May 12

The Progressive Unionist Party and Civic Unionism

 Dr Aaron Edwards is a historian and writer. He has worked closely with progressive loyalists for over 15 years on their internal conflict transformation initiatives and covered these events and processes as a journalist with The Other View magazine. He is author or editor of several books and numerous articles on Northern Irish politics. He is editor (with Stephen Bloomer) of Transforming the Peace Process in Northern Ireland: From Terrorism to Democratic Politics (Irish Academic Press, 2008). Follow him on Twitter @DrAaronEdwards

Stephen Bloomer is a PhD student at the University of Ulster currently studying ‘the role of sport in peacebuilding in Northern Ireland’. He has been researching loyalism since 2000 when he undertook research into the response of the voluntary and community sector to the Shankill feud. He was later the project co-ordinator of The Other View magazine before becoming involved in the first UVF conflict transformation initiative, the East Antrim Conflict Transformation Forum. Over the years he has written and published work on loyalism with Aaron Edwards. Follow him on Twitter @koplegend

Recent analysis of Northern Ireland politics has shirked discussion of the merits of civic unionism in addressing the problems that still remain in this deeply divided part of the United Kingdom. Much of this analysis has concentrated its gaze instead on the ethnic discord that continues to hold back the ‘normalisation of politics’ here and, perhaps unavoidably, plays up the street violence that has periodically been visited on the most deprived parts of the Province. As we approach the local elections on 22 May it is worth considering the claims of the Progressive Unionist Party of Northern Ireland (PUP), in particular, which maintains that it has placed a more civic brand of unionism at the heart of its political project. This is especially important for two reasons – first, that it sits uncomfortably alongside street disorder prompted by loyalist perceptions that a ‘cultural war’ is being waged by republicans and, second, because of the continuing corrosion of community safety by Protestant paramilitaries.

At his party’s annual conference in October 2013 PUP leader Billy Hutchinson used his keynote speech to take the temperature of the current state of the political and peace processes. Here he outlined his vision for what he called ‘a confident, outward-facing unionism’, which seemed to be making the case for a civic unionist alternative to that offered by the other parties in Northern Ireland. In an upbeat address he talked of how the PUP needed to tackle economic inequality and social injustice by resorting to their shared principles of ‘inclusivity and equal citizenship’, something historians of the party know has been at the heart of the PUP’s political programme since it was founded in the late 1970s. Mr Hutchinson continued:

‘I stand here today not as one unionist in a million but as a unionist amongst 62 million other unionists. We are members of a vibrant community of unionists. We are part of a much wider group of citizens who belong to the great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This is a proud nation that once served as the workshop to the world, which advanced medical and scientific discovery, and that became a beacon of democracy during some of the darkest times of our history’.

In a bid to move on from the destabilising flag protests that broke with such severity on the streets of Northern Ireland after a Sinn Fein motion was passed to limit the number of days the Union Flag could fly aloft Belfast City Hall, the PUP’s Deputy Leader Dr John Kyle also challenged unionists to channel their energies into political activism. Dr Kyle suggested ways he felt the PUP might profitably challenge sectarianism that has for so long fed more ethnic interpretations of unionism:

‘Sectarianism is looking after yourself and if we act only in narrow self-interest then morally we’re bankrupt. Sectarianism is corrosive and damaging to our communities and we don’t need it. We’re a party that’s dedicated to an anti-sectarian, equitable, pluralist society’.

In our view, the PUP faces three major challenges that it must overcome in order to accomplish the lofty civic unionist goals it appears to have set itself.

First, it must openly challenge – not court – the tribalism of the lowest common denominator. It is obvious to everyone – except loyalists – that they have ‘won’ the political battle over Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. The PUP may have cleverly exploited the flags protests to bolster its ranks but the flags issue should not come to define the party. If they truly believe in ‘putting country before party’ they must realise that it is their duty to position their political project at the heart of UK politics. The easiest way for the PUP to do this is to reaffirm that civic unionism lies at the heart of their programme for action. Doing this would enable their activists to share common cause with like-minded progressive parties like the British Labour Party, with its well-worn commitment to social justice.

By articulating its own civic unionist vision the PUP could act as a dynamic praetorian guard for progressive working class politics, rather than a purely ethnically Protestant political vehicle. The turn to Paisleyite sloganeering may have succeeded in attracting previously unaligned loyalists but as David Ervine was fond of saying – pace George Orwell – ‘patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’. By wrapping itself in the national flag without articulating a civic brand of unionism risks making the PUP indistinguishable from its political rivals in the UUP and DUP.

As a practical example of how the PUP might move towards a civic and inclusive brand of unionism one has to look no further than its own ranks. The emergence of a range of new voices – much in evidence on the ground and in the world of social media – points to the existence of a vibrant group of female activists who have stepped up to the mark and articulated a refreshing brand of unionism tempered by a practical understanding of feminist thought.

This is important in two ways. First, it confounds the tired, clichéd stereotype that sees the PUP as a foil for unbridled paramilitarism – as we have repeatedly argued over the years (providing considerable evidence to support our analysis it has to be said) the PUP is more than just a negative appendage to an outlawed terrorist group. Second, the feminist element within the PUP has shown itself capable of challenging the patriarchal nature of the Stormont Assembly. For socially progressive people everywhere it must be recognised that this is a major step forward for unionism, especially since the PUP is the only unionist party to support the cause of equal marriage. Moreover, the emergence of a feminist voice within the PUP has the potential to win votes through its support for a pro-choice position on abortion, equal marriage, gay rights, and even the right of women to breastfeed in public.

To reiterate our point here: Flag-waving does not bring inward investment into the most disadvantaged areas of Northern Ireland, nor does it endear loyalists to other citizens elsewhere in the United Kingdom despite the protestations of the lunatic fringe to the contrary. The flag may be a potent symbol of national identity but its unfurling does not by itself guarantee the maintenance of the union – that is something that only comes through active citizenship and embracing the outward trappings of liberal democracy.

For those who believe in the positive and transformative potential of civic unionism – anchored as it is to firm foundations in the form of constitutional, political and cultural norms prevailing elsewhere in the UK – there seems little need to aggressively celebrate cultural heritage in the manner that it is currently being done. Ulster unionists should be confident that they are an integral component of the UK polity –or to put it another way: one million unionists ‘amongst 62 million other unionists’.

Second, the PUP’s self-anointed task of working day and daily with the UVF to dismantle its paramilitary structures ought to be continued with a much greater sense of urgency. ‘Bringing the paramilitaries out of the jungle’, as prominent PUP strategist Billy Mitchell once called it, is no mean feat and requires the concerted efforts of all shades of political opinion in Northern Ireland. We are on record elsewhere as having said that middle class handwringing on the issue of paramilitarism is not good enough and that a more concerted community-based response is what is required. Wishful thinking as an antidote to terrorist activity has never deterred men and women of violence to give up on their death dealing and it is unlikely to do so in the future. Thus, the only way that paramilitarism can be eradicated, according to Billy Hutchinson at least, is through ‘investment in time, cooperation and support, and recognition that the work is being done’.

While it might be prudent at this stage to call on the police to bring the full weight of the rule of law to bear on loyalist paramilitary godfathers, it must be done in partnership with the Protestant working class community. Initiatives like Action for Community Transformation (ACT) are no longer supported in their work under the PEACE programme and rely almost entirely on the goodwill of international donors and local people working in a voluntary capacity. This is not good enough. A more joined up approach from the community upwards – via statutory bodies, Community Based Organisations and Non-Governmental Organisations – to high political office is necessary to ensure the eradication of the causes of terrorism are removed from society and that the ‘decommissioning of the mindsets’ takes place.

Third, and most importantly, the PUP must work on behalf of the all of the community (Protestant, Catholic, Dissenter and Others who defy or resist categorisation) and to paraphrase its mantra ‘put country before party’. That does not mean playing on hysterical notions of a ‘cultural war’ – for this ‘war’ is really politics being played out according to the logic of a society deeply divided along class, ethnic, national and religious lines – but instead exposing the real intentions behind Sinn Fein’s ‘peace strategy’, which seeks to embarrass and isolate unionism on the world stage while also neutering its close ties to the UK polity. As we have seen in recent months, this makes unionism less effective as a political bloc in Westminster, where a lot of the key decisions about Northern Ireland’s future are really arrived at. If the PUP is serious about its civic unionist ideals then it must move more quickly towards articulating what it means by a ‘confident, outward-facing unionism’. All unionists can take the initial step towards this goal by accepting that the union is ‘safe’ for as long as it rests on the democratic principle of consent.

While Sinn Fein may have cynically moved to remove symbols of British sovereignty in December 2012, it cannot remove the accepted principle (enshrined in national and international law) that Northern Ireland’s place within the union is assured for many years to come as long as the people of Northern Ireland wish it to be so. With that in mind, the PUP would be better off abandoning its flag-waving fetishism and instead focus the energies of its expanded and energetic membership on building a party that hones in on delivering for local communities. Local elections, which ought to put local issues centre-stage, is where the PUP can exploit what its former party leader David Ervine once called its innate ‘workingclassism’, confident that the buffoonery of fundamentalist derision on the national question no longer holds sway.

In light of this discussion, the local elections offer the PUP the opportunity to develop a real political consciousness amongst its members and supporters away from the distraction of resolved constitutional issues. Success on 22 May would enable it to further agitate on more important issues, like cuts to welfare entitlements, reform of the NHS, disability rights, NEETS, trade union rights – all of which are the stuff of real politics. In this respect, civic unionism can flourish if the PUP re-dedicates its efforts to eradicate not only the causes of social injustice but also the ‘corrosive and damaging’ effects of sectarianism, as much as the histrionics of ‘cultural war’. Strategically, the PUP seems to have ensured that it is ready to mount an effective electoral challenge by developing its branch structure and candidate roster beyond the Belfast urban area and into the semi-rural centres of Londonderry, Portadown, Ballymena and Coleraine. It has also established a training programme of party members focused on local activism and the maintenance of close, personal contact with the community.

To conclude, it is only when the PUP reinforces its commitment to lead the Protestant working class in a more confident, civic unionist direction – free of the shackles of loyalist terrorism and gangsterism – will it be possible for the most disadvantaged in Northern Irish society to realise their full potential as British citizens and enjoy the enormous advantages offered by civil and religious liberty, equal citizenship and opportunities for all. We believe that the PUP has embarked on a new departure and our hope is that they prove themselves capable of stepping up to the mark. Our only way of knowing if they can do this, of course, is if they are elected in sufficient numbers and given that opportunity by the electorate of Northern Ireland.

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1 comment

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  1. sebastian

    In short, they need to take a leaf from SF’s book and pull for the working class, instead of continuing a tired, bankrupt, sectarian path.

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