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Unionism needs clear strategy for its future

In A Long Peace? The Future of Unionism in Northern Ireland, which I co-authored with Mick Fealty and David Steven in 2003, we concluded that for the Union to survive it required "a firmer, bolder, more far-sighted unionism" and that people must want the Union.

We argued it was not enough to be right in your arguments; you also had to make them attractive.

We recommended that unionism focused on creating "a peaceful, economically prosperous and politically stable Northern Ireland". It was not about making unionism more yielding, but to ensure it engaged and shaped debates. It could be strong where strength was needed, but accept compromise where appropriate.

In essence, its goal should be a genuinely shared Northern Ireland, with good relations across the island and between these islands. That is the right thing to promote, but it also makes strategic sense in terms of protecting the Union, because the principle of consent ensures that the constitutional position in Northern Ireland will be determined by a majority of people here.

There's no point in rehashing the failures of the past, but unionism has another chance to reflect on how it can shape the future positively for people in Northern Ireland.

There are a wide range of voices acknowledging that unionists need to do some hard thinking just now, including some from fairly traditional unionist backgrounds that would normally resist change.

One source of inspiration might be the fans of our international football team, who realised that sectarianism was destroying the game they loved. They looked at themselves in the mirror and said: "We have to change. We have to challenge ourselves and make sure our sport is open and welcoming to everyone".

With the demographics as they are, there is little point in having two main unionist parties that appeal to certain types of Protestants. There is need for at least one party that is genuinely open to everyone and aspires to build a Northern Ireland for all.

To start that process, it might be sensible to ask a small, but diverse group of people to provide feedback on where unionist parties failed in the past and how they might succeed in the future.

Unionism has nothing to lose from building relationships with those who want to take responsibility for Northern Ireland's wellbeing. On the other hand, there will always be a small group who will want it to fail and they need to be challenged, particularly on their lack of delivery, pointing out that they're letting down the people they represent.

Northern Ireland has to be shared, but, at a minimum, there must be agreement that the only legitimate way to promote either constitutional preference in the longer term is to make this place work properly for its people in the short term.

These conversations may be difficult, but unionism needs to have them now in order to promote its goals. It has to have a clear strategy to deal with those who want constantly to fight old battles.

More importantly, it has to think about how it can shape the future, to make sure we all do well.


Holywood, Co Down

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