Orange Order Grand Master Robert Saulters has called for unionist unity, ‘one big unionist party which represents all the views I hear.’ This theme ran through the recent election campaign. I heard it on the doorstep; it is called for by the DUP; it is mentioned in internal UUP meetings; and it is one of the areas to be discussed in Sir Reg’s review.
It clearly means different things to different people.
For the person on the doorstep, the alternative phrasing is ‘Why can’t yez all get together?’ I have a high regard for the people I met who told me this, but as far as I can tell, they all have one thing in common; they are good people who want to get on with their own lives knowing that the country will be governed properly, and that the only input required of them is to vote every now and then. They prefer not to be involved politically, and some have a folk memory of a peaceful pre troubles past where Unionism was one monolithic party.
For the DUP the call comes because of political opportunism; they were anxious that their performance in the election would be affected by sleaze, expenses, relationships with developers and personal relationships and scandals. They wanted to counter our offer to the electorate to bring Northern Ireland into the mainstream of British politics, not because they are opposed to the idea, but because it was not them doing it, and because they wanted to remain top dogs. They saw it as an opportunity to damage the UUP, and to destabilize our growing relationship with the Conservative Party. They were worried about the new type of unionism we are offering; a unionism which plays a full part in British politics.
Within the UUP there remain a number of members who were not wholehearted about the UUP/Conservative link, and they use the mantra of Unionist unity to continue this fight. Equally there are some members who are rightly upset at our loss of seats in Westminster, and take the view that our Conservative link did not work. They are wrong, and I will return to this theme another time.
Who would unite with whom? And why? Against whom?
We had a united Unionist candidate in Fermanagh, and it didn’t work – the unionist vote went down.
Would all strands of unionism come together in one big party? Jim Allister’s TUV rump, PUP, the monolithic authoritarian Paisley driven DUP and the highly democratic UUP ? The only issue that unites these disparate parties is the border issue; and that was settled comprehensively in 1998. There remain significant differences between the parties in ‘normal’ politics.
And what would it achieve? In Fermanagh not only did the combined unionist vote go down; the nationalist vote coalesced in the direction of Sinn Fein. We would end up with two large blocks of votes, unionist and nationalist, perpetuating the politics of the past, and ensuring that the border remains a live issue, even though the constitutional settlement of 1998 with the consent principle settles the issue once and for all.
For us to have healthy politics it is essential to have normal political choices within unionism. Equally within nationalism there must remain choice. We should not be driving the nationalist community into the arms of an abstentionist party.
One of the key aims of our Conservative link is to move Northern Ireland away from the narrowly based politics of the past, to bring us into the mainstream of British politics, so we can all play a full role in the state. The SDLP have a loose link with the Labour Party; Alliance has a loose arrangement with the LibDems. The seeds are sown for normal politics to evolve in Northern Ireland.
Yet the DUP and its allies seem determined to prevent this happening. Their calls for unionist unity are getting more strident; they have infected some in our own party; they have enlisted the Orange Order (and we remember how the order took the principled decision to sever the link with our own party to ensure it stopped being associated with one party alone).
The DUP brand of Unionism is to hold out the begging bowl, to grab all it can for ‘our wee Norn Iron’. They are making common cause with the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales. As the lead party in the Executive they have made common cause with Sinn Fein in made a mess of governing. Anyone who listens to their calls is making a mistake.