Is Unionism Prepared for Change?

The News Letter Union 2021 Series of articles through the summer has been an interesting read.  It also provides thedissenter a useful way to address the second part of post-election review: Part 1 having looked at relative electoral strengths, historical and current.

Having looked at the News Letter’s list of questions thedissenter has reversed the order to start with consideration of what challenges 2011 might hold for Unionists. There is every indication that Sinn Fein is gearing up for another crisis and more talks within the next twelve months – chip, chip, chip. The big question is then ‘how prepared is Unionism for the road ahead to 2021 and beyond?’, including the challenge of starting to prepare for that journey now.

This is a slightly longer version than appears in the News Letter, free from the paper’s 600 word limit.


Moving Forward Part 2

It is not about whether or not a Sinn Fein First Minster is acceptable. The current political structures, into which both the DUP and UUP have bought, mean that this is a possibility though far from a certainty.

In his recent News Letter article Alex Kane rightly outlines the challenge for Unionists should Sinn Fein be the largest party at the next election.  While electoral pacts have been discussed widely, alternative strategies have been absent in public discussion.

There is a widespread acceptance that we have a great deal less than good Government at Stormont.  Following on from Hillsborough, we are still waiting for Ritchie and Empey to get back to the Executive on improving process to make Government work. It is most likely that the failure is fundamentally within the structures.  In which case, likely solutions are only possible with a complete rethink.

Stoic acceptance of the institutions as they are is down to a failure of Unionism at the outset to have had a clear agenda for Government – devolution seems to have been an end in itself. If neither main Unionist Party leader is willing to serve as Deputy First Minister then are they prepared to bring the house down?

Being ‘prepared’ would mean having an alternative pathway, and working hard on preparing the ground for such a scenario.  Regardless of this scenario playing out in the event of Sinn Fein being the largest party, the growing logjam and catalogue of failure to deliver, may mean a time-out is demanded from the public. Hillsborough showed how hopelessly unprepared Unionism is in planning for the future, too willing to deal with the minutiae (badly) and seemingly unable to challenge a tired and empty Republican narrative – St Andrews before, Belfast before that, and before then….

All very well, but what would that prepared pathway be? A plan for Government by voluntary coalition that would provide accountability, stability and mature democratic checks and balances?  Fewer Executive Departments for sure, and far fewer than 26 local Councils: unnecessary for a small geographic area of under 2 million people – 3 Councils perhaps, or none at all?

At a bigger level what would that Government be about?  The recent Centre for Social Justice Report, Breakthrough Northern Ireland,  has shown the challenge in rebuilding society – all the billions of EU Peace funding shows that money is not the solution.  Are our areas of deprivation worse than the worst in Manchester, Liverpool or even parts of London? Are we that special? Troubles aside, economic and social breakdown is a story familiar too elsewhere in the UK with identical themes.

The corollary of social breakdown is even greater challenge in respect of education, where the selection debate has overshadowed the failings at primary level. If there is social reform, there must also be economic reform.

The time for the end of the Invest NI life-support machine is coming – the business sector is as much grounded in a dependency culture as the social sector. Nationalists cannot complain about a significant reduction in Northern Ireland’s public sector. If there is to be an all-Islands economy (one of the largest in the world of which we are already an integrated part) then the public sector engagement in the economy has to be reduced to the UK level (even at its current high of 50%) . Perhaps we should aim to be close to Irish Republic’s smaller public sector, otherwise a reduction in corporation tax is pointless and should not even be under consideration.

Those who are creating wealth in society must be encouraged at the expense of those who profit from public subsidy. Far from NI Water returning to the Department of Regional Development it must be prepared for the private sector.

It is not necessary for Unionist parties to unite structurally to agree common points on a future for good government.  The Unionist electorate is not a single monolithic body. It does not lack choice in Party, rather in leadership and ideas on moving forward. No matter the number of parties, Unionism is currently failed by a lack of strategic and purposeful leadership.  There would be a collective electorate groan at the thought of the present Unionist leaderships entering more talks on the future of Northern Ireland given their abject failure to date.

What is required to 2021 and beyond is coherent vision and a policy driven agenda that sets out what is necessary for a small, open, free and intelligence-led economy making a positive social, cultural and political contribution within the UK. This, far far more than (and probably in spite of) political manoeuvering or structural machinations, will build and strengthen the Union.

The News Letter’s Union 2021 Series asks 5 questions from contributors:

  1. What do you think Northern Ireland’s Union with Great Britain will look like in 2021?
  2.  What would you like it to look like?
  3. Is unionist unity essential for the achievement of your vision?
  4. If so, what does that mean?
  5. Could you accept a Sinn Fein first minister?

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