Now that the dust has settled on the turmoil at the top of the two major unionist parties for the foreseeable future, we have had a wide range of commentators telling us what challenges they face and what is likely to define their mandate. Many of them came from various shades of non-union or anti-union opinion advising unionists on the way forward.
But the two leaders (at least initially) would do better to focus on the thoughts and feelings of their own constituencies. Until they establish their credibility with their fellow union members, they will not have the authority or influence to make the agreements that are necessary in the months and years to come.
Last week at Slugger, Mick argued that the ouster of Arlene Foster as leader of the DUP “was the end of Robinson’s experiment to broaden the party’s appeal.” That may well have been in the position when Edwin Poots succeeded her. In fact, it may well be the current and perpetual situation. But does it have to be this way?
My view is that the greatest contribution Jeffrey Donaldson or Doug Beattie (ideally both) can make to the community they seek to lead is to eliminate the growing disconnect between political unionism and the broader pro-union community.
Evidence from various opinion polls indicates that our parties simply do not reflect the attitudes of a predominantly secular “Protestant” community (yes, I understand the obvious oxymoron in that phrase), and that the gap is widening. Hence the emergence of the Alliance and the Green Party in predominantly pro-union areas, and less participation in such areas.
There is little evidence to lead us to believe that the majority of non-union voters in these areas have left the union. Far from there. But as it stands, they have abandoned unionism and show little sign of returning.
Written from a union perspective, I have some suggestions for both Jeffrey and Doug if they want to regain traction with their constituency and genuinely strengthen both the pro-union vote and the union itself:
- Don’t confuse your party members with your voters. Its membership is small and largely out of step with the community. In the case of the DUP it is disproportionately religious and reactionary when it comes to social change. In the case of the UUP, there are still too many people who simply did not feel strong enough to participate in any of the splits or defections to other parties. These people may have given both of you leadership positions, but they are not the people who will achieve electoral success or a strengthened union. Have the confidence in yourself to ignore them when necessary. Take them with you when necessary. If you indulge them, they will be your downfall, just as they have been for your predecessors.
- On general social issues, such as, but not limited to, equal marriage and reproductive rights issues, the PUL community is far ahead of its political representatives and frustrated at being misrepresented in the eyes of our fellow citizens throughout the world. UK. “Self-government is the government of Rome” was a legitimate position until relatively recently and shared en bloc by the Unionist people. But it is history in the Republic, so we don’t want it to repeat itself in our little part of secular UK.
- While displaying a considerate and constructive attitude toward the needs and rights of others, avoid being drawn into the myth of “progressive News Block.” That is gross populism. Judge each issue on its merits and do what is best in the interests of vulnerable people and the general population. That is true progressive behavior.
- Do not abuse the request for concern. It was there for a specific reason: to prevent one of our two blocks from imposing its will on the other. Arlene stating that she would use it over and over again about equal marriage was a textbook example of how to celebrate the party but lose people. Now that we do not have a majority in the assembly, unionists may at some point need the PoC as planned. You can’t do that credibly if you misuse it beforehand.
- Don’t look down on Jim Allister or Jamie Bryson. For decades, UUP was obsessed with what Paisley had to say about it. That was his undoing because he was never brave enough to ignore it. Don’t feel like you have to take a problem seriously because they are outraged about it. Be yourself and do the right thing. People will go with you if you are strong enough to stay in position and articulate it clearly and consistently.
- Don’t let loose cannons put to shame and damage your reputation, your party, and the union community at large. Not even if they are seen as great of the party. Historically, this was a problem for the UUP leaders, but these people played a significant role in undermining Arlene’s credibility. Deal with them quickly, decisively, and publicly as soon as they transgress. Your constituency will thank you.
- Stop thinking that the British Right are your friends or natural allies. Both parties have done that over and over again throughout their history, and it has never worked for us. The only major concession won by any unionist party in the past 50 years was greater NI representation in parliament. That was assured by the UUP of a Labor government and benefited all the people, not just the union element of it.
- Don’t cheapen the flag by wrapping yourself in it like Superman’s cape. It is our flag and we must respect it. The broad pro-union community is happy with modern UK so let them have the union they want, not some hyped version of a country that only existed in black and white movies (the same applies to the most exaggerated and embarrassing brands Irish nationalism). . Hug him.
- Do not adopt international causes because the other party has adopted the other side of THAT dispute. The Middle East has no relation to NI despite what people have claimed. Judge each one on its own merits and don’t get involved unless you really understand the issue at hand.
Soon. The only way to truly represent ourselves is by reflecting ourselves. Minimizing, rather than exaggerating, the difference between union supporters in Northern Ireland and our fellow citizens in Great Britain. Unionists simply cannot legitimately oppose protocol (for example) on the grounds that it sets us apart from the rest of the nation, while simultaneously upholding a different level of human rights or morality from the UK as a whole. Doing so will not only boost the unionist electoral position, but will restore the trust of those in the broad Catholic community who were happy to coexist within the union before Brexit and before Arlene.
I think they are both decent guys, quite capable of doing what I have suggested, and I wish the best for both of them. The alternative is not worth thinking about.
Ian Clarke spent 36 years in sales and marketing for newspapers in Northern Ireland, England and Scotland, including the Belfast Telegraph, Wolverhampton Express & Star, Northern Echo and The Herald (Glasgow) after graduating from QUB in Political Science. Glentoran supporter.