We always cling to our own narrative
Can unionism produce a leader who is honest with the electorate rather than playing to the gallery, asks Raymond McCartney
Of late, and particularly throughout the summer, many people have been left confused and bewildered by the antics of unionism in general and political unionism in particular.
In order to fully understand what is happening within unionism today, we need to look back to 1994 and remember the comment of the then-leader of the Ulster Unionist party about the IRA ceasefire. He is reported as saying: "A prolonged IRA ceasefire could be the most destabilising thing to happen to unionism since partition."
What James Molyneaux correctly recognised at the time was that republicans had not been defeated and that changes loomed with the onset of negotiations.
In seeking to disguise that simple fact, unionists had sought to paint a picture of republican defeat. They continuously sold that message to their electorate in the hope of retaining their votes; they failed to positively promote the Good Friday Agreement as the historic compromise it represented. However, time has moved on.
While a silent centre within broader unionism recognised that the end to conflict and beginning of negotiations put us all on a journey of change and transformed the political landscape, other unionists are challenging their elected leadership.
They ask: if republicans were supposed to have been defeated, then why can Orange marches not parade where they wish? Why does the Parades Commission make determinations on parades? Why should the use of flags and emblems be subject to compromise? Why should the Irish identity and republican tradition be accorded equality? That section of unionism believes that equality and compromise renders them losers.
The challenge from within unionism opposed to equality has sent the unionist political leadership into a tailspin and shifted much of it closer to the rejectionist right wing of unionism.
That is the context for their inflammatory language of 'cultural war' and 'de-Britification' and all as a pretext to stop change, to perpetuate sectarianism and maintain the 'them-and-us' mindset which divides our people.
A secondary factor of this has been the abandoning of their liberal outreach agenda to Catholics to support the Union. Instead, over the summer, we have witnessed unionist political leaders cosy up to the worst elements of loyalism, as they seek to out-do each other to prove who is the most 'true blue'.
How otherwise can we make sense of unionist leaders asserting a common refrain of 'we will not allow history to be rewritten'? There is an old maxim, accepted as a truism, that the victors write the history so, as far as unionists are concerned, they won and there can only be one history.
However, the reality is that there is no agreed history and their version of it is not universally accepted. They cannot accept that there is no single narrative for what happened in the north and they cannot countenance an alternative that does not match their view that equates to 'unionists good', 'republicans bad'.
They rail against republicans remembering our dead, claiming that we have inflicted pain and hurt on their community, but they fail to recognise the similar pain and hurt that exists within republican communities, when those that inflicted that pain and hurt are commemorated. For those unionists who have always opposed the Good Friday Agreement, the refrain is that 'the unionist community has been required to give at every turn'. What they really mean is that unionism is no longer the dominant power; that it now has to share power, rather than being able to enforce its agenda on the nationalist/republican community.
It is also possible that fear of demographic change and the inevitability of more change in the north may be causing genuine instability within some sections of political unionism, even though republicans will never allow the rights of unionist and Protestant citizens to be undermined.
That is the context we have to see this summer's events in. And it is the context that will, no doubt, dominate the thinking of some as we go through the Haass talks.
The question that we must all ask ourselves therefore is: is there a unionist leader who is capable of being honest with the unionist electorate and giving them real leadership, rather than simply following the loudest siren voice?
If there is such a leader and he – they are all men – possesses the political will, then the Haass talks will present another opportunity to resolve some very difficult issues. This is a huge challenge to us all. But we need to approach these talks with an open mind and in listening mode.
The requirement on all of us, as we enter these talks, is that we are resolute in our determination to stand faithfully by any agreements that we reach and that we treat each other with equality, mutual respect and parity of esteem.
This is essential if we are to reach resolution of the prevailing issues.
If we could agree these as underpinning principles for the Haass all-party talks, we could be more confident of success than ever before.