Come Together, Right Now…

Now the negotiation and speculation is behind us and the Executive is up and running, the immediate priority for all of us should be to wish the ministers well in their efforts to fix what’s currently broken in our society and to improve the lives of as many of our people as possible, of whatever age and community background.

None of the incoming ministers will have an easy job so I would hope – rather than expect – our mainstream media will lay off the mischief making and focus on the issues that affect all of us. Our media has never handled stability well, dating the whole way back to 1994, so the instinctive reaction of far too many therein is to do what it can to drive or accelerate inevitable differences between and within  the DUP and Sinn Fein. We’ve already seen it over the past few of days and its not edifying in any way.

But as the Executive gets on with its work, the spectre of party politics is never far away. Nor are elections. So what happens within unionism and nationalism now with a General Election in the near distance? By now we should have a greater number of options for voters, but the post GFA abandonment of Trimble and Hume in favour of Paisley and Adams I believe killed that prospect stone dead.

Clearly for nationalism there isn’t much of a problem as the voting element of that community has pretty much coalesced behind Sinn Fein. Can that be halted or reversed? I can’t see it. I’ve seen a number of commentators suggest that official opposition might benefit the SDLP. I’d like to see that but frankly I can’t. I was a passionate supporter of all other parties forming a coherent opposition after the 2016 election as all Governments need to be held to account by a coherent and credible opposition. Society the loser if it isn’t there, as was witnessed in the years when Thatcher and Blair were in their pomp in Downing Street. But it failed in 2016. The was some effort made at it but really it consisted of Steve Aiken and/or someone from the SDLP going on Radio Ulster and saying everything the Executive did was wick. I fear the SDLP operating alone will have even less impact. Prove me wrong Matthew.

But on the other side of the house we see increasing references to the notion of “unionist realignment.” I like that term and the idea appeals to me. But it needs a lot of fleshing out. Presumably, this term replaces “Unionist Unity” as an aspiration. That’s a good thing. Not only is unionist unity – in the form of one unionist party or a coalition of all shades of unionism – an impossibility, but more importantly it’s a bad idea. Jeffrey Donaldson’s biggest and most admirable achievement in the past week has been his willingness to stand up to and isolate the old Paisleyite rump of the party. That wasn’t just an achievement because it got Stormont back up and running. From a unionist perspective it was a great achievement because finally we’ve seen marginalised a group of men whose views, attitudes and arrogance have so little in common with the broad unionist community. They have been allowed to see off far too many unionist leaders over the past 40 years yet still survive in their safe Westminster seats, able to weaken our position and bring ridicule on our community time and time again, always with absolute impunity.

The instinctive reaction of these men and their acolytes against any form of liberalising our social laws has been to instantly dismiss it without debate or consideration for the impact on society. I remember driving home from work one night and being horrified to hear Arlene Foster say that having used the POC to block equal marriage here, she would do so over and over again, any time it was raised in the house. How on Earth it was in the interests of the union for unionism’s political leader to be so belligerent about a piece of legislation that would improve the lives of a relatively small number of our fellow subjects in a manner that had literally no impact – positive or negative – on anyone else. It may seem to some to be a relatively insignificant issue, but the graphics of the biggest unionist party making such a big deal of blocking it had, I believe, a much wider impact on attitudes within much of the “Protestant” community than the DUP could ever have anticipated.

Alliance gains should be partially judged in this context, particularly given where virtually all of them have occurred. Okay, they are not a “unionist” party but their gains have mostly come in unionist areas where either young people have found themselves in tune with them or  to a lesser degree older people have abandoned unionist parties to move to them. Whether those votes are lent or long term we won’t know until probably the next Assembly election. But clearly the ascent of the DUP to dominance in unionist politics since 2003 has not been to their liking so they have taken their vote elsewhere.

Overall a stronger Alliance is not necessarily a bad thing for Northern Ireland or for the stability of the union. Young people do need to be encouraged to think about politics and to vote.. There’s plenty about this incarnation of Alliance I can’t relate to – particularly their virtue signalling, preciousness and naivete – but clearly it provides a political outlet for people who would otherwise be disengaged. That is good for democracy.

So what about unionist realignment? Obviously, there is a significant vote for the unionism of Allister, Dodds, Wilson and co. There always has been and always will be. So it won’t go away in. But it shouldn’t have its significance exaggerated through being given cover by our largest party. It should stand on its own two feet, which to be fair is what Allister has done. But the response I have detected to Jeffrey Donaldson’s contribution to restoring Stormont has been very encouraging. Since the sixties we have always been badly served by unionist leaders looking over its shoulder at the Paisleys et al and being spooked enough to at best move too slowly to defend itself and at worst to do nothing at all. Jeffrey and his courageous allies like Gavin Robinson have faced it down within the DUP and won. But that’s not the end of the job.

Complete realignment won’t come overnight if it comes at all. But we need to see mainstream, commonsense elements of unionism work more closely and identifiably together in Stormont, councils and anywhere else the opportunity presents itself. The UUP has many good people but not enough with the profile and credibility to deliver what we need. The Robin Swann debacle today demonstrates a naivete and lack of political nous. It was a sensible selection two weeks ago but they have floundered to justify inaction on it once Stormont returned. Also the spectacle of a UUP party MLA questioning the decision on X on the very day the ministers were appointed must have been infuriating for Doug Beattie and his leadership colleagues. That party is not in a position to make gains. Not without help.

Equally Jeffrey and co need to be encouraged and backed by the UUP in the decision they took last week. That may be hard for them given the vitriol they’ve faced from the DUP in its entire 53-year existence, but times have changed and if political unionism wants to revive itself that can only be done through an alliance of the pragmatic, non-doctrinaire and potentially voter friendly being seen to have finally shaken off the legacy of Paisley.

Many of those who now vote Alliance in largely unionist areas are most likely people who previously didn’t vote. So they’re not the immediate target for a realigned unionism. No, the target has to be the vast numbers within the PUL community of all social backgrounds who have become alienated by a form of politics they share nothing with but support of the union. These people are unionist before Protestant (if they practice ant religion at all) and that needs to be recognised. Also its always easier to regain old supporters than to gain brand new ones. The lapsed voters have at least some history with political unionism so they will be much easier to encourage back if the right attitudes, policies and performance on the floor at Stormont and the town halls.

This is the first time we’ve been presented with a genuine opportunity to have a largely secular and socially credible form of unionism with the prospect of winning elections and strengthening the union. It won’t come overnight but if the opportunity is wasted the broad pro union electorate will not be very forgiving. Preserving the union isn’t enough. Its secure for the foreseeable. Making a better Northern Ireland is what we need now.

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