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Speech made by John McCallister MLA on the Covenant and civic unionism

The centenary of the Ulster Covenant should be a time of pride for the Ulster Unionist Party ...

A time when we are reminded of the best values of our political tradition.

The Covenant did not invoke the narrow language of exclusion and sectarianism.

Rather, it speaks the language of civic unionism ...

Of equal citizenship, of civil and religious liberties, of material well-being for all.

Other forms of unionism, of course, have delighted in sectarianism and exclusion.

But these have not been the values of Ulster Unionism.

Admittedly not always successfully, but when guided by the better angels of our nature ...

Ulster Unionism has sought to give voice to the civic unionism of the Covenant.

Sleep-walking into 'unionist unity'
All of which makes it deeply ironic - and disappointing - that it has been at this time that reasonable observers are concluding that the UUP is sleep-walking into 'unionist unity'.

The recently almost daily diet of shared initiatives with the DUP ...

Shared commemorations, shared press releases, shared events, shared statements ...

Has built up the unfortunate impression that the 'unionist unity' train has left the station.

In the driver's cab a certain P. Robinson is smiling broadly ...

Delighting that he appears to have the UUP as a passenger.

Covenant values
For many of us in the UUP, the prospect of 'unionist unity' represents a profound betrayal and rejection of the values of the Covenant.

It remains the case that the DUP is a very cold house for civic unionism - for the values of pluralism and liberalism.

Objective observers could use many terms to describe the DUP ...

Disciplined; electorally successful; media savvy.

But only a comedian with a gift for satire would attempt to describe the DUP as committed to liberal, pluralist values.

If we in the UUP have not always kept faith with these values, they have always been the soul of our Party ...

And they have defined us at those moments when we have done most for Northern Ireland.

Pluralism or tribalism?
It is this fundamental difference in values which highlights what is at stake, both for the UUP and for Northern Ireland.

Not that long ago a UUP leader proudly spoke of "a pluralist parliament for a pluralist people".

Those words summed up Ulster Unionism's aspiration for Northern Ireland ...

A Northern Ireland shaped by the openness and pluralism of the contemporary United Kingdom.

A Northern Ireland no longer always defined and held back by the politics of tribalism.

'Unionist unity' is the direct opposite of "a pluralist parliament for a pluralist people".

It would permanently entrench tribalism in our politics and our institutions ...

Condemning daily politics and every election to a sectarian headcount.

Every policy proposal, every policy debate, would be reduced to a permanent unionist versus nationalist struggle.

An electorate already bored with the irrelevance of such politics would become evermore alienated from the democratic process.

And at a time when surveys consistently demonstrate that the constitutional issue is settled in favour of the Union ...

Unionism would once again be grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory.

'Unionist unity', rather than accepting the settled constitutional position, would ensure that every election became a sectarian border poll.

This is what 'unionist unity offers.

In place of the vision of a pluralist parliament and pluralist politics, it would condemn us to the grubby reality of tribal politics.

Carson warned us against government of "faction and section" ...

But that is precisely what 'unionist unity' would permanently ensure.

A politics and a society shaped solely by the "faction and section" of unionist and nationalist.

Permanent government without opposition
A key part of a pluralist politics is choice ...

Not least, citizens having the choice of supporting an administration or an opposition.

Here we see another consequence of the deep freeze which would be forced upon our politics by 'unionist unity' ...

It would be impossible to move towards an authentic opposition in the Assembly to hold the Executive to account.

As 'unionist unity' inevitably led to 'nationalist unity', we would have the two sectarian 
blocs forever sharing government ...

With no meaningful opposition to give voters an authentic choice.

At election time, voters would not be presented with alternative policies to consider and debate ...

They would merely be required to don the tribal colours and troop to the polling station to ensure 'the other side' didn't come out on top.

Tribal government and tribal politics ...

With no alternative, no choice and no change.

What others rightly termed the "ugly scaffolding" of 1998 was never intended to be a permanent feature of our political landscape ...

It was a temporary necessity to repair our politics.

But the deep freeze into 'unionist unity' would lead us ...

Would ensure that the "ugly scaffolding" became a permanent feature of our politics and our institutions.

Temporary features, designed to build confidence allowing Northern Ireland to move beyond the politics of tribalism, would inevitably be retained for generations to come.

A pluralist politics - the politics to which civic unionism is committed - aspires to a normalisation of our institutions.

Moving beyond designation, the abstract mechanics of d'Hondt, and government without opposition ...

An Ulster Unionism committed to pluralist values would offer authentic choice to the people of Northern Ireland, rather than an ongoing sectarian headcount.

The next generation
Within the next few years, a new generation will be preparing to exercise political responsibility.

Those born in 1998 will very soon be voting for the first time.

We know from surveys that this generation increasingly does not define itself according to the political and cultural  categories which have defined Northern Ireland politics.

In 2010, 66% of 18-24 year olds defined themselves as "neither", rather than "unionist" or "nationalist" ...

Only 14% of that age group supported a united Ireland.

And the favoured option in terms of identity was the Northern Ireland regional identity.

What exactly does the tribal politics of 'unionist unity' offer to this new generation?

Is this really the best unionism can offer to them ...

A politics defined entirely by the divisions of the past?

We see a generation growing up not defined by past divisions ...

Not defined by the painful memories of the Troubles ...

Not defined by a constitutional issue that they overwhelmingly believe is settled ...

And it is seriously suggested that Ulster Unionism buys into a 'unionist unity' project which will enshrine past divisions, past hurts and keep alive the constitutional issue.

The results of such a decision by Ulster Unionism are obvious ...

A new generation would turn its back on a unionism mired in the divisions of the past.

The alternative is for an Ulster Unionism confident in its pluralist, liberal, pro-Union values ...

To reach out to a generation very largely shaped by similar values. 

It is this opportunity that our Party squanders if we consent to a re-heated politics of sectarian division under the guise of 'unionist unity'.

Delivering on the promise of a pluralist party
At our party conference last week, Mike clearly defined Ulster Unionism:

"I see us as a pluralist party. I see us as a progressive party."

Perhaps events have resulted in the clarity of these words being obscured.

A pluralist party, a progressive party cannot countenance unity with a DUP in which pluralist, progressive values are ridiculed and opposed.

A pluralist party, a progressive party cannot reject Carson's warning and condemn Northern Ireland to permanent government defined by "faction and section".

Ulster Unionism's ambitions and aspirations for Northern Ireland are much greater and more enduring than the false promise of 'unionist unity'.

We want a pluralist politics for a pluralist Northern Ireland;

Political institutions that offer real choice to citizens;

An administration held to account by an opposition;

A future not defined by past divisions;

A region at ease with its place in the contemporary United Kingdom.

'Unionist unity' is a case of backward not forward ...

Of condemning our future to the past.

The centenary of the Covenant is the best of times to reject such a suggestion ...

And confidently reassert the pluralist and progressive values of Ulster Unionism.



Ulster Unionists