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.