Northern Ireland’s position as one of the components of the United Kingdom is today based on the core values which have sustained our great nation through two turbulent, yet exciting centuries; those of tolerance, freedom of speech, civil and religious liberties. Almost a century after the foundation of the state of Northern Ireland, the Province is becoming a place where everyone who appreciates decent democratic values feels at home. To paraphrase David Trimble’s momentous speech in Oslo in 1998, the Northern Ireland that I am working hard to achieve will not be a Utopia, but a normal and decent society, flawed as human beings are flawed, but fair as human beings are fair; a solid, but no longer cold house for certain members of the populace.
Unionist Unity can only be a hindrance to this vision. Based on the spectre of having Martin McGuinness elected as First Minister, such unity would be a retreat to a negative agenda, driven by political paranoia which only served to stunt the growth and expansion of Unionist politics in the past. Ulster Unionism must show itself to be sufficiently visionary and confident to look ahead to the prospect of a “shared future”, turning its back on the narrow raison d’être of tribal politics, and the objective of keeping the “other side” out. My brand of Unionism is inclusive and progressive in style and substance; it is far removed from the entrenched reactionary politics of parties such as the DUP. My Unionism is, I believe, what Northern Ireland’s voters want and desperately need. This positive, liberal Unionism reclaims the middle ground of sensible, real politics which Northern Ireland has for too long been denied.
The prospect of a single Unionist party would also lead to an increasingly united Republican front, thus putting pressure on moderates like the SDLP. Margaret Ritchie would find herself occupying an uncomfortable position, similar to that of the late Lord Fitt in the 1970’s.
Northern Ireland’s voters need and want parties to occupy the centre ground and to make politics work, in the field of education, jobs, health and on local issues. This is not a moment in our history to become obsessed with who holds one half of a co-joined, co-equal office. The DUP, who through their negotiations at St Andrews are responsible for this scenario, must not be allowed to peddle their lies, nor to use their well-honed scaremonger tactics to make voters believe that Martin McGuinness in the role of First Minister is the equivalent of Armageddon. He already occupies the position and the removal of the word deputy (with a lower-case “d”) will give him no more and indeed no less power. This question of whether I or my Party accept a Sinn Fein First Minister therefore becomes superfluous.
The fact of the matter is that nobody is walking away from Stormont. Ulster Unionism has, at times, been a slow learner. However, through hindsight we have learned that things get much worse for us, and for Northern Ireland, every time we have walked away from the negotiating table. It is my belief that Education, due to the incompetence, willful mismanagement and sectarian politics in the thinly veiled guise of equality of Minister Ruane, is a much greater threat to the Stormont system than the debate over who occupies the office of First Minister.
Ulster Unionism is at its best when we live up to the values which the Union represents. The Union will be at its strongest when we begin to look confidently to the future rather than dwell upon the past and seek to build a secure and inclusive society for all of us.
UUP MLA for South Down