Given my Right-wing Unionist stance, it will initially be viewed as sheer cheek for me to lecture Irish nationalism on a way forward ideologically in a post Brexit and hopefully post pandemic Ireland.
As a born again Christian, perhaps my critics will be quoting Scripture at me to take the beam out of my own eye of Unionism before I start to take the mote out of the eye of Irish nationalism.
Critics of the Unionist ideology (in whatever form the pro-Union community sees itself) may say that Right-wing Unionism has no place in a modern Ireland, and that liberal Unionism and the politics of concession and compromise are the only formats through which Unionism can be relevant for the next 100 years after 2021.
For the third election in succession, Northern Unionism found itself on the minority back foot politically. If ever Northern Unionism needed a wake-up call, it was Alliance leader Naomi Long’s comprehensive winning of one of the Province’s three European seats pre-Brexit.
This has prompted a huge debate within the Unionist family as to its future direction, with increasing cries that it is the centre ground in Ulster politics which holds the dominant key and that’s where Unionism should redefine itself ideologically.
There have been calls for a new Liberal Unionist Party, similar to the Liberal Unionists which existed in the Home Rule era of the early years of the 20th century, especially before the outbreak of the Great War.
However, when the votes and transfers of the European elections are studied in fine details, it was not necessarily tactical voting by traditional Sinn Fein supporters which guaranteed Mrs Long’s victory, or even transfers from the SDLP - the key to her victory was the defection of tens of thousands of soft liberal Unionists to Alliance.
The bottom line for those thinking of trying to revamp another version of the doomed NI21 experiment created by former UUP MLAs Basil McCrea and John McAllister, or even a 21st century version of the late Brian Faulkner’s Unionist Party of Northern Ireland (UPNI) - a Liberal Unionist party already exists; its called the Alliance Party!
Under Mrs Long’s leadership, Alliance has been transformed from a ‘wine and cheese supper brigade’ into a genuine liberal party with a clear ideology.
If the so-called centre in Northern Irish politics is to be the driving force for the restoration of Stormont, then what Alliance needs is a liberal partner within the nationalist community - hence the need for liberal nationalists to reform the now defunct Irish Independence Party.
The SDLP has always branded itself as a moderate nationalist party, whereas what is needed is a liberal nationalist party. There is a major difference between a ‘moderate’ direction for nationalism and a ‘liberal’ agenda.
Under the likes of John Hume, Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin, the SDLP was a fusion of democratic nationalism and soft socialism. But there was always the shadows of conservative Catholicism hanging over the SDLP throughout its history.
While the media loved to describe the SDLP as the ‘moderate nationalist’ party, we should really have branded it ‘the conservative Catholic SDLP’.
Past referenda in the Irish republic regarding support for same-sex marriage, more liberal abortion and divorce laws have clearly demonstrated that Southern Ireland is no longer dominated by the Catholic Irish Bishops.
Southern parties have had to take account of the development of the secular society in the Republic’s body politic. In Northern Ireland, the SDLP as it currently exists is sending out mixed messages to its electorate. Is it a party which wants to work closely with Fianna Fail, with Irish Labour, or with Fine Gael?
Will the real SDLP please stand up? If it cannot, then the fate is that it will join Eddie McAteer’s Irish Nationalist Party from the original Stormont Parliament days in the dustbin of history. What is required is a secular liberal nationalist movement in Northern Ireland which can work hand in glove with Alliance and there Ulster Unionists to force the so-called ‘Big Two’ (The DUP and Sinn Fein) to reach agreement in the power-sharing Stormont Executive.
The foundations of such a liberal nationalist movement were established when the Irish Independence Party was launched in the 1970s. It put down tender political markers in the 1979 Westminster General Elections that there was a credible secular liberal nationalist alternative to the moderate Catholic SDLP.
But in reality for ‘moderate Catholic’, we must read ‘conservative Catholic.’ The IIP suffered badly because of two terrible events - firstly, the murder of its leading ideologue Larne councillor John Turnley by the UDA in 1980.
Turnley was an ex-British Army officer, from a Protestant background, who felt the SDLP was too Catholic in ethos and he wanted a liberal secular agenda to achieve Irish unity.
The second was the 1980 and 1981 republican hunger strikes which launched Sinn Fein as a political movement. As Sinn Fein gained its first seats in the Prior Assembly of 1982, this marked the political death knell for the IIP.
Former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt recognised the benefit of the need for some form of liberal unionist/liberal nationalist coalition to develop an alternative to the DUP and Sinn Fein dominance of the Stormont Executive. However, the Unionist family - and especially traditional UUP voters - were not ready for his ‘Vote Mike, Get Colum’ agenda.
Republicans may try to spin the past European vote to ensure that two ‘remain’ MEPs were returned as ‘Vote Martina and Colum, Get Naomi.’ But Alliance seems strong enough to now paddle its own canoe politically.
The key question which the liberal - not the so-called centre - community must now ask in future polls, is ‘Vote Naomi, Get a Liberal Nationalist’.
Nationalism needs a middle class, secular-based movement in the Catholic community which can counter the myth that Sinn Fein voters ‘lent’ their votes to Alliance to guarantee a ‘remain’ victory. Only a revamped IIP can provide this vehicle.
There is no point in trying to create yet another direction for the SDLP. It has become nothing more than a ‘sweeper’ party to soak up transfers for Alliance.
The bitter medicine which nationalism must face is that it must go back to the drawing board in terms of creating a new party for the whole island.
Just as I have been urging Unionism to consider my ideology of Revolutionary Unionism to consider an all-island agenda in a post Brexit Ireland, especially in a ‘no deal’ or hard Brexit era, so too, Alliance and liberal nationalists must prepare for the eventuality that Brexit’s consequences along with the challenges of the Covid 19 pandemic will herald a dire economic downturn in Northern Ireland.
A fully functional devolved Executive at Stormont is key to surviving the fallout from a post Brexit and post pandemic Northern Ireland. For Alliance to be the key stone of a serious Stormont Opposition to the DUP/Sinn Fein coalition, Mrs Long will need the assistance, not of a new Liberal Unionist party, but of a new Liberal Nationalist movement - and such a movement must be organised on an all-island basis to combat the rise of Sinn Fein in the Republic.
In this instance, Naomi Long has only one option - bring back the IIP! If Alliance MLAs can leave their faith outside the revolving door at Stormont, so too must the liberal nationalist IIP.
And if Fine Gael and Fianna Fail need a reliable Dail coalition partner to keep out Sinn Fein, then step forward the Liberal Nationalist Party of Ireland.
Listen to Dr John Coulter’s religious show, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM, or listen online at www.thisissunshine.com
Very interesting analysis of the possible realignment of Northern Irish politics. Maybe the centre can hold!ReplyDelete