Unexpectedly bumping into my friend Thomas Hennessey, I chose to stay at the DUP annual conference and attend a discussion panel that he was participating in, “Strengthening Unionism”:
- Jonathan Bell MLA (Chair)
- Jeffrey Donaldson MP
- Ian Paisley MP
- Thomas Hennessey
Mr Hennessey made reference to the late Sir Philip Gould and his offering of strategic vision within politics; Tom suggested that this is what Ulster unionism needs — moving from tactical behaviour towards a strategic vision, and he praised Northern Ireland First Minister, Peter Robinson, for setting such a vision out in the party leader’s speech earlier today.
Tom said, “I am a unionist because it is about pluralism — not only that I am an Englishman but I am British … It is about being part of a state that recognises different sorts of identities, aspirations and, indeed, rights and privileges.” He elaborated on the history of British unionism, saying that the only thing Scotland lost when it joined the Union was its parliament; it was able to retain its identity.
He added the the Union with Northern Ireland, thanks to the Belfast Agreement (1998) and the St Andrews Agreement (2007), is stronger than ever before. But it’s the longer term that he thinks unionists need to think about, refering back to the need to think strategically. Specifically, for him this means how to have a situation whereby Catholics are comfortable belonging to Unionist political parties.
Mr Hennessey believes that there are positive lessons to be learnt from John Hume (SDLP), who spoke of “an agreed Ireland”, which was particularly well received by an American audience desperate to hear a positive message amongst the regular negative news feed of division. Tom suggested that unionism can do the same, not by compromising its principles, but talking about pluralism and how Northern Ireland is a society for all.
While describing the history of home rule and how the likes of John Redmond were advocating an Irish nationalism that was prepared to accept some form of union, Ian Paisley interrupted by saying that he agreed with the goals of a strategic vision of unionism, but that there were necessary steps in the process of reaching such goals.
Mr Paisley stated a maxim that without a vision, people perish, and how his party has set out a very powerful vision that should enliven people and give them hope. For him, first and foremost what is needed is for politics at every level, from local to European, is seen to be working, delivering for everyone in practical terms. The result would be that by doing real work for people, the DUP will be respected as a “normal political party doing the work for everyone who comes through our constituency doors”.
He continued by saying that the biggest challenge his party faces is complacency, due to their size and lack of effective opposition, outside the party (official parliamentary Opposition) or inside the party (because they are so united). The only real opposition the DUP faces, Mr Paisley argued, is from the media, and this was not genuine (“it’s just all negative”) in that it isn’t electoral based or an ideological conflict of vision.
Jeffrey Donaldson added the challenge of how his party reaches out and engage more with people “from a Catholic background” and at the same time reconnect with working class Protestants, whom he claimed two-thirds do not come out to vote. Individually, he has noticed a marked increase in the number of Catholics who have come into his constituency office over the past five years, seeking help. He values this, but reiterated the need to reconnect with working class Protestants.
The next question was in regards to the relationship between Westminster and the European Union, and whether the “mother of all parliaments has become a baby sister to Brussels”.
Mr Donaldson stated that he and colleague Mr Paisley are members of the Better Off Out campaign, and cited Norway as an example of how a country in Europe can thrive economically without being a member of the European Union. Furthermore, he saw the EU changing in the years ahead, whether as a two-speed entity revolving around Germany and France with a secondary periphery, and/or with individual countries leaving altogether.
Mr Paisley said that a crucial matter is for the British parliament to assert its sovereignty in Europe and do what is in the best interests of the British people.
Declaring his agnosticism over the EU, Mr Hennessey reminded the audience why the UK entered it: the bi-polar world of the Cold War. But as we are now in a multi-polar world, the need to remain within the EU in order to promote British economic and security interests no longer holds, he argued. Mr Paisley added that today’s current state of disarray in Europe presents a once in a lifetime opportunity for Britain to do “what is right”, i.e. leave the EU.
To encourage debate, Chair Jonathan Bell argued that access to Europe’s market of 400 million consumers, and the EU’s relatively generosity towards Northern Ireland, were good reasons to cooperate.
Mr Paisley immediately replied that most of Northern Ireland economic activity is with the rest of the United Kingdom, followed largely by the Republic of Ireland. For him, Northern Ireland firms should be encouraged not only to export to Europe but beyond it.
Mr Donaldson acknowledged the contribution the EU made towards the peace process in Northern Ireland, but that Europe has reached a level of bureaucracy where it hinders business more than it helps it. He again made the comparison with Norway, and cited the benefits of access to the British Commonwealth.
The third question was in regards to the rise of the Scottish National Party and relative demise of unionist politics in Scotland: “Has Scotland become the weakest link in the Union?”
Mr Paisley said that clearly the greatest threat to the Union today is Scotland, with his party help securing the Union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. He said that Scotland “does not feel loved by the Union”, placing much blame on the English and their indifferent attitude towards the Scots. Mr Paisley argued for an assertive campaign that shows the people of Scotland that they are cherished, are an integral part of the Union, and that the Union would be poorer without them (economically, socially, and culturally). And that if this does not happen and Scotland departs the Union, then the question of Northern Ireland’s union would then be reasserted by republicans and Irish nationalists. “We have something significant to gain by ensuring that we push our English brothers and sisters to embrace the Scottish union,” he argued.
Mr Donaldson jumped to the defence of the English, citing the significant subsidy that English taxpayers contribute to the public spending in Northern Ireland, as well as the West Lothian question (whereby representatives elected outside England have a vote on matters inside England). He placed major blame on the failure of the Labour and Conservative parties in Scotland making the case for the Union. Especially for Scottish Labour, all its senior politicians are sent down to Westminster, leaving SNP’s leader Alex Salmond ineffectively challenged in the Scottish Parliament. This is in contrast to the DUP, which Mr Donaldson explained as having made a conscious decision to divide the talents and labour between the Northern Ireland Assembly and Westminster.
While believing that the majority of Scots would vote to maintain the Union in a referendum, Mr Donaldson said that there is a challenge for “our Conservative friends”, endorsing the call by Murdo Fraser for the current Conservative party in Scotland to disband and be recreated as a centre-right party with a distinctive Scottish identity. Mr Donaldson called for the DUP to be at the forefront of a pan-UK unionist movement, to challenge “our fellow unionists” so as not to underestimate the threat of nationalism in Wales and Scotland.
Mr Hennessey agreed that the biggest danger to the Union is English ambivalence, if for no other reason of historical accident being the largest member with an English population of 47+ million out of 60-odd million in the Union. As Tom said at the start of this discussion, with every Act of Union the parliament of Westminster remained; from an English perspective, this would evoke continuity of English superiority.
Tom disagreed that having a nationalist party in power in Scotland ipso facto bodes ill for the Union: “There are plenty of other examples, historically, where nationalist parties have taken power … but the constitution has survived and continued.” Instead, he gave a political explanation, whereby he thinks Conservative leader, David Cameron, does not want to play the SNP game. Tom argued that the Conservatives did not want to take on the likes of Mr Salmond during the years of the strong Irish Celtic tiger economy, as it might only stokes the demand for full Scottish independence. Mr Paisley added that it was time for those in Scotland to set the agenda, alternative to Mr Salmond’s.
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