Thursday 5 February 2009

A party for (not quite) all of us

How well did David Cameron do his homework before he proposed to his blushing fiancée, the UUP? He announced in his joint statement with Reg Empey in July 2008 that:

"There are too many in Northern Ireland who have been put off playing any role (including voting) in politics by the vicious sectarian divisions of recent years. We believe that the creation of a new political and electoral dynamism will attract a surge of support from people in every part of the community who want to leave the past behind and join together to see a 21st Century Northern Ireland in which every citizen is an equal citizen …"

The implication was that his engagement with the UUP would lead to politics that were less viciously sectarian than in recent years. For many, including some in the UUP, this contained a hope that the UUP would become a broad church, capable of attracting support from outside the 'Ulster Protestant' tribe.

Yet, on a very basic point the engagement has run into problems. The name of the blushing fiancée is part of the basic sectarianism of Northern Irish parties. Its inclusion of the word 'Ulster' reflects the position of the party as part of the Protestant sectarian family. While Ulster is the name of the northernmost province of Ireland and contains nine counties, only six counties make up the entity called (correctly, in constitutional terms) Northern Ireland. The use of the word 'Ulster' to refer to these six counties alone is a uniquely unionist habit, and one that is perceived by most Irish people as insulting and contemptuous. It has absolutely no basis in law.

Over the course of Northern Ireland's history as a separate entity the use of the word 'Ulster' to refer to Northern Ireland was a deliberate act to distance Northern Ireland from the south, and to deny the Irishness of the north. A considerable part of Northern Ireland's population not just recognises but celebrates their identity as Irish people. This part includes many unionists. The recognition that Northern Ireland is a part of Ireland no more denies their rights than the recognition that Scots are from Scotland, or Welsh people from Wales. For many people, nationalist, unionist or neither, the use of the word 'Ulster' by the UUP amongst others, contains an implicit denial of their Irishness, and an attempt to airbrush the word Ireland from Northern Ireland.

The Conservative party seem to have understood this, and apparently want their new arrangement with the UUP to be known by a name that does not deliberately insult that part of the population that is proud of their Irishness.

However, the BBC recently carried out a straw-poll of UUP assembly members which revealed that more than half are opposed to dropping Ulster from the name for electoral purposes. "When asked if they would approve an option that would drop Ulster from the name, 10 MLAs, speaking anonymously, were opposed. In fact, a majority of the 10 were strongly opposed."

So the leopard's spots have not changed. A majority of the UUP MLAs are opposed to removing an entirely unofficial, incorrect and insulting adjective from their party name in order to attract voters who are not currently members of the narrow 'Ulster Protestant' tribe. They would prefer to retain this useless and pointless adjective just in order to annoy anyone who has an Irish identity.

And these are the people who David Cameron thinks are going to help him move towards "a new political and electoral dynamism [which] will attract a surge of support from people in every part of the community"? Their thinking is still stuck in a pre-1972 limbo. They cannot move forwards because their whole attitude is still redolent of the old anti-Irish, anti-diversity, anti-Catholic unionist movement of the past.

This issue will be an important test of the UUP-Tory engagement. If Cameron gives in to the UUP's 'little Ulsterism' the project is doomed.

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