In Response to Jamie Bryson: What a Union of People Means…

I read Jamie Bryson’s article entitled: ‘The UUP’s Union of the People argument is loose ground upon which nothing permanent can be built’, published on Slugger O’Toole on 21 March 2022. Jamie and I hold different views on various political issues, though I cannot help but notice we do share some similarities, being that we are both unionists from Ards and North Down around the same age with probably a similar experience of growing up within our predominantly unionist borough. I often wonder what caused our unionism to be so different. This is a topic I will continue to ponder. For now, I will address his critique of the UUP’s Union of People.

In Doug Beattie’s Leader’s Speech at the UUP Conference 2021, Doug defines a Union of People as “not just a strapline, it is a vision. It is a vision of people working together regardless of their religion, gender, colour, sexual orientation, background, or culture. It is a vision to make Northern Ireland work for those who live here, work here, or visit here.” This is in reaction to “[unionism being] viewed as negative, backward and angry. Yet some of the most socially liberal within Northern Ireland are found within unionism and loyalism.”

Doug believes “that if we make Northern Ireland a place where people will want to live, work, to get married, raise a family, get the health care when it is needed and have a standard of living that gives them equality of opportunity, that will secure Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom for the next 100 years.”

Before I address the Protocol, I will remind readers that the UUP warned about the dangers of Brexit before the referendum took place, specifically in relation to the Irish Sea border and its implications for trade along with it being seen as an encroachment on people’s sense of identity. This is why the UUP recommended Remain at the time. However, we are where we are.

On the Protocol, the UUP has always opposed a trade border whether it is North-South or East-West. The UUP has even proposed its own solutions to the Protocol issue, one that has even been spoken about recently in the media, such as a labelling programme for goods coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Two of the UUP’s solutions even made it onto the UK Command Paper, namely in ensuring there is equality of provision to all regions of the UK and making it a criminal offence to knowingly export goods designed for the UK internal market into the EU single market.

When it comes to Jamie’s points on the Belfast Agreement, the UUP supports reforming it. Mandatory coalition for example needs to end. The Petition of Concern should not be abused. Though I will also point out that the changes made to devolution via the St Andrews Agreement in relation to how the First Minister is nominated do not help us. This was exacerbated when the size of the Assembly was reduced from 108 seats to 90 seats, where 16 of the seats lost were unionist seats (10 DUP seats; 6 UUP seats).

Rather than shouting “No Surrender!”, unionism needs to reflect on why it lost these seats and what can be done to win them back, as here’s one certainty: the UK Government has no desire to implement a return of direct rule, especially with the ongoing situation in Ukraine. Even if it were an option, it makes absolutely no sense to hand power back to the very government that is implementing the protocol to which unionism is strongly opposed.

Any return to direct rule would be seen as a failure of the Northern Ireland state and would strengthen republicanism’s calls for a border poll as a result of such a democratic deficit. Ask yourself this question: Has unionism benefited at all from the DUP withdrawing its First Minister from the Executive? I still don’t see any benefit to doing that.

This is why we must make devolution work, as it’s the only show in town. Unionism must appeal beyond the base. This is why the UUP’s Union of People ideology and strategy is the best way forward. For me personally, I joined the UUP in 2013 as I found it was the only unionist party that could accommodate openly gay unionists who can confidently argue pro-LGBT views. I valued the UUP’s policy of allowing a conscience vote on social issues and internally, I argued for pro-LGBT outreach, such as for the UUP to attend Belfast Pride and for the party to support a ban on conversion therapy. I was very pleased in being able to effect change to our politics in my own way, as proposals I made as a member of the party worked their way to the leadership of the party who acted on them.

It is this spirit of positivity, generosity and confidence in enacting change to improve our lives and circumstances that unionism needs to win support. The optics of being angry and shouting “Betrayal!” does not win us friends. Being calm and putting forward solutions to the concerns people have be it the cost of living crisis, health, education, housing among many other issues is how unionism will win. It is how the union will be secured.

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