A Study in Unionism

By Will Burstow

One a plucky daughter of a Borders mill manager, the other a dour daughter of Fermanagh. There’s a wealth of difference between the personalities of Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP in Northern Ireland and Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives – and in their unionism.

One is undoubtedly strong on the Union -a former TA signaller & journalist who is a bread and butter campaigner on issues like named persons and business rates in Scotland. A fan of international aid (So much so she studied it as a second degree), a good Christian who happens to be gay and supports equal marriage. Often quoted as being a ‘kickboxing lesbian’ and has something of a twitter following due to her personal and fun approach to the medium and as a result, she’s actually pretty likeable even if you disagree with her on something.

The other is certainlyas strong in her support for the Union. The daughter of a policeman who went on to become a successful barrister. She is alsowoman of faith, but it’s here that the comparisons fade away. Her opposition to equal marriage and her handling of the RHI scandal in Northern Ireland has, some have argued, created the sense of intolerance and a whiff of corruption . She has in recent weeks been called disrespectful  and was accused of running a campaign of fear  to keep hold of the First Ministers Office.

The picture that’s been painted of Arlene Foster naturally results in someone you just want to be clear of. That neighbour that demands you change how you live to suit her, but will also bristle when you call her out for playing music at 3am on a work night. This sense doesn’t just sit in isolation, it starts to taint all good works associated with her – including unionism itself. Foster allows the impression, at first glance, that unionism is small and petty, judgemental and disrespectful, inward looking and ignorant.

This is in stark contrast to the unionism espoused by Ruth Davidson. Her unionism is proud, but not boastful. It is centred on a belief that we do things better as a community of people, united by our common bonds of fellowship. It looks outward to the world – seeking to help in war-torn countries, seeking to right wrongs and better the condition of our fellow man. It is respectful and without judgement. It is tolerant and has within the unionist family a place for every person in our land – regardless of religion, colour, creed, sex, or sexuality.

There may be a ham-fisted argument to be made that Foster is simply expressing the views and positions of the unionist people in Northern Ireland, but results in the recent elections in Northern Ireland seem to prove otherwise.

Not only did Foster’s DUP barely keep hold of the First Ministers Office, they also continued to lose vote share that has been ebbing away since 2007. Meanwhile the more outwardly respectable UUP increased their share of the vote in an assembly election that was supposed to squeeze smaller unionist parties.

Truly the Alliance Party, who portray themselves as a socially liberal party seeking to move Northern Ireland on from the orange/green divide (A worthy goal), demonstrate the problem with Foster’s silo unionism. They managed to score their best ever result due to strong showings in areas once considered to be unionist heartlands. Clearly not only are unionists in Northern Ireland not happy with silo unionism, they are actually actively disassociating themselves from it at the ballot box.

All this in contrast with Davidson’s approach. Not only is it an approach that is worthy of the title unionism, it breeds results. Davidson helped bring some much needed positivity to the 2014 referendum in Scotland, she then lead the Scottish Conservatives on to their best showing at Holyrood since devolution. She’s now setting her sights on Bute House.

Coming from Northern Ireland I know that there are some differences between the two parts of the United Kingdom – mostly a result of war. There is a great depth of feeling amongst unionists that they too have been disrespected, that the pain and suffering of the troubles has been brushed aside, and their contributions to the Kingdom are ignored by those on the mainland. But Fosters unionism is not the solution to the past, or those concerns.

It is time unionists in Northern Ireland reach across the water and learn lessons from unionism in Scotland. They’d find that unionism would not take much effort to make the well-travelled trip across the North Channel and could be just the thing Northern Ireland needs to start truly moving on from our troubled past.

Will Burstow is Director of Constitutional Affairs for Parliament Street

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