At some level, political parties modernise and evolve by repudiating their own past.
This can be done overtly – Tony Blair’s creation of New Labour in the early 1990s is a classic example.
But it can also be done more surreptitiously – Nick Clegg’s shift to make the Liberal Democrats more economically liberal and less social-democratic, thus opening the way for his coalition with the Conservatives.
In any event, parties rarely stay still, responding, as they must, to the whims of the electorate and the shifting political sands.
The DUP is an exception to this rule. Never a party to follow received wisdom, it is actually heading backwards.
‘Let’s keep Northern Ireland moving forward’ is the deeply ironical claim on the party website’s home page, making, as it does the fairly significant omission that the assembly and executive are scuttled and talks about resuscitating them are mired.
Sure, the DUP is getting smarter at the tradecraft of modern politics; no doubt stung by the reaction of the British media about its tie-up with the Conservatives (‘Coalition of Crackpots’ – as the Daily Mirror memorably put it).
Its faux optimism about the forward trajectory of Northern Ireland aside, it is still enveloped by the bitter old certainties of the past.
Arlene Foster would have us believe otherwise. Her annual party conference speech last weekend, watched by more British journalists than usual, sounded an emollient tone on the issue du jour:
‘The Irish language is spoken and enjoyed by thousands of people in all parts of Northern Ireland. It does no damage to our unionism or the Union we cherish,’ she said.
‘I respect the Irish language and those who speak it…’
This from the party that gave us Gregory Campbell’s moronic ‘Curry my yoghurt’ shtick and Paul Givan’s malicious attempt to cut an Irish language grant? ‘If the ‘other’ gains something, we must have lost out,’ remains the maddening, stupid and reductive calculus of political Unionism.
Deeds not words are what matter most in political leadership. Foster has failed to challenge her base; to modernise its thinking or broaden its appeal. The bovine sectarianism of the past is still out there on display and she dare not challenge it. After all, there isn’t a single respectable argument against an Irish Language Act.
At least her predecessor understood what needed to happen. Back in 2011, Peter Robinson told the DUP conference that Unionism needed to appeal beyond its shrinking base or risk oblivion. His analysis of the situation unionists faced and still faces, was spot-on. They simply don’t have the votes to go on behaving as they do:
‘There can be no greater guarantee of our long term security in the Union than the support of a significant part of the Catholic community. Now the conflict has ended we have a window of opportunity to reset the terms of political debate. We have the opportunity to secure our constitutional position beyond the visible horizon.’
For a brief moment, there seemed a possibility that Robinson’s DUP might morph into something akin to a Christian Democratic party; clear about its enduring belief in faith and flag, but focused on economics and progress, offering something to ‘the other.’
His passing of the baton to Foster should have been another decisive stride away from the antagonisms of the past, focusing on good government and sensible co-operation with Sinn Féin. In her first address as DUP leader in 2015, Foster seemed to rise to the challenge, telling her party that she was all about ‘ideas and not ideologies.’
‘People who get up early in the morning, get their kids to school, go and do a hard day’s work and come home tired, don’t want to turn their TVs on and hear us sound completely and utterly out of touch with real life, arguing over things that don’t matter to them or their family.’
A worthy sentiment, so what went wrong?
The rhetoric was not genuine, that’s what. Unionism is difficult to reform, granted. Self-pitying, uncharitable and irredeemably right-wing, it chews up and spits out would-be reformers. The memory of Terence O’Neill is a constant reminder about where compromise leads. Unfortunately, ‘Liberal unionist’ is usually an oxymoron.
Again, deeds, not words, are what matter when modernising a political party. The process involves unnerving some of your own supporters in order to show your bona fides to the unconvinced. In this sense, Unionism has always lacked true leaders. No-one is prepared to take on the grassroots and tell them that times have changed.
So there can be no respect shown for nationalists and republicans and no real acceptance of equality either. Arlene isn’t brave enough to face down the dinosaurs.
Martin McGuinness’ resignation letter as deputy First Minister last January spoke of his deep frustration at this attitudinal problem. ‘At times I have stretched and challenged republicans and nationalists in my determination to reach out to our unionist neighbours,’ he said.
While the all-Ireland dimension of the Good Friday Agreement, together with the basic requirements of equality and mutual respect has ‘never been fully embraced by the DUP.’
McGuinness was willing to respectfully commemorate the Battle of the Somme, but Foster would not reciprocate and attend any of the 1916 commemorations last year, despite the strenuous efforts of the Irish Government to make the events inclusive, which went as far as remembering the British soldiers who died during the Rising.
Yet there are so many decent people who may cherish their heritage in the Union, but are generous enough to eschew the bombast and bigotry of political Unionism. They are willing to live with their Catholic-Nationalist neighbours in a spirit of equality and respect, addressing the everyday concerns that Foster initially promised to focus on.
The constitutional question may still sit there – a zero-sum equation about which people will have their own sincerely-held views – but there is much else to discuss and agree about.
Yet there is an enormous gap on the political spectrum where urban working-class Protestants, in particular, deserve to be represented by people with their economic interests at heart. They can do better than the DUP, UUP and TUV.
That should be the starting point. Park the Union and get on with creating jobs. Park the union and sort out poverty and poor housing. Park the Union and work to raise school standards.
Robinson was right in 2011. Unionism doesn’t have a choice; it needs to reach out in order to survive. The problem is that Arlene Foster and the DUP don’t have the wit to respond to the challenge.
The upshot, is that Ulster’s Protestants deserve better political parties. And the sooner they find them, the better it will be for everyone.