Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

A modern unionism has no place for old dogmas

What is devolution for? From time to time, DUP politicians take me to task for claiming that they are more often delivering on a fundamentalist agenda while preaching liberalism and inclusivity.

Nonsense, I am told. But there is a strong appeal to fundamentalism in a statement which Peter Robinson issued last Friday.

"Let them explain to the people the benefit of water charging and higher regional rates, which would automatically follow direct rule. And are they content to have Westminster impose same-sex marriages and abortion on demand on our community? Such folly," Mr Robinson said.

The DUP leader was reacting to calls from the People's Forum for a return to direct rule. Mr Robinson realised the body, which calls most of the flags protests, was seeking to undermine the DUP's leadership of unionism by attacking the devolution settlement he negotiated.

His bottom-line defence was that devolution can keep some taxes down and save us from liberal British social legislation. That, coupled with the decommissioning of IRA weapons, is the basis on which many DUP traditionalists supported power-sharing with Sinn Fein.

The lines on gay marriage and abortion are consistent with the moral majority agenda of the Caleb Foundation, which represents some of the smaller evangelical churches and has the support of at least two DUP ministers.

Of course, people other than Caleb take this view - many Catholics for instance. Yet holding firm on such issues, as well as allowing solo runs by ministers on less-popular, Caleb-supported concerns as creationist displays, is part of the DUP's internal covenant.

That is why Mr Robinson wheels them out as key achievements when he is challenged from the Right.

But are they the best way to expand unionism's appeal? And will they limit the DUP's potential for growth?

All the signs from polls and the census are that there are a considerable number of people who favour remaining in the UK, but don't vote unionist.

Many like the UK link because the UK is a modern, increasingly secular and pluralist society. The UUP got this wrong a few elections ago when they pitched their appeal to Britishness based on such fading emblems as fish and chips wrapped in newspaper and obsolete Routemaster buses. Not all unionists want to live in a flag-draped 1950s, or early-1960s, theme-park Britain, with past certainties preserved and most modern insights airbrushed away. This is something to consider at the Unionist Forum today. There will be a temptation to circle the wagons and fall back on the gut instincts of the people, like the loyal order representatives, to preserve unity.

What is needed in unionism is an outward-looking vision, which doesn't hark back to some imaginary Shangri-La. The past can't be recreated, not as a working model anyway.

Unionism has to move with the times, with more assurance than nationalism, if it is to reach its full potential and keep the UK link secure, not weaken it.

As the novelist Giovanni di Lampedusa once said of his native Sicily:

"If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change."

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