Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: Why banners and abuse are no substitute for advancing a rational case for the Union

Personal attacks on an election opponent often do more to build his vote, rather than maximising your own, writes Alex Kane

John Finucane’s election poster
John Finucane’s election poster
Alex Kane

By Alex Kane

Whatever your personal view of an election candidate may be, the fact is that every single one of them on a ballot paper is legally entitled to be there. You don't have to like either their political views or personal background, because, as the law stands, the right to be a candidate is determined by nothing more than whether or not they meet the conditions required for candidacy. If they didn't, their name wouldn't be on the ballot paper.

That was also the case for the first Assembly election in 1998 - and in subsequent elections - when a number of people with convictions for terrorism-related offences stood for a variety of political parties. Some were elected. It was also the case with some candidates who stood in general elections, a few of whom were elected (even if they didn't take their seats in the House of Commons). It is true for European elections too.

In many elections over the past 25 years, I have been aware of canvassers who have had links with paramilitary organisations and candidates who have had family links, in some cases very tenuous, with assorted organisations.

Sinn Fein didn't go out of its way to deny that the IRA "army council" still had a role to play in everyday business at the Assembly a few years ago, while the leaders of mainstream unionist parties have been at meetings attended by representatives of loyalist paramilitary groups.

Indeed, the DUP defended Arlene Foster's recent decision to meet "high-ranking figures from the UVF and UDA" to discuss Boris Johnson's Brexit deal and a so-called 'border in the Irish Sea'.

None of this surprises me. Paramilitaries have been part and parcel of everyday life in Northern Ireland for decades and it was always the case that the process to disband them and facilitate their eventual disappearance was going to be a long one. Which is why I'm surprised by the sudden focus on John Finucane and Sean Kelly.

I don't remember the same degree of orchestrated outrage when Gerry Kelly was the candidate over a number of elections in North Belfast. I don't remember the same level of outrage when Finucane was the Sinn Fein candidate in 2017. So, what's the difference this time?

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Nigel Dodds’ poster
Nigel Dodds’ poster

I think there are a number of reasons: fear of losing the seat; fear of Johnson's deal undermining and destabilising the Union; fear of unionism/loyalism being increasingly sidelined in the run-up to Northern Ireland's centenary in 2021; and, maybe, the need to send some sort of wider message to the British and Irish governments that loyalism, or a section of it, is preparing for all eventualities.

But one thing that has struck me about the banners and the protest meetings being organised against the 'Betrayal Act' by a section of loyalism is how self-defeating it all seems at this point.

It's like they've already accepted that unionist seats could be lost.

And it also looks like a kneejerk reaction to a pact/understanding between the SDLP/Sinn Fein/Greens that they never saw coming - even while 'pressure' was being put on the UUP in North Belfast for an agreed unionist candidate.

What surprises me most, though, is the lack of any specific message about the Union itself. If you really want to hold, or win, a seat for unionism, then surely the best way is to make the case for the Union, for unionism and for the collective benefits of Northern Ireland's continuing membership of the United Kingdom?

If you're really concerned about the possibility of a border poll, the impact of civic nationalism and what is sometimes described as a 'pan-nationalist alliance', then, surely, the sensible thing to do is deconstruct the arguments being made for Irish unity?

Writing in the Belfast Telegraph ('How I want to build a collaborative vision for unionism', November 1), Arlene Foster noted: "We are told a debate on Irish unity is back on the agenda, but that's not necessarily a bad thing when your case is strong. Getting into the detail of a potential united Ireland stirs a great many questions: does Irish unity stand up to scrutiny in the real world? Economic disruption, decades of transition and chaos? Next generation unionism is about a positive vision for Northern Ireland entering into its next century. I look forward to engaging with people about our proposals."

She is right. Unionism has nothing to fear from such a debate. For most of the past decade (and its worth remembering that Sinn Fein's 'unity project' and 'outreach' strategy was under way long before Brexit came into the mix), the debate was always one-sided. We heard mostly from those who were already committed to unity and who weren't used to their arguments being deconstructed, scrutinised and challenged. More importantly, those on the pro-Union side were barely hearing anything at all about the case for the Union.

In my view - one which most readers will be aware of - it was always absurd that mainstream unionism (particularly as the demographics shifted and new challenges arose as a consequence) seemed to find it so difficult to set out and promote a coherent and attractive case to offset the one being made by elements of republicanism and nationalism.

And that's why I fear that what we're seeing with the controversies over banners and very personal attacks on candidates in a number of constituencies will prove to be counter-productive. Evidence suggests that attacking an opponent often does more to build his vote, rather than maximising your own.

The Alliance vote has grown in the past couple of years, because of a very clear drift towards it from 'small-u' unionists, as well as those who sometimes describe themselves as 'other'. So, instead of relentlessly attacking the party, it would make much more sense if unionism asked why those unionists had drifted from mainstream unionism and then developed a strategy for winning them back.

And the same with non-voters in each constituency: how does unionism attract them? Maximising your existing and potential vote, particularly when demographics are not necessarily in your favour, is never easy. It won't be made easier by lining up people, parties and social groups for criticism, rather than lining them up and winning them over.

I understand the present and ongoing concerns across unionism. There are huge challenges ahead; which may be even greater if Boris Johnson wins a comfortable majority.

But now is not the time for kneejerk reaction, ideological atavism or distancing people who might otherwise be sympathetic to the pro-Union argument. When you don't have enough key friends in the right places, it doesn't make sense to make new enemies and create new problems.

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