Doug Beattie – The only path for unionism is for it to come in from the cold…

Ulster Unionist Party leader, Doug Beattie MC MLA

The stark reality about politics here in Northern Ireland was exposed by Michelle O’Neill`s comments last week that attempted to justify the IRA`s indefensible terrorist campaign. This is a slap in the face for victims, survivors and those who lived through those dark years. Selective condemnation and glorification of past atrocities really does stop Northern Ireland, and its people, from moving forward. In fact it fortifies the division that has blighted this place for so long.

As for the Ulster Unionist Party we haven`t shied away from our past and mistakes that were made. Lord David Trimble was clear in his Nobel Peace Prize speech when he said, “Ulster Unionists, fearful of being isolated on the island, built a solid house, but it was a cold house for Catholics. And northern nationalists, although they had a roof over their heads, seemed to us as if they meant to burn the house down. None of us are entirely innocent.”

In saying this as the Ulster Unionist Party leader, he set about changing that dynamic and fix what had gone before. Regrettably Michelle O`Neill`s comments last week do the exact opposite.

As the present Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble`s words and actions are not lost on me. He was right in his political analysis and vison for Northern Ireland. He knew that difficult decisions would have to be taken and appealed to all corners of society to work together – not just in power sharing but also responsibility sharing – in order to govern Northern Ireland for the betterment of all. His vision was the original ‘Union of People’ which is the path the Ulster Unionist Party are following again today.

Of course things have not gone smoothly and a positive, inclusive, pro-union, message promoted with confidence and energy, fell at the last hurdle just before the assembly election in May.

Yet looking back to May it is important that I, as the party leader, take responsibility for the party not reaching its full potential during the election. Lessons have been learned, but the pathway and direction were not wrong; the Union of People is the only direction unionism can take if it is going to survive and flourish. We must reach out to the whole of society in order to make the case for the Union and Northern Ireland`s place within it. 

Many of the electorate do not currently buy into political unionism, but they will buy into a prosperous, forward looking Northern Ireland with a strong economy at its heart where respect and understanding are as important as identity and culture. Of course unionism can continue down the path of short term tactical thinking, by focusing on the negatives and alienating the very people we want and need to see this part of the United Kingdom work, but that would only be another strategic blunder by unionism which has had too many since the DUP became the largest unionist party.

Unionism must concentrate on giving the leadership which instils confidence in those who are pro-Union and reach out beyond the traditional base. As has been stated in the past, unionism needs to stop looking for lundies and start looking for converts. We need to actually start doing something about that rather than falling back into the destructive habits of the past where Lord Trimble and others are denounced as traitors by those who seek political advantage, but who later buy into their vision by working the very institutions they created.  

There are also those whose minds are made up and being part of the United Kingdom will never be for them, but we can still work together respecting alternative views.

As a unionist, I want Northern Ireland to work. I know that for this part of the United Kingdom to strengthen and grow then it must work for all its people. This is what frustrates me most about the approach much of unionism are taking where short-term victories will ultimately lead to long term defeat. Their tactics make Northern Ireland look unworkable, destabilised and unattractive. This may well give individuals something to shout about in order to achieve notoriety and short-term political advantage, but they damage Northern Ireland’s long-term prospects.

Unionism can win the argument on the Protocol, but that will be through political guile and negotiation. Political sloganism won`t cut it. We must deal with the Protocol and it is incumbent on the United Kingdom Government and the EU to agree a negotiated way forward.

I know that as the Ulster Unionist Party leader many within unionism may not agree with my approach to protecting Northern Ireland. It’s not the traditional path of protest, it’s not about confrontation, it’s not about pointing out the fine minutia of ‘themuns’ doing something wrong. Instead it is a more positive path where, using long term strategic thinking and respectful engagement even in the face of severe provocation, we strengthen Northern Ireland`s place within the United Kingdom.

In fighting to make unionism more acceptable to those who believe in the Union, but cannot bring themselves to vote for, or be associated with unionist parties, we advance our cause. I am in no doubt that those who can see beyond the ever decreasing core unionist vote that the only path for unionism is for it to come in from the cold, to end its isolationist positioning and accept that we share this place, we share responsibilities and we share a rich culture that should now be uniting us far more than it divides us.

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