The opportunity grown up Unionism needs to grasp…

I submitted this article  six months ago and three or four weeks after the announcement of the Windsor Framework.  The essence of it – from an unapologetically pro-union perspective –  was that  Jeffrey Donaldson had stalled very quickly in his efforts to present the gains of the Windsor Declaration as something to be built on by his party and by unionism in general to enable the return of Stormont to stabilise things at least psychologically and allow unionism to present a more constructive face to those who have electorally abandon it.

My view was that there isn’t an anti-Windsor groundswell among the unionist community and that the tired old increasingly septuagenarian voices of the Paisleyite rump of the Westminster DUP, the 70-year-old Jim Allister, 77-year-old Kate Hoey and the unelected Jamie Bryson do not represent and are picking a fight that their community doesn’t endorse. My contention was that Jeffrey needed to quickly and confidently face down and marginalise these people and establish political unionism as a credible voice capable of presenting the union as something of benefit to us all before entire generations are lost.

Jeffrey looked like he was about to start well but within hours allowed himself to be undermined by an arrogant outburst in the Commons lobby from Ian Paisley Jr. Paisley, Sammy Wilson and Nigel Dodds have continued this ever since to very little rebuttal from Jeffrey or his allies to the point where our confidence in our Unionist politicians – never high at the best of times – fell to non-existent. There was a tired old cliché doing the rounds that Jeffrey and the Assembly party wanted back in but there was no evidence that they were prepared to take the difficult steps necessary to deliver that outcome.

That’s why I was surprised but encouraged by Jeffrey’s leader’s address at the DUP conference. His focus on the broadly negative perception of Unionism, the disinterest of Westminster in our minutiae, the probable unviability of Direct Rule and the need for Unionism to deliver and demonstrate a stable Northern Ireland to the electorate to safeguard the union was refreshing and even encouraging. I was particularly encouraged by his statement that to secure the Union in the longer term the DUP must be:

“prepared to face up to new realities and adapting to new circumstances”.

True, it was just words but not words we tend to expect from a DUP leader in a room with old Paisleyites present. Also we’ve been around long enough to recognise a degree of choreography when we see it. Plus there was no sense of outrage from the broad conference audience bar some churlish responses to Gareth Gordon by Paisley and Dodds. So far so good.

But we can never escape the fact that Jeffrey Donaldson is still a guest in someone else’s party. His politics have never really been those of Paisley young or old, let alone the  clownish antics of Sammy Wilson. He has a few decent people around him in the party but he can’t deliver the sea change necessary to marginalise the Paisleyite rump on his own or with just Gavin Robinson and Emma Little Pengelly. He needs to play a part in bringing about a transformation in overall political Unionism, not just the DUP. So he needs support from elsewhere,

That’s why I was disappointed in the immediate response of Doug Beattie. I am not party political as there is no party out there that reflects my outlook well enough. But its fair to say I’d be closer in outlook to the UUP than the DUP and I was contemptuous of Donaldson and his crew when they jumped ship in 2003. But if he is to play his part in strengthening unionism and make it more electable that will require other like-minded unionists to play their part.

Doug’s response to Jeffrey’s speech was to say that Donaldson was now “occupying the ground my party has been on for well over 20 months”. He went on to say:

“Northern Ireland politics really is a contrary place. Had I, as the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, delivered the DUP leader’s speech, I would have been pilloried, been called a traitor, a Lundy or even a Kapo.”

Of course he’s right. That – or a lot worse – is exactly what he would have been called, as were all of his predecessors at various times since the sixties. That’s always been the Paisleyite MO.  But while his comments were understandable he needs to be bigger than that. Even if its through gritted teeth, he and his party need to encourage ANYONE who expresses the sentiments heard at the DUP Conference. Difficult as that may be.

If political unionism is to achieve what it needs to achieve then it urgently needs to:

  • Speak to the pro-union community in a way that doesn’t embarrass or alienate them.
  • Marginalise (at least) the people and voices who damage unionism and the union.
  • Hold onto traditionally safe unionist seats that are under threat.
  • Get as many as possible of the right sort of unionists into Stormont and Westminster

An initial difficulty here in achieving these goals is that Donaldson’s most high-profile opponents hold the safest Unionist seats at Westminster and would be hard to shift in the short term. Or they are in the Lords so impossible to shift. They are also longer serving and more naturally DUP people than Jeffrey’s Westminster or Stormont allies in that. So any split in the DUP over a return to Stormont will not be a quiet or easily contained one. But it IS necessary to take on the men who have weakened the unionist position time after time. We can’t afford any further such weakening mistakes.

I’m not advocating Unionist Unity or a single party. That’s neither deliverable nor desirable for various reasons. People need a choice. But there does need to be a realignment of Unionist politics and the issue of a return to Stormont can provide an opportunity, if mainstream unionist politicians are capable of taking it,  to achieve that and delivery a unionism that reflects the character and outlook of the broad pro-union community much more accurately. That is strong enough to confidently face down the negative siren voices left within unionism.

That means the UUP needs to encourage Donaldson to deliver on his speech, to welcome any progress he makes towards it, and to offer support to him against his DUP opponents. That may stick in their collective throat (it would stick in mine) but the prizes are worth it, in both the short and long terms.

At the very minimum Unionism needs to hold onto the likes of East Belfast and Lagan Valley and it needs to win back North Down at the next election. Anything other than would feed the narrative that Unionism is holed below sea level and increase representation in Westminster that comes across as at least ambivalent to the union.. But that’s only a real benefit if it sends the right people to Westminster. People who have no previous baggage and who are capable of genuinely fitting in and who don’t embarrass the broad community. Otherwise they are pyrrhic victories.

That’s not as tall an order as it sounds. But I don’t want to see my community dominated by the DUP in the way Sinn Fein will perpetually dominate nationalism/republicanism from here on in. Nor do I want the current UUP to do so, even if it could. But there are enough good unionist reps in Stormont to help make a success of devolution and therefore Northern Ireland if they take the opportunity. Irrespective of who are the number one and number two First Ministers!

But these opportunities aren’t going to keep presenting themselves.

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