OPINION: Community Worker Pete Wray argues for a more inclusive Unionism
Pete Wray is a community development and youth worker. He previously stood as a candidate for NI21 and served on their party executive. Pete is passionate about promoting a more liberal and inclusive Unionism in order to make the United Kingdom more attractive for all sections of the community in Northern Ireland.
I am Northern Irish. I would also call myself British, and I make no apologies for that, but first and foremost I am Northern Irish. Latest census (2011) and opinion polls suggest that this Northern Ireland identity is steadily growing, and it’s growing within both unionist and nationalist communities. The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey 2016 finds that over half of those surveyed described themselves as Northern Irish.
There is no doubt in my mind that the best thing for Northern Ireland is to remain part of the UK. I base this on simple economics, and on the fact that it is the wish of the majority of people living in our country. The issue of national sovereignty was resolved 19 years ago with the signing of the Belfast Agreement. It’s my opinion that unionist politics has failed to build a better Northern Ireland, and it has made virtually no attempt to move towards a society where both Protestant and Catholic culture and traditions are treated with parity of esteem. Of course the same can be said of nationalism, however it’s within the interest of unionism to bring all sections of the community along and to leave the bitter sectarian politics in the past. Instead, unionist politics seems to be content on polarising society, and keeping the orange and green issues front and centre. This may help to bring out the unionist vote due to the unionist electorates fear of a Sinn Fein First Minister, but it is turning off a generation of young people from both main traditions, who quite frankly don’t care about the politics of the past.
Evidence suggests that there are many people from a Catholic community background living in Northern Ireland who are pro-union, but they would never vote for a unionist party. Unionism needs to ask the question why this is the case. While many from the Catholic community are happy to remain in the UK, they feel that unionism is a cold house for them. Unionism still panders to every vogue unionist cause and is never willing to put its head above the parapet to take a political stance around social or cultural issues that will upset their core vote.
The mask of Gerry Adams slipped in 2014 when he was recorded saying that what would break these ‘orange bastards’ was equality. Political unionism was quick to condemn his language and sectarian sentiment, and rightly so, however they didn’t learn any lessons from it. Adams and Sinn Fein know that while unionism hardens on issues such as equal marriage, Irish language, and various other social issues, many of the electorate, particularly young people, will be turned off. This then opens the door for a wider mandate which they will aim to build on a serious conversation around a united Ireland.
Arlene Foster made the mistake of the ‘crocodile’ comment that lit the touch paper for the nationalist/republican surge at the 2017 assembly elections. I don’t share her views on the Irish language however I do believe that Sinn Fein are like a crocodile that thrives in divisive politics and feeds off sectarianism in an attempt to achieve their political goal. The problem is that unionist leadership has been feeding that crocodile for many years now. My message to unionist leadership is to stop feeding the crocodile of Sinn Fein. Stop maintaining the sectarian battlefield where Sinn Fein can go toe to toe. Instead, blow them out of the water by leading the way for a Northern Ireland where all people can be proud to call themselves Northern Irish.