Religious allegiance in Northern Ireland however flawed or sincere in its’ expression has been a complex factor in shaping communal differences, loyalties, bigotry and conflict. In doing so it has served to successfully inoculate against the potential value of beneficial insight and teaching.
Perhaps not as many as was once the case, there are those familiar with a parable found in the New Testament wherein ‘’ is not advised.
Those qualified to comment more fully will know that the parable lends itself to a number of interpretations but at its most basic is the point that to benefit from the new, you have to be prepared to replace the old.
It is a lesson Northern Ireland unionism is slow to learn and resonates beyond personalities and leaders, as it struggles to accommodate and protect what the electorate is clearly and increasingly rejecting.
Failure to recognise this is to deny Northern Ireland the opportunity to step away from dark politics; to look beyond what we are to what we can become. Abandoned to the past and the apocalyptic politics of parties which have brought everyone to the same polarised precipice, governance, including Unionism, will continue to exist within a rigged system on the edge of integrity.
Statesmanship and principled leadership will have been forfeited to the wheeler-dealing of cluttered mindsets and frozen identities in a world of diversity. The tub-thumpers will continue to be bolstered by a fudged carve-up flavoured by resentment and back-pedalling into a cul-de-sac.
Unionism should have no part in this. Rather is it the remit of Unionism, which has the stronger argument when debating the constitutional future, to promote the politics of reconciliation, transformation and constructive collaboration rather than ambiguity that can benefit, not just Northern Ireland, but the United Kingdom and the island of Ireland, not as a shared, but blended home.
Unionism needs to look within and ask if it is an impediment to finding answers to those pressing issues in the minds of the electorate: why can’t our politics, underpinned by the need to build a shared and inclusive community, prioritise jobs, quality of life, regional imbalances, social injustice visited upon the gay, disabled and migrant communities, deficits in infrastructure, poverty, inequality and wasteful segregation?
Why can’t our politics address the problems within our healthcare structures, put in place and implement a strategy for dealing with Mental Health?
Why can’t the electorate hear what those, privileged to serve as representatives, intend to do to bring this society into a new era of focused co-operation and growth where the economy will work for all. Why can’t our politics establish a clear strategic role for Northern Ireland in addressing climate change?
For too long the unionist electorate has bailed out political unionism which is not providing solutions.
By definition, a bailout is designed to rescue what is bankrupt and this is being laid bare in the current infighting within the DUP.
In addition to the strategic miscalculations which the party has made over RHI, New Decade, New Approach and BREXIT as well as the hostile reception which DUP representatives received during recent NI Protocol protests, insiders voice frustration at a lack of movement towards an achievable future and speak of a struggle to develop politics vital to nurturing a fair, inclusive, respectful and prosperous Northern Ireland with old quarrels consigned to memory.
They realise, as do many within the UUP, Loyalism and unaligned civic unionism that it is this future which will gain consent for the retention of the Union.
It is clear that this cannot be achieved within the current Unionist political party structures where the broad-church approach only facilitates a now audible cacophony of disharmony.
There are too many within the DUP who would fit into the TUV; there are too many within the UUP who would fit into the DUP and maybe the TUV. This fragmentation and double-think within the parties produces minimal risk-taking and strategic timidity. Above all it shuts down the future that we could have as change comes slow.
The comment is made: “You cannot expect people to change overnight.”
With elections looming, ‘overnight may be all that Unionism has’, as others seek to capitalise on its indecision. The parties need to be prepared to shed those who want to hold back progress and coalesce with those in the political and civic arena who desire a different preferred future.
Is it now time for a strategic re-alignment of political unionism that embraces issue-centred and a rights-based agenda: to produce a community at peace with itself, with individuals treating others as they would be treated, accepting of diversity and working to build a healthy, prosperous skilled and educated workforce where there is opportunity for all. Is it now time give the electorate pro-Union representatives of like-minded integrity and service who will fill the void of problem-solving legislation that addresses the needs of everyone, regardless of creed, race or political affiliation.
Are we instead, in spite of any possible leadership changes, to be asked to settle for polarization where nothing gets done? Are we to be asked to live under the governance of those who co-operate only to overcome, compete for power and seek supremacy?
If this is the best that is on offer, we will be destined to await the ‘bursting of the wineskins.’
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter-and intra-community activities works independently to promote civil Unionism.