Below is my contribution to the Union 2021 series in the News Letter.
1) What do you think Northern Ireland's Union with Great Britain will look like in 2021?
It will look like whatever Unionism puts its mind to and spends the next decade working for. It would be complacent to expect a better future to fall into Unionism’s lap regardless of how good the economics or other factors look. If Unionism is lazy it could be surprised how dissatisfactory a Northern Ireland of 2021 could look.
2) What would you like it to look like?
Rather than engage in fantasy politics with 2021 it should be approached as a chance for strategic politics. Unionism should set itself a series of targets for 2021. This would mean Unionism and Northern Ireland not crawling across the centenary line but bounding over it into its second century.
A target should be Northern Ireland taking its place on the national stage as a full and constituent part of the United Kingdom, re-integrating us into national politics. This will not be achieved through shallow deals with a consistently unreliable Conservative Party. Instead it will be achieved by making Northern Ireland a success. Through the full utilisation of devolution Ulster should seek to become a beacon within the Union. Many of our policy challenges are common throughout the UK and if you wish the national media and political class to build a meaningful relationship with you then tackling them is the means to do so. We need to be the tailor of new policy not wearing hand-me downs.
Electorally we need to grow, 50% +1 may be all that Unionism needs but it shouldn’t be satisfied with it. Unionism should aim for a vote share of 57% by 2021 and a total non-nationalist share of 65%. Unionism should seek to grow its vote among three groups:
• Protestant working class – This is the section of past Unionist voters that have seen the greatest decline in turnout, not the middle classes as often claimed.
• Minority Ethnic Communities – This is the social group that has seen the largest growth in Northern Ireland in the past decade. With many entirely new to Northern Ireland they have no allegiance to any party.
• Catholic Voters – This will be a generational task and Unionism needs to be realistic. A full ideological jump from Nationalism to Unionism in a society like ours is a significant step. Therefore, Unionism’s task is a series of steps. Someone who previously voted for a nationalist party becoming a non-voter or voting for a non-nationalist party is an advance for Unionism. After these a further step towards Unionism becomes a greater possibility. The increasing identification with Northern Ireland to 1 in 4 Catholics also means a regional emphasis would be of value to Unionism (and not a closet Ulster Nationalism)
3) Is unionist unity essential for the achievement of your vision?
If unionist unity is done properly then it would help.
4) If so, what does that mean?
It means having a proper debate about what Unionist unity could be rather than someone presenting a finished plan. The discussion so far has told you more about the recriminations within the UUP than the risks and benefits of unity. The question should be what would a broad based Unionist party fit for the 21st century look like? The answer to that will help people genuinely assess its value and if people’s concerns can be adequately addressed. A decent debate, rather than the presently stunted one, could ensure at least productive co-operation and collaboration as an outcome.
5) Could you accept a Sinn Fein first minister?
The risk of this has become over-stated with a DUP first minister the more likely result. Unionism need not face this possibility nor should it. Planning for failure is not conducive to a good vision or strategy but gets you mired in reactive counter-strategy.