At the weekend the First Minister Rt. Hon. Peter Robinson MLA was the guest speaker at the DUP Blackwater Branch Annual Dinner. During his speech Mr Robinson said,
“Last Saturday we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Ulster Covenant. It was a glorious day and a great opportunity to remember the events of a century ago. It was a demonstration of what can be achieved by unionist co-operation. I was particularly pleased that on this day unionists from all backgrounds were able to come together to remember the past. I was also delighted that along with the Ulster Unionists, we hosted a dinner last Friday night in Titanic Belfast to mark the occasion. Earlier in the week Mike Nesbitt and I went to the Parades Commission to argue for a common sense approach to any determinations that they would make and jointly called for a peaceful day.
These were important symbols of co-operation between the two parties.
Much as I would like to see it in the longer term, they were not however the first steps towards the formation of one unionist party.
I made this clear last week when I called for greater co-operation between unionists.
The Ulster Unionist Party, regardless of who the leader has been at any given time, has made their position clear on that issue.
They are perfectly entitled to take this position and I respect their right to do so.
Though I do note that of the party faithful who took the trouble to come to the party conference 38% would like to see a single unionist party combining the UUP and DUP. I hope John McCallister will forgive me if I record the fact that this is twice the percentage that voted for him to be leader of the UUP. An even higher percentage believed that the UUP should form electoral pacts with the DUP – and 72% would transfer to the DUP in elections. The language of “sleepwalking” conveys the impression of a great threat of what was for around half of the last century the norm within unionism.
But what I really take exception to is the way in which those who are most opposed to co-operation in the Ulster Unionist Party seek to characterise the debate.
Mike Nesbitt sacked John McCallister as deputy leader of the Ulster Unionist Assembly party for claiming that he was sleepwalking into unionist unity. He would have been equally entitled to have sacked him for just talking nonsense.
John McCallister sets up a series of straw men arguments and then seeks to knock them down one by one.
Even by penning this speech John McCallister’s intentions were clear. Though he did not deliver it until Saturday evening he pre-released it with the clear intention of setting down a marker for Covenant Centenary Day. The very day when unionists were united in celebrating the past.
I want to take some time to explain why I believe that John McCallister’s assessment of the state of unionism now and in the past is fundamentally misguided and is out of touch with the mainstream.
John’s contention that – and I quote – “the prospect of ‘unionist unity’ represents a profound betrayal and rejection of the values of the Covenant” requires not a selective reading of history, but the complete rewriting of it.
Our forefathers came together under the banner “United we stand – Divided we fall”. How could any – even semi-intelligent - unionist suggest that to endorse, approve and recommend the aims of the Ulster Covenanters is a betrayal of their values? The answer is – they couldn’t. To make such a claim is to make a studied attempt to mislead today’s unionist community and corrupt the legacy of the men and women of 1912.
It also fails to recognise the fact that for the first fifty years of Northern Ireland there was a single significant unionist party and it fails to appreciate the yearning of many within the unionist community to come together. John’s view of Unionist Unity is not one that the Unionists who stood together to oppose the Anglo Irish Agreement after 1985 would recognise.
And his description of the role of the Ulster Unionist Party in the history of the state of Northern Ireland is not one that many impartial analysts would comprehend either. I say without criticism or value judgment that John’s description of the UUP as ‘liberal and pluralist’ are not descriptions that most would consider best characterise the Ulster Unionist Party.
We are of course entitled to our own opinion of history, but we are not entitled to our own facts of history.
John also suggests that unionist unity would ‘permanently entrench’ tribalism in our politics and our institutions. The reality is that it is the voting arrangements for the Assembly – negotiated by the UUP – and opposed by the DUP – that do more than anything else to entrench tribalism. We have and will continue to advocate weighted majority voting so that every Assembly member’s vote – unionist, nationalist or other – counts for the same and community designations should be abolished altogether.
Moreover the unionist unity I want is one that reaches out and grows support for the union beyond its traditional base.
According to John, the DUP is a very cold house for civic unionism. With more than twice as many votes as the Ulster Unionist Party in the last Assembly election, there is no section of the unionist community that is out of our reach and we are probably stronger in all sections than the UUP. However on the electoral evidence alone there are clearly huge sections of unionism that are now no-go areas for the UUP.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Belfast where the Ulster Unionist Party has fallen from 15 to 3 seats in under 20 years.
Mr McCallister quotes Carson’s advice to unionists as they took responsibility for government that they should oppose ‘factions and sections’, but the truth is that John is walking into the very trap that Carson warned unionists to avoid. John is seeking to carve out and isolated one narrow section of unionism rather than seeking to encompass the broad mass of unionist opinion.
Johnn McCallister clearly sees unionist unity as a grave danger to the Union, but he paints a picture of unionist unity that no one is advocating today.
Last Friday night, after John had prepared his remarks for the following night, I made clear what my view of the future of unionism should be when I said,
“In the coming years I believe we should seek to shape a wider, even if looser bond across unionism’s now multi-diverse spectrum. Not as an electoral monolith to defend ourselves against all-comers, or to retreat into the safety of our numbers, but as a movement to extol and project the benefits of the Union.
This ‘Council for the Union’ could entwine all strands of unionism and people who are pro Union and who agree on a common set of democratic principles. I see it as containing people of all backgrounds. From those who can trace their ancestry to before the plantation, to those who have lately come to our shores and for whom English was not the language of their birth. The message and purpose would be to persuade and convince those with whom we share this space of the importance and value of the Union.”
That is the vision for unionism that I have – plain and simple.
Just as the Ulster Unionist Council came together over a century ago, this new council could take advantage of the opportunities that presently exist. This would be a coalition that can secure the Union for the next one hundred years. nionism is not an ideology frozen in time, but one that adapts and evolves to changing circumstances whilst retaining its core. In the years ahead we should seek to build a new wider and deeper coalition for the Union.
This Council for the Union should not be limited to the Province, but should engage with those who value the Union right across the UK. Nor should it be limited to those who have been our historic supporters in Great Britain, but it must be broad enough to reflect all strands of the modern United Kingdom.
Given the history of the last century I don’t expect that we will achieve this overnight, but it is a path worth going down.
John McCallister’s ‘ourselves alone’ view of the Ulster Unionist Party, cutting itself off from the mainstream of unionism, is neither good for the UUP nor good for unionism as a whole.
I’m afraid that John suffers from a deluded view of what the UUP has represented for most of its history and a distorted view of what the DUP represents today. One would be forgiven for thinking he was trapped in a ‘Life on Mars’ 1970s-style time warp.
I want to see unionism, whether it is represented by one party or two, being more than a sectarian headcount at election time. I want to see the unionist cake grown not divided.
That is the space that unionism will need to occupy in the decades that lie ahead.
Just as there are those who advocate unionist unity for its own sake, there are others who oppose it for their own sake.Though our conclusions and reasoning are very different and neither of us may wish to admit it, I’m not sure that our ambitions for the Union are very different.
The vision that John McCallister has set out for unionism is not so different from the vision that I have repeatedly espoused that they could not be reconciled.
In the years following the Belfast Agreement there were real and meaningful differences. It is harder to make that case today.
On substantive policy areas I cannot see sufficient difference to justify multiple parties.
I suspect that there is a greater range of views within the Ulster Unionist Party on many issues than there is between the official UUP position and the position of the DUP.
Our task is not to dwell on the internal difficulties of other parties, but to make our own more relevant and appealing to the wider electorate.
While the academic debate about unionist unity continues to divide the Ulster Unionist Party the reality is that the realignment of unionist politics has been unfolding for over a decade.
That’s what people want and that is what increasingly people are voting for.
Just consider the statistics.
In 1997 the Ulster Unionist Party had 10 MPs; today they have none.
In 1997 they had 185 councillors; in 2011 they elected less than 100.
In 1998 they elected 28 MLAs; today only 15 sit on their benches.
In that time the DUP has increased from two to eight MPs; 91 to 182 councillors and 20 to 38 MLAs.
But our expansion has gone far beyond numbers. We have broadened our base and attracted new people along the way.At every level of the party those who were once Ulster Unionists have joined our ranks and strengthened our team. So well have they been incorporated that it is as if they had always been with us.
Who today thinks of Arlene Foster or Jeffrey Donaldson as anything other than leading members of the DUP?
Who here tonight could even tell me all the members of our Assembly team who were once members of the UUP?At Westminster, in local Government, in the Assembly and in the Executive we work together as a single team. And our doors are always open. Just ask those who have joined us about the welcome they have received.For the DUP to be the dominant voice of unionism we must be a broad coalition, united by shared values and beliefs. A narrow support base will deliver nothing other than opposition and irrelevance.
Let anyone who hankers after the old days remember what unionist isolation brought.
In twenty months time we will face our next Province-wide electoral tests with elections to both the European Parliament and to the new councils. Our task in the time ahead is to prepare.
The last decade has seen us take over the leadership of unionism and steer Northern Ireland into safer constitutional waters. For this generation at least the Union has been secured. That task is complete, but the next challenge lies ahead. And that is to ensure our place in the United Kingdom, not just for the next generation, but for the next century.
Let that be our mission and our goal."