or seeking a new mission for the Party. In addition, the Party will need to be made 'fit for purpose' – to fight (and win) elections. That means a new exciting message as to what Ulster Unionism stands for, and a raft of attractive candidates that reflect the voting electorate. No pressure there then!

For me, what Alan says here is sound common sense, pluralist unionism. But for it to work, it needs for Tom to completely rule out alliance with the DUP, and to set out the UUP vision in a bold, contrasting way to the electorate.

Is Tom capable of that? Because if he's not then the Alliance (and Greens) are set to make serious inroads into the UUP vote east of the Bann next May...

Jimmy said...

Good article Chekhov.

To my mind, given the UUP's members revolt against UCUNF AND Liberalism/Progressivism, the question is - could the UUP ever be the right vehicle for what you describe?

And if not - what then?

The vision you and others hold is still of great virtue, but we may have got the means of delivering it wrong.

O'Neill said...

There is an expression that Arthur Aughey uses to describe another seemingly hopeless case (The Campaign for an English Parliament): “A mood not yet a movement”

With the UCUNF we thought we had a movement, one backed by the finance of the Conservatives and” the feet on the ground”of the UUP. In retrospect, what it was merely a mood wrongly thinking it now had the momentum behind it to become a movement.

But It would be wrong to get too depressed about the present situation. Small signs show small results- look at PMQ this week, for example, to see how many DUP MPs were in prominence. The result partly of the campaign waged on Double-Jobbing, but also, I’m sure, partly a strategic decision on the part of the DUP to be seen getting more involved on the nationwide stage. Secondly, whatever the motives, Robinson’s attack a couple of weeks ago on educational segregation- it prised opened a door which modernists and secularists had the opportunity to further widen and that opportunity, if realised, would bring us further towards into the mainstream of UK society and politics.

The DUP is by far the most tactically aware party in NI and it is not only moving slowly towards the centre but also pushing a more wider UK outlook, what does that tell us?

That means at least the potential for the type of “New Unionism is there surely?

Anonymous said...

One of the basic problems is that the leadership understanding that the UUP would cease to exist (over time) was not communicated to the UUP membership - or even to Tom Elliott prior to his meeting with Cameron hence his startled rejection.
The continuation of regional parties which proport to be unionist is the greatest danger the Union faces.
The DUPs improved presence at Westminster is not a desire to integrate into UK politics but an attempt to prove separate parties are needed to 'fight Ulster's corner' - Despite the fact they have no influence whatsoever.
It is increasingly apparently the UUP serves no purpose. Elliot pleaded for a stay of execution at trhe Tory Conference but it is increasingly clear the Cameron et al realise the UUP is a hinderance

This nonsense that what is needed is some form of broad chruch right and left moderate unionist party is going nowhere - if you want to be in the Union GET INTO ITS POLITICS. Abandon the ourselves alone mentality

O'Neill said...

"...if you want to be in the Union GET INTO ITS POLITICS. Abandon the ourselves alone mentality"

The one main problem with that is whether or not the UK's parties will permit us that priviledge.

Miliband is decidedly lukewarm about letting the local party get involved in elections, the LDs place too great a store in their relationship with Alliance to allow proper organisation at the ground level here.

Which just leaves the Conservatives...
To me as an outside observer, Cameron and Co have not done the local branch any favours by continuing with the pretence that there is any kind of traction in continuing the relationship with the UUP. If the attempt to introduce true UK politics here, then it must be with the local Conservatives as a standalone operation surely?

Anonymous said...

If you have devolution you cannot get Westminster politics moving here or indeed in Scotland.

That unfortunately is why UCUNF died. It did not help either that the Tories were allying with one of the two communities in Northern Ireland, another factor that would have doomed the project if it had even taken off even slightly. I did point that out.

If you are not at Westminster (in the Commons or the Lords, or if you rarely attend) you can still participate by joining the local Tories or the nascent Labour Party, and by involving yourself in the myriad elements of civil society that are UK-wide.

Devolution creates and maintains parties like the SNP and the DUP, leaving the UUP betwixt and between.

The total failure of leadership in the last election (think South Antrim and East Belfast), the attempt to be PC, imposing hopeless candidates and dumping the dodgy ones so openly, ensured a coup de grace for the UUP.

What is needed now is leadership by increments and a policy of no policy. That was Unionism's way for decades and it served us well.
All that the grunts need do is gnaw away at nationalism, every which way.

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