Unionist forum ‘urgently needed’ in response to calls for Irish unity

PUP conference told of the importance of ‘selling the benefits of UK’

Billy Hutchinson  told the conference the PUP believed “a deal will be done” on Brexit. Photograph: Twitter/@OfficialPUP

Billy Hutchinson told the conference the PUP believed “a deal will be done” on Brexit. Photograph: Twitter/@OfficialPUP

 

An all-embracing unionist forum is urgently needed in response to calls for a Border poll on Irish unity, delegates at the Progressive Unionist Party’s annual conference have heard.

The theme for this year’s PUP conference, marking its 40th anniversary, was “the past, the present and the future”. The small loyalist party — which has links to the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Red Hand Commando (RHC) — has had limited electoral success in comparison to the mainstream unionist parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).

On Saturday in Coleraine, Co Derry, PUP leader, councillor Billy Hutchinson, took part in a panel event discussing the “formation and journey of the party from the compounds of Long Kesh to present day”. He told the conference the PUP believed “a deal will be done” on Brexit.

“We believe the negotiations should always be between the British and Irish prime ministers,” he said. “The EU should have just rubber stamped an agreement as an honest broker.”

Cllr Hutchinson spoke of the need for loyalists to be politically aware and develop an understanding of the “cultural war” he claimed was ongoing, and of the “need to challenge it”. On the future of Northern Ireland’s union with Britain, he said all unionists had to be involved in the discussion. “We need to have a unionist discussion,” he said. “We need to know what the other unionist parties think. We need to do this together. We need to know where unionism is going to be in ten years.

“We have party members attending from Scotland. Unionists parties need to be clear where they are on the union, including for Scotland.

“I do not believe I will see a United Ireland, but if I do, I certainly won’t follow Arlene Foster to the mainland.”

DUP leader Arlene Foster previously said she would leave Northern Ireland if a majority of people voted in a Border poll for Irish unity. PUP Causeway Coast and Glen’s councillor Russell Watton, who has topped the poll for the party in Coleraine at the last two council elections, claimed Sinn Féin believe Brexit creates the conditions for a Border poll.

“That as it stands doesn’t concern me,” he said. “What does is the lack of a broad unionist response. The lack of a clear-cut strategy for the pro-union community.” Cllr Watton believes “some form of Unionist Forum/Convention, embracing all shades of unionism is needed urgently”.

Benefits of UK

PUP deputy leader Cllr John Kyle, spoke of the importance of selling the benefits of the United Kingdom, which he described “a beacon of democracy, a powerhouse of scientific discovery and innovation, a font of creativity that has enriched every sphere of the arts and a leading influence for international order and peace, but a nation that when peace and justice demanded it was prepared to go to war”.

The east Belfast councillor, also a local GP, spoke to delegates of “being intensely frustrated by the intransigence and negativity of the main unionist parties”. He claimed their negativity was in stark contrast to the PUP’s “clarity and courage”. Cllr Kyle also raised the problem of high suicide rates in the North, and the importance of good mental health. “Too many of our young people are taking their own lives, even more are self-harming, struggling with low self esteem, anxiety and uncertainty,” he said.

“A principal of a local boys secondary school said to me recently, ‘my boys don’t lack aspiration, they lack confidence’.”

He added: “Our politics should be helping to create a culture which is supportive, healthy and enables human flourishing. “An environment that is intentionally positive, affirming and enabling, an education system that turns young people into learners who use their skills productively.”

In an interview with The Irish Times, former Ulster Democratic Party (UDP) leader Gary McMichael said the contribution loyalists made to the peace process is “under appreciated”, sentiments which were echoed by Cllr Hutchinson.

At Saturday’s conference PUP party officer and community worker Teena Patrick from the north Belfast constituency association also addressed this theme, calling for greater recognition for the peace-building work done by Cllr Hutchinson, a former UVF prisoner. “I continually ask myself will our party leader Billy Hutchinson ever be seen in the same light that (late former PUP leader) David (Ervine) gave him credit for?,” she said to delegates. “Or, for the journey he has travelled for peace? I fear not, as people have short memories.”