The greatest challenge to the Union doesn’t come---as the DUP would have us believe---from a split in the unionist vote. It comes from the cold, hard mathematical reality that increasing numbers from within the pro-Union electorate are not voting.
There may be all sorts of reasons for the fact that they haven’t been voting---yet key among those reasons may be the fact that they think that a vote for a purely local party or a small group of a national Party is a wasted vote.
Again, that’s where the political and electoral force that the Ulster Unionist Party and the Conservative Party have created brings very real CHANGE to Northern Ireland politics.
This is about attracting and maximising pro-Union votes and seats.
It’s about encouraging people to go to the polls.
It’s about encouraging many more of them to become involved in politics.
It’s about convincing them that their vote counts and their voice will be heard.
It’s about convincing them that Northern Ireland is no longer a place apart when it comes to deciding the great issues the great issues of national, European and international politics.
It’s about convincing the pro-Union electorate that their vote strengthens the Union and strengthens the United Kingdom.
It’s also about selling the Union to a whole new generation of voters or potential voters who are no longer content to accept the old communal certainties. Irish republicanism to date has made no headway whatsoever amongst the undecideds and the neutrals in the electorate; we need to exploit that fact and quickly- the opportunity is there to offer and sell a new form of 21st Century Unionism, one that will cement our rightful place within the United Kingdom.
Going back to the formation of Northern Ireland, I think one of the mistakes that were made, was to concentrate on the governing of the Province to the exclusion of maintaining and strengthening our national relationships within the UK. This was quite understandable, given the struggle here leading up to Partition in 1920-21, but it did lead to politics within Northern Ireland becoming too insular and parochial with only scant attention being paid to the wider and greater national and international issues.
"Amen" to that and if the founding father of Irish Unionism, Edward Carson, could speak from beyond the grave, I'm convinced he would be telling us exactly the same thing. It’s time for Northern Irish Unionism to shake off the residue of Ulster nationalism and take our rightful place, with the rest of our fellow citizens, right at the heart of our nation.
But it seems to me that unionism, in order to maximise its appeal and to underpin itself in the longer term must break free from the tyranny of sectarianism. If we can escape from that bondage it will be a key to a brighter future for all of us.
If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t deserve to survive as a political philosophy- it’s as simple as that. But we should look on the bright side, we have been handed the opportunity of building a new secular, modern and all-embracing form of Unionism- if we don’t take it, then we will have only ourselves to blame.