Lifting the siege: Unionism must change in order to survive
The new unionism must be future-focused, open and welcoming – a warm house for all
Snow falls on Stormont in east Belfast. Photograph: Jonathan Porter/Press Eye
A siege mentality. The cliche that for many encompasses the unionist political psyche. To lift its siege and succeed in the long term, unionism needs to change not only its tactics but also its mindset. A new unionism is required if the union is to be sustained well beyond the Northern Ireland centenary in 2021.
The medium-term forecast, based upon voting figures and demography, suggests a constitutional stalemate with inertia favouring the status quo for those with no hard preference. Unionism’s challenge is to make the existing constitutional status either the preference or fall-back position for a continuing majority in Northern Ireland.
If there is no constitutional change on the horizon then the Northern Irish body politic needs to accept that a functioning Stormont is key to future success. However, the simple return of Stormont is no panacea as the structures designed to resolve conflict and sustain peace are not fit for delivering joined-up, effective government. The brief 2016 Assembly may be remembered for the Renewable Heat Incentive debacle but it was also the Executive without a budget or an agreed programme for government. Reform was slow and decision-making tortured. The current hiatus in devolution provides an opportunity to negotiate reformed structures for Stormont to deliver better government for all the people of Northern Ireland.
Each section of the community in Northern Ireland faces its own political challenges. Irish republicans should understand what the political parties in Dublin have long accepted – that Irish unity is on the long finger and that unionists must be persuaded if they are ever to achieve constitutional change. Unionists in turn must accept that the days of being in a majority are gone and that Irish nationalism must be treated as partners in the governing of Northern Ireland, including showing respect for Irish culture. Furthermore, a liberalisation of social mores and attitudes, especially among the young, requires Northern Ireland to better reflect wider UK attitudes on social issues. The famous line from Di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard should resonate with unionists: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
A unique stalemate
For nationalists and republicans Northern Ireland will never be as British as Finchley and for unionists it will never be as Irish as Finglas. We have a unique stalemate, which may become a political war of attrition, benefiting no one. Or we can choose to park our constitutional status and build a better society for us all.
Unionists must realise that the robust promotion of a combination of Brexit and Conservative direct rule will not enhance the union in the long term. “New unionism” therefore requires three fundamental changes from its more traditional approach.
Firstly unionism must become future-focused, articulating a vision for a successful Northern Ireland within the UK and engaging the widest possible audience in support of that goal. Widening unionism does not diminish it; in fact it is the only way to guarantee its future success. Greater engagement with younger voters is also essential to counter the growing narrative that unionism is the politics of the old. To change that trend unionism must show how it can better help those aspiring for a better tomorrow rather than focusing on the past.
Secondly, unionism must be more open and welcoming. Too often unionism makes it easy for its opponents to criticise and paint it as an anachronism. Being part of a diverse, modern Britain should be an easy sell to many who are agnostic on the union. This is a key audience who make up as much as 10 per cent of the electorate and who will play a critical role in deciding the future direction of Northern Ireland. Our goal should be to engage and win over this demographic and not repel it through a one-dimensional definition of unionism.
Thirdly, unionism must embrace partnership government. While unionist parties have led the devolved Executive since its formation in 1999 it is perceived to be sharing power through gritted teeth. Unionism needs to be generous both politically and culturally, as only by sharing power can unionism retain it in the longer term. Creating a “warm house” for all and a willingness to respect Irishness and Irish identity within Northern Ireland is a necessary step in moving forwards from the past.
The right road
These changes will lead to a more vibrant and confident unionism that is not fearful for the future and that can attract support from nontraditional areas. By modernising and undertaking more outreach unionism will strengthen and improve its long-term viability. For many it may be counterintuitive, but by breaking out of its siege mentality unionism is more likely to prosper and grow.
While unionism needs to change it cannot make Northern Ireland a success on its own. Generosity is required on all sides along with a desire to make Northern Ireland work. To misquote former prime minister Terence O’Neill, Northern Ireland is once again approaching a crossroads and we have a choice over which road we will take. Essentially we have two options: we either learn to share Northern Ireland and agree to work together to make this place the best it can be or we can indulge in a long-term war of political attrition with the danger that we slip back into violence. Surely the choice is obvious. There is a positive future for everyone in Northern Ireland, we just have to take the right road.
- Philip Smith is Ulster Unionist MLA for Strangford