Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

Disinterested voters move to fore in unionist equation

The certainties of unionism have been disrupted over the last four decades by a series of events, attitudes and behaviours that have rendered many from unionist backgrounds into political silence.

If we estimate that around 45% of those who come from unionist backgrounds did not vote in the recent election then it is important to determine the reasons for their lack of motivation.

There were always those who showed unadulterated disinterest and that group has grown. But there is also an emergent body of people who have decided that the DUP and UUP are no longer for them.

During nearly 20 years of conducting research within the unionist community it is evident that within sections of the working class, in particular, there is a growing belief that, unlike Sinn Fein, their elected representatives rarely exhibit an identifiable desire to challenge poverty and poor educational outcomes.

They no longer automatically blame republicans for their woes but instead wonder why their past allegiance has led to, what they perceive to be, gross dupery. The target of their resistance is no longer republicanism and is now directed at what they see as a remote and ineffective unionist leadership.

Non-voting middle class types do not have the same immediate afflictions. Instead their social life has changed from that of their forefathers.

Among them is a significant group from the liberal left who find the religiosity of the DUP and the conservatism of the UUP plainly unattractive.

Their unionism is merely defined by an appreciation that Irish unification would undermine their economic status.

Such persons have no desire for a unionism that does not support equality, the delivery of mutual consent and the advancement of non-sectarian values.

These silent non-voters have an altered consciousness about what is right and what they desire, but they will never flock to the nationalist/republican cause.

One wonders how the main unionist parties can actually win back those who have walked away. What have the two main parties to offer the secular, progressive and non-traditional unionists who seek the delivery of change, the building of inter-community partnership and the cessation of the politics of fear?

Can they be won back? The probable answer is ‘Ulster's disaffected unionists say No!’

Dr Peter Shirlow from the Queen's University School of Law is the author of a newly published book, Abandoning Historical Conflict?

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