Belfast Telegraph

Edward Stevenson: All elections are important... but this year's will define the future of our hard-won Union

Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Prime Minister Boris Johnson

By Edward Stevenson

We live in turbulent political times. The result of the impending General Election will define the future of the United Kingdom - domestically and internationally.

Over the near 100 years since the creation of Northern Ireland, there have been many political and constitutional crises in our country's history. In those times, past generations of unionists stood together in the face of those challenges. Today, it is this generation who must stand up and be counted in order to maximise the political influence of unionists in Westminster.

In 2016, the Orange Institution adopted a neutral stance on the issue of Brexit in recognition that many of our members shared a diverse range of views on the matter. However, we did not remain silent when faced with then prime minister Theresa May's proposed deal and her acceptance of the 'backstop' mechanism.

Indeed I, along with other senior colleagues from England and Scotland, travelled to London earlier this year to voice our membership's collective disapproval of any action that would see Northern Ireland being treated differently from the rest of the United Kingdom.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, disappointingly, and despite many public assurances to the contrary, has further shown that Northern Ireland's future constitutional integrity was of little consequence in his negotiations and subsequent deal.

Whilst locally many will frame the current contest as being solely about Brexit and use that as a justification for previously unexpected political pacts, we must accept that this election has even higher stakes than the question of EU membership. Let's be clear, this election is about the Union - the Union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom was underwritten by the sacrifice of our forefathers and it has been defended by generations of Orangemen serving alongside those from all creeds and none, who valued freedom. The cowardly and barbaric terrorist campaign, which saw thousands of innocent victims murdered, including 340 of our members, could not achieve the republican goal of a united Ireland. Sadly, this proposed deal has the seeds of betrayal as it clearly sees the reorientation of our economic future towards the south rather than with the rest of the United Kingdom.

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This hard-won - and hard-defended - Union comes first and foremost before any other political consideration. All elections are important, but the result of this election will define the future shape of the United Kingdom for this generation and those who will follow.

Unionism must work together in this election to maximise unionist representation from this part of the United Kingdom when Parliament reconvenes. It is incumbent on our members and all unionists that they use their influence to encourage this co-operation and to ensure that the unionist community make their united voice heard in constituencies across Northern Ireland.

Of course, there are a number of key 'battlegrounds' where non-unionists are clearly conspiring to remove pro-Union representatives. In these areas especially, our members must use their utmost efforts to ensure that all those within their circle of influence turn out to vote for the unionist candidate in that area. As in previous years, the Orange Institution will be encouraging and assisting with voter registration and using its resources to maximise the unionist vote.

For many years, the biggest opponent unionism has faced politically has not been nationalism, but rather voter apathy. This is a critical juncture and every unionist must realise that they no longer have the luxury of opting out of politics.

Make no mistake - this is the election when the British people of Northern Ireland must make their vote count.

Westminster needs to hear a clear message from Northern Ireland: we are an integral part of the United Kingdom - no ifs, no buts, no backstops or Boris deals.

Northern Ireland must not be sacrificed for Brexit.

Edward Stevenson is Grand Master of the Orange Order

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