Unionist unity would be a backward step
The results of last week's General Election poll in Northern Ireland — particularly the defeat of the leaders of the two main unionist parties, Peter Robinson of the DUP and Sir Reg Empey of the Ulster Unionists — provoked a predictable knee-jerk reaction in some quarters, namely that it is now time for a realignment within unionism, with, perhaps, a single party emerging to confront the ever more confident voices of nationalism.
In the view of this newspaper that is a flawed hypothesis. The changed political landscape in Northern Ireland, post the Belfast and St Andrews agreements which demonstrated the desire of the population to see a diversity of political opinion in the governance of the province, provides a compelling argument for greater plurality in political representation rather than less, as would be the case in the creation of a new unionist monolith.
The question of Partition has always been at the core of politics here and it would be hopelessly idealistic to suggest that any party, unionist or nationalist, should ignore that question or fail to have it as a core value.
However, the status of Northern Ireland is enshrined in international law and cannot be changed without the consent of the majority of people here. Given the current economic travails of the Republic of Ireland, the issue of Irish unity is one that can be safely consigned to the back-burner for a considerable period into the future.
For too long this issue has stunted political development here. What is needed now is a fresh approach to invigorate local politics and move it away from the zero sum approach of the past where a gain for one section of the community was seen as a loss by the other side. Northern Ireland should be striving to present a new face to the world as a place where diversity is lauded, where policies are designed to improve the economy and public services for everyone.
That requires courage and innovation from our political leaders. They need courage to challenge the alleged truisms of the past and to move society here forward to a position where it more closely mirrors the political landscape in the rest of the UK. True stability can only be created through confidence, not by trading on fears engendered by differing national identities.
The SDLP, by its refusal to withdraw its candidate in Fermanagh/South Tyrone and thus guaranteeing a nationalist victory in that constituency, showed the sort of courage that we believe is vital for the future prosperity both of politics and of the wider society in Northern Ireland.
Although the unionist parties fielded an agreed candidate, he polled less than the combined unionist vote in the General Election of 2005, indicating that even in that constituency the idea of a pact did not find universal favour with unionist voters.
Pacts are essentially a denial of democracy, disenfranchising voters and making them even more disillusioned than they already are. As well, the Fermanagh/South Tyrone contest demonstrated that a reactionary stance from unionists will produce a a similar reaction from nationalists. On the day many SDLP voters deserted the party and voted for Sinn Fein to produce a simple tribal headcount.
This debasement of politics could be replicated in other constituencies, but it would mire Northern Ireland in the past, rather than reflect the new realities and opportunities that exist post-Troubles. It is vital that the middle ground of Northern Ireland politics, including parties like the SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance, is nurtured and flourishes, otherwise the political process becomes just a sterile exercise in sectarian head-counting.
What sort of message does that give to new generations of voters — and equally importantly — to the foreign investors we desperately need to come here? Continuing the arguments of the past will not resolve the problems of today and the future.
At a time when the mainstream parties at Westminster are being forced to find new alignments and alliances because of last week's election results, it is appropriate that a similar reappraisal should take place in Northern Ireland. Within both unionism and nationalism there is a wide diversity of opinion which must be given expression by the political process. That demands choice and a range of parties with differing messages, new policies and a new affinity with the electorate.
Of course change will not happen spontaneously. It will be a slow, generic process, but for it to have any chance of success, the seeds of change must be sown in fertile ground. The political parties must face up to the challenges of the future with optimism, rather than retrenching into the old sectarian silos.
Only around 57% of the electorate actually voted in Northern Ireland last Thursday, lower than in England, Wales or Scotland. That, perhaps, is the most telling statistic to emerge from the poll.
The parties must ask themselves why more than four in every 10 voters stayed at home. The most obvious answer is that those potential voters were disenchanted with the choices offered. Like this newspaper, they want greater choice, not less.