Dr John Coulter is a ‘Radical Unionist’ commentator and former columnist for the Blanket. He writes for the Irish Daily Star.
With the 2013 Protestant Marching Season only a matter of weeks from officially kicking off, the Loyal Orders should show constructive leadership and take the Union flag ‘bull by the horns’.
What has become abundantly clear is the fundamental gap between the Unionist parties’ so-called Unionist Forum and the loyalist working class-led Ulster People’s Forum movement.
The former is an empty rhetoric talking shop; the latter an anarchist-style street movement, which has become vehemently opposed to the DUP/Sinn Fein-run Stormont Executive.
Unionist unity has now become almost as big a myth as a united Ireland by 2016, the centenary of the failed Dublin Easter Rising. But the bitter medicine which the Unionist family must face is that the only way forward out of the present Union flag impasse is to embark on a process where the end game is the re-formation of a single pro-Union movement, simply called The Unionist Party.
I do not adhere to the misguided theory that the Unionist family is best served by having a range of parties, which ultimately seriously fragment the pro-Union vote. If this was the case, and given the vast array of pro-Union organizations which now occupy the Unionist political spectrum, why is the Unionist turnout at elections continuing to fall, especially in working class areas?
The success of Bill Craig’s Ulster Vanguard movement was that it was a pressure group to influence existing Unionist parties. Its downfall was sealed the day it converted itself into a political party and began competing with the other Unionist parties.
I grew up in north Antrim where Ian Paisley senior – now Lord Bannside – launched his elected career in 1970 with his Protestant Unionist movement, transforming it into the DUP a year later. I remember two young primary school lads standing shoulder-to-shoulder waving ‘Vote Paisley’ placards.
One was a devout Plymouth Brethren middle class farmer’s son; the other a working class loyalist’s son. Paisley’s success was that he was able to bring together two sections from the Unionist community which for many generations were minorities within the ruling Unionist Party – born again Christians and the Protestant working class.
It would be all too easy to blame Paisley senior as laying the foundations for the current fragmentations, splits and apathy among the Protestant Churches, Unionism, Loyalism and Orangeism.
But at some stage, these rifts must be healed otherwise cross-border institutions will grow in influence to such a degree that we will have a united island in all but name. Sadly, too, we now have the pro-Union family heading off in several different directions, all claiming the Union is better off with their preferred options.
The DUP under Peter Robinson now resembles the old Unionist Party under Terence O’Neill. Ironically, it has now become the very movement it set out to oppose. The Ulster Unionist Party is too democratic and lacks Robinson’s DUP-style internal discipline. The UUP’s epitaph will be finally written if MLAs Basil McCrea and John McCallister are thrown out or leave voluntarily to form their own Liberal Unionist Party.
The loyalist working class feels alienated from the Unionist parties as they see how expertly Sinn Fein can reap the benefits of the Good Friday Agreement and St Andrews Agreement for the Catholic middle and working class communities.
The re-launched Tory Party has shot itself in the foot in Northern Ireland with its rampant support for gay marriage, a move which will totally infuriate the growing army of evangelical Christians.
The paramilitary-linked parties which continue to represent the loyalist working class seem to lack the organizational abilities to get people elected to the Assembly and have only a handful of councillors dotted across the Province.
What is urgently needed is a movement to practically unite the various factions, not a talking shop which only serves to host ‘blame game’ meetings on past political sins.
In 1985, during the massive Belfast City Hall rally to protest at the Anglo-Irish Agreement, pride of place at the head of the parade was given to the traditional Orange standards colour party.
The Loyal Orders – especially the Orange – fulfilled its traditional role of the cement which held the Unionist family together. Orange influence on the Ulster Says No campaign was then at it’s highest since 1974 when Unionist Coalition candidates took all but Gerry Fitt’s West Belfast bolthole in the February Westminster General Elections of that year.
Traditionally, the Orange lodge has been the main vehicle of communication between the Protestant aristocracy and the working class. The managing director could sit with the shop floor cleaner in the same lodge room and refer to each other as ‘brother’.
Republicanism has learned that if it can breach this system of communication, it will weaken the Unionist family. That’s why republicanism launched a series of so-called residents’ groups – many fronted by ex-republican jailbirds – to oppose traditional Loyal Order parades.
The republican strategy was simple – create controversy around Loyal Order parades and distance the Protestant middle class from the Orders. In this respect, the Garvaghy Road Residents’ Coalition in Portadown has been one of the most successful republican projects since the start of the Troubles in the late 1960s. Drumcree, from being a rallying cry to Protestants in the mid 1990s, has now become a dirty word among the Garden Centre Prod and Fur Coat Brigade communities.
The Loyal Orders cannot simply dismiss the Union flag dispute as merely a communication problem between the Unionist parties and working class Protestants.
There is the real danger as the Marching Season beckons that if there is no successful resolution to the flags issue that the situation could deteriorate where Loyal Order parades and loyalist band parades are banned.
Unionism must play its ‘Orange Card’ once again. The Orange and Black – and to a lesser extent the Apprentice Boys and Independent Orange Order – must become the pressure groups which ultimately lead to Unionist political unity. It will not be an easy task as many ‘sins’ will need to be forgiven and numerous political egos will require careful massaging.
As with religious Protestantism, there will always be those who want to ‘do their own thing’. Smaller, political movement will emerge, but if the Orange Order can mobilize the pro-Union family to rally behind a single Unionist Party, those fringe elements will die out.
Supporters of multi-party Unionism dismiss calls for a single Unionist Party as a pathetic bid to return to old-fashioned, pre-1972 majority rule. Correct, I want a return to those days – when a single movement had the courage to represent all shades of pro-Union opinion. The republicans didn’t like it – because it worked for Unionism!
A single movement, known as The Unionist Party, is not simply about the aspiration of both mobilizing and uniting all shades of pro-Union thinking. It is about combating the secular society and bringing about the day when the failed Republic experiment comes back into the Commonwealth. Now these are ideals worth marching for!
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