Unionism needs to create a new battleground for ideas that everyone can buy into…

Alex Kane has raised an interesting question which he believes is the key one facing unionism, which is how “to find [the] compromise required to best secure the union”. It’s unfashionable to argue that compromise is a good thing.

That’s partly because for most of the last forty years (almost the entirety of my own voting life) conviction politicians have been the most desired thing (even when they’re obviously driving the whole gig into an economic brick wall).

The question is not whether compromise a good or a bad thing, but what are you prepared to compromise over. To compromise well you have to have to be able to bring things to the table that others might actually have a stake in.

For ideas to matter, say Paul Collier and John Kay, “they must find practical application”. The union matters less to people because unionist parties have been poor at finding practical ideas that underpin what’s most precious to them.

Indeed, the DUP’s alienation strategy in changing the St Andrews Agreement has ended up alienating voters from unionism because it limits choice within the unionist bloc. In the most protestant areas, people leaving the camp.

Of course there are some things that should be compromised. To be fair to the DUP (something that’s just as unfashionable as compromise) Ian Paisley senior forced the Provisional movement to accept the authority of the PSNI.

One of the geniuses of that wider Provisional movement has been to come up with ideas (like reducing the number of days on which the Union flag could fly above Belfast City Hall) that would ensure a reductive unionist reaction.

A more constructive form of democratic activism (whether it comes from the nationalist or unionist side of the debate) would broaden the agenda and encourage wider participation. As Collier and Kay write:

Participation matters in several ways. It draws tacit information from experience and so provides an early warning for the flaws inevitable in a world of radical uncertainty. And by taking part in common endeavour, people bond forging the mutual trust that is a vital asset of a successful society.

In that context (and almost that context alone) it is possible to create the circumstances in which compromise is a social good rather than an endless single track road to political perdition (for everyone concerned).

That means moving from passive refusers to active proposers. As we wrote in A Long Peace 18 years ago last May:

Defensiveness is far too predictable a strategy. A genuinely disruptive politics must shape the terrain on which future contests for the Union will be fought, opening up alternatives, rather than shutting them down. It relies on democracy – a Northern Ireland that cannot govern itself will always be a brittle and unstable entity.

There are things that no democratic society should compromise on (like the primacy of the gun), but an over focus on negatives cedes the narrative to those whose only goal is to prove that NI (even after the GFA) cannot work.

In a long peace, after all, people must want the Union for it to survive. You cannot do that by literally boring them to death with the same old Punch and Judy routine with the Shinners.

That means looking for more natural departure points than the current abstractions over future constitutional arrangements, that by their nature promise a much more convivial arrival.

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