Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Leaders must stop exploiting the electorate

Electoral deal-making with rival unionists will spell the destruction of the UUP. It needs to return to the values of the Belfast Agreement, says Basil McCrea

When I joined the Ulster Unionist Party in late-2004, some people were surprised by my decision. I had no particular ties to the party - no political connections at all, in fact - and the UUP was a party under pressure, a position confirmed the following year, when the party lost all but one of its Westminster seats in the general election.

But it was precisely because the UUP was under such pressure that I joined. I had voted yes to the Belfast Agreement in 1998. I believed in it then. I believe in it now.

Perhaps there could have been better communication of the detail. Perhaps there should have been greater effort to sell the agreement. But, even with the benefit of hindsight, no one has yet presented a better alternative.

There is a simple truth to Northern Ireland. We live in a divided society. There is no future for Northern Ireland that is not based on a shared future.

There is no future for Northern Ireland that will not require some accommodation with those with a different perspective. And there is no future for Northern Ireland that will not involve ongoing political dialogue.

Some people may have hoped that, with the Belfast Agreement, we would be able to draw a line in the sand, but we squandered that opportunity.

The UUP paid a heavy price for failing to convince the electorate of the benefits of the agreement. So, too, has Northern Ireland.

The disaster of 2005 was seven years in the making. Internal divisions, disinterested partners and political opponents keen to manipulate the fears of the electorate for their own political advantage conspired to put the agreement at risk.

Those same forces remain active today, colluding with each other to ratchet up tensions and create fears in the electorate for short-term, selfish political advantage, with reckless disregard for our future.

The hugely damaging controversy surrounding the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall was not an accident, but a carefully orchestrated political manoeuvre designed with clear electoral objectives in mind.

Such tactics have been used repeatedly over the years for base political advantage. Those who won the 2007 Assembly elections did so by ruthlessly exploiting the electorate's fears; they promised a new deal, a better deal, 'A Fair Deal' - only to deliver more or less the same deal.

The party that once jeered at the Belfast Agreement now uses the language of a shared future from that agreement's conference platform, trying to reach out to non-traditional voters.

Yet, in other forums, it argues for greater unionist co-operation to maximise unionist seats.

Such cynical electoral manoeuvring should not be lost on the electorate.

Nor is the UUP the party it once was. Losing election after election, the party has lost confidence in its ability to win an argument - any argument.

It is tempted to retreat to the core and to seek safety in electoral pacts, joint candidates and greater unionist co-operation, oblivious to the fact that this will lead to its destruction as an independent political party.

The Ulster Unionist Party must not go down this route. It would be a betrayal of the Belfast Agreement and the people who stood with the party during the difficult years. The party should stand on its record, build on its vision of a shared future as described in the agreement and make the case for a union that is stronger when it is a union for everyone.

The constitutional position has been secured by the Belfast Agreement and the economic case has never been stronger. But respect for the cultural identity of all our citizens is essential if we are to persuade them of our good intent.

Unlike some in the party, I was not born an Ulster Unionist; I chose to become one.

I have stayed with the party through thick and thin and I will continue do so for as long as I am convinced that it is committed to the vision and values set out in the Belfast Agreement.

The agreement was endorsed by the party and the people of Northern Ireland and is, as far as I am aware, still party policy.

While the Belfast Agreement provides a solid foundation, it has significant limitations. There is widespread disenchantment with a political process that is unable, - or unwilling - to tackle any serious issue.

Mandatory coalition within the Executive has reduced the Assembly to little more than a talking-shop. Political reform is required.

The public mood is for reform, but any reform will require the presence of viable, independent alternatives and a fundamental change in voting patterns.

Those people who want a shared future must realise that they, too, can co-operate to maximise the number of 'shared future' seats and, when adopting policy stances on the flying of flags, or the naming of play-parks, they are mindful of the views of the whole community.

I hope that those that have been entrusted with leadership will provide just that. Sometimes, in the words of former US President Harry Truman, "To be able to lead others, man must be willing to go forward alone."

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