This article first appeared on www.openunionism.com
In this exclusive and provocative article for Open Unionism, Radical Unionist commentator and former Blanket columnist DR JOHN COULTER maintains the new NI21 party should also look to the Republic as a hunting ground for voters, positioning itself as the New Progressive Democrats.
Look South! That’s the clear future direction MLAs Basil McCrea and John McCallister must aim to take their new NI21 party.
With the demise of the once popular Progressive Democrats in the Republic, there is now a gap in the Southern political market for a centrist party which is not dictated to by the Irish Catholic Bishops.
And if Northern Ireland can successfully negotiate both this summer’s Marching Season and the Maze shrine debate, the peace process could be stabilised for a generation in spite of sporadic dissident republican terrorism. If NI21 is not to join other moderate parties such as the Unionist Party of Northern Ireland and the Irish Nationalist Party in the dustbin of history, it must re-brand itself as an all-island movement.
Provisional Sinn Fein is currently the only political movement realistically having some degree of influence in both the Dail and Stormont. The Green Party did have some limited success, until the establishment parties began stealing the Greens’ environmental policies. Sinn Fein will most likely use its all-island status to electorally obliterate the moderate nationalist SDLP in Northern Ireland, unless the latter merges with either Fine Gael or Fianna Fail before the centenary of the failed Easter Rising in 2016.
The clerical abuse scandals have decimated the influence of the Irish Catholic Church. The power it enjoyed during the Eamon de Valera era has completely evaporated. The Irish Catholic Bishops can no longer choose whether Fine Gael or Fianna Fail should be the main party of government in Leinster House.
In spite of being one of the oldest parties on the island, Irish Labour has suffered with the collapse of the once-unstoppable Celtic Tiger economy. Irish Labour has also made the serious tactical error of not organising in Northern Ireland and contesting elections.
Sinn Fein under party president and former West Belfast MP Gerry Adams has been remodelled as a secularist and anti-austerity movement. Yet there are still many parts of Ireland where families remember the bitterness of the Irish Civil War, where former comrades during the so-called Tan War became fanatical enemies.
This has meant that Sinn Fein does not enjoy the same popularity in the South, which it wants to join, than in the North, which it wants to leave. In spite of turning in its best electoral showing this century under Adams in the last Dail poll, Sinn Fein is still regarded with much suspicion by many Southern nationalist voters who see the movement either as the political apologist of the IRA, or a hardline Marxist party using nationalism as a cover.
NI21 has marketed itself as a pluralist moderate movement developing the notion of being ‘Northern Irish’. Its first major test will be next year’s European poll, where it will face a tough battle for the middle ground with the Alliance, the Green Party and the Tories.
McCrea and McCallister must give serious consideration to using the European elections as a launching pad for a similar SI21 movement – Southern Ireland 21 – perhaps eventually merging NI21 and SI21 into a simple I21 (Ireland 21) party.
I have made no secret during my journalistic career of wanting to see Unionism expand beyond the boundaries of Northern Ireland into the South. Ideally, I want to see the Republic back in the British Commonwealth of Nations. At the very least, the South should join the influential Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
I fondly remember holidays in the South as a primary school pupil, and especially the many Sundays I travelled with my father as he preached in the numerous Presbyterian churches in Donegal. Southern Irish Orange annual divine services were a particularly enjoyable experience and my wife hails from Limerick.
During my time as Editor of the Carrickfergus Advertiser and East Antrim Gazette, I had the pleasure of teaming up with my counterparts in Limerick to mark the Tercentenary of the signing of the Treaty of Limerick. It was, of course, in Carrickfergus that King William III landed en route to his victory at the River Boyne in 1690.
I have often regarded partition as the great betrayal of the Southern Unionist and Protestant tradition. It was wrong of Carson and Craig to leave many Southern Protestants to their fate.
Less than a century after partition, with the Southern economy in tatters and its people becoming its greatest export, the utopian visions of the nationalists can be seen through at last. For the sake of the people of Southern Ireland, the 26 counties would do well to come back under the political umbrella of the United Kingdom.
That is easier said than done. What is now needed is a realistic political process to bring this about, given that the republican myth of a democratic socialist republic ,as outlined in their Proclamation of 1916, is a complete pipe dream.
This ideology I have termed Revolutionary Unionism in recognition of the Glorious Revolution of the 17th century which brought on the Protestant Ascendancy and laid the foundations of the Union and United Kingdom. (It is also known as neo-unionism, Ed.).
However, it would be realistic to think that it would be incredibly difficult for an Irish Unionist Party, or Commonwealth Unionist Party, to become an influential force in the Dail so that Southern Ireland voted to rejoin the CPA. I deliberately use the term ‘rejoin’ as Ireland was a founder member of the CPA in 1911, when it was then known as the Empire Parliamentary Association and the entire island was under British rule.
If McCrea or McCallister did physically move into the South, they would not be the first Northern-based politicians to successfully develop this agenda. The Louth TD Gerry Adams is the current holder of this mantle. Others have included Austin Currie, who became a Fine Gael TD after serving in the 1973 and 1982 Assemblies for the SDLP. Former Alliance leader John Cushnahan became a Fine Gael MEP.
McCrea and McCallister must bank on a massive backlash against the Peter Robinson-led DUP and the total collapse of the UUP under Mike Nesbitt to ensure that NI21 is in a prime spot for a position of influence in the next Assembly, or in the 11 proposed super councils. This is assuming NI21 can replace Alliance as the main centrist party in Northern Ireland. As the majority of Alliance elected representatives rely on transfers from the Unionist parties, the Belfast City Hall Union Flag debacle could deliver a fatal blow for the Alliance.
The message booming out from Unionist Forum and People’s Forum meetings is clear – don’t transfer to Alliance and wipe the party out at the polls. As the majority of Unionists do not support gay marriage, only those Alliance politicians who openly oppose gay marriage can be assured of the evangelical Christian vote.
Bearing this last statement in mind, it may seem that NI21 is a non-starter, given McCrea and McCallister’s open support for gay marriage. How can a pluralist party which backs gay marriage hope to attract votes from evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics who traditionally oppose gay marriage?
The answer lies in NI21 becoming a ‘buffer’ party, especially by Unionists, who traditionally in the past transferred to Alliance to keep out republicans and nationalists. If Unionists will no longer transfer to Alliance in such significant numbers, then they may opt instead to give their transfers to NI21.
With such a crowded centre market in the North, NI21 may be better placed to move south of the border. NI21 must also remember that the Robinson-led DUP is also hunting the centre voter. The DUP under Paisley senior overtook the Ulster Unionists by stealing the UUP policies and moving onto the Centre Right ground traditionally held by the UUP. The UUP will only survive if it moves to the Radical Right territory once held by the DUP. Ironically, the Maze shrine debate has created an unofficial coalition of the UUP, Jim Allister’s TUV and David McNarry’s UKIP.
It could also be suggested that a DUP, led by Fermanagh South Tyrone MLA and Stormont Executive Minister Arlene Foster ,could eventually swallow up the UUP, leaving NI21 to become a ‘small u’ Unionist party. It is interesting to note how many former UUP members now hold key positions in the modern DUP. Conspiracy theorists might be forgiven for thinking it was a deliberate ploy to take over the DUP from within!
NI21’s biggest barrier to clear is to get people to both register to vote and vote on polling day. In this respect, it faces the same problem as the established parties in Northern Ireland.
In the South, an Ireland 21 party could pip Sinn Fein as the radical alternative to the established parties because it has no paramilitary or historical baggage. Its real breakthrough in the South could come if the UK votes to leave the European Union in any future referendum. Re-positioned as a staunch Eurosceptic party, Ireland 21 could become an even bigger vote winner in the South than in the North.
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