Progressive Unionism – Represented At Last?


 

As a Law student and aspiring solicitor, despite my passionate interest in Northern Irish politics since studying it in school, I have always felt a reluctance to express my political viewpoints openly. I believe that this has derived from my perceived notion that lawyers must remain impartial in all walks of life and, as a result of a fear that this would somehow have repercussions on my future career prospects, I decided to refrain from involvement with political youth organisations throughout my time at university. Thankfully, as I approach the end of my degree, I have started to realise that this viewpoint is harmful and that an open interest in both law and politics should not remain mutually exclusive.


As someone who classifies themself as a progressive Unionist, from a young age growing up in East Belfast, I never truly felt like I could politically resonate with, not only the political figures and individual parties who existed at the time, but also many of my peers. Northern Ireland’s culture in which political opinions continue to be passed down generationally, created by our politically divisive history, meant that, for the most part, I was ultimately surrounded by individuals who willingly contributed to the toxic “us versus them” dynamic. Despite knowing little of the individual parties they claimed to support and would later vote for, their voting intention remained outdated and served merely to “keep the other side out”, more than anything else.


Whilst progressive Unionist political figures existed in some capacity sporadically during my teenage years, I never felt like one individual party shared my approach of strongly advocating for socially progressive legislation whilst equally prioritising Northern Ireland’s continued constitutional status within the United Kingdom, as the Unionist parties lacked unanimity on the major contemporary social issues of the time. As a result of this, my voting ballots in the three elections that I have taken part in so far, have lacked consistency and were more so dependent on the individual candidates running, rather than the political affiliations they held.


This balancing exercise, particularly under the First Past the Post system, in having to choose between whether I voted for a more favoured Unionist candidate whose backward social viewpoints I was fundamentally opposed to, or an individual less likely to win but who shared my similar progressive beliefs, was exhausting and only served to give me the impression of feeling politically disenfranchised.


Whilst Steve Aiken’s leadership of the UUP, following his appointment in 2019, was certainly a step in the right direction in creating a unanimous progressive Unionist front, which I respected dearly, I lacked confidence in the UUP to adopt a party-wide progressive approach. Whilst I fully appreciated the UUP’s “free-voting” approach for their MLAs on contentious social issues, as politicians should be understood as being individuals of whom hold their own beliefs, I felt like the party’s continuous lack of consensus surrounding several pressing social issues led to the party remaining very much so in the shadow of the DUP throughout his leadership endeavour.


Despite this, the value of Steve Aiken’s leadership should not go unappreciated, however, as it began to challenge the traditional norm that Unionism and socially progressive beliefs could not act in tandem, which paved the way for the more forward-thinking UUP that we see contemporarily, under Doug Beattie, of whom I became aware of some years ago and have followed his politics extensively. His viewpoints on nationality and on creating a party that openly welcomes people from all demographics was a breath of fresh air and his appointment to party leadership, in early 2021, was something that gave me considerable hope for the future as, for the first time, I could see a strand of Unionism that best represented me, which was remarkably liberating.


From the get-go, his willingness to acknowledge that the UUP may have to “shrink to grow”, as traditional supporters of the party may not have related to the unprecedented liberal Unionist sentiment and his overarching objective of creating a “Union of People” that he was attempting to achieve, caught my attention and illustrated his willingness to fill this crucial gap in Northern Irish Unionist politics. Moreover, his backing of the ban on gay conversion therapy in Northern Ireland last year, in the early stages of his leadership, was monumental and firmly illustrated that, under his direction, Northern Irish Unionism was undoubtedly shifting for the better.


Whilst the party is by no means perfect, evident following the recent surfacing of some of his historical tweets that were of a xenophobic and misogynistic nature, which has certainly jeopardised the electoral support he has worked so strenuously to gain for himself and his party to some degree, his handling of the situation, in quickly holding himself accountable whilst simultaneously pledging to do better, has only strengthened my belief that he must continue to serve as the face of progressive Unionism. Comparatively, I believe that the failure of the other Unionist parties to understand the necessity of transitioning toward social progression and, thus, to appeal to a much more extended voter base, will only serve to assist in their downfall.


Recognition of wrongdoing, accountability and forgiveness are central aspects of the Good Friday Agreement. We must acknowledge that politicians, like everyone else, have a past that should not continue to define their future, which is of utmost relevance in our post-conflict society. Doug Beattie is a prime example of how regressive attitudes can be eradicated and his work in providing a never-before-seen platform for forward-thinking Unionism should not be erased and discredited because of viewpoints he no longer represents. Whilst the thought of pledging official allegiance to one particular party is off-putting to me, never before have I felt such a strong urge to do so, as I do now, for the UUP under Doug Beattie.


I believe that political viewpoints are shifting in the younger electorate and that this upcoming election may be one of the most significant of this generation. Despite my obvious Unionist political outlook, I hope that this election enables the younger members of the electorate to feel a sense of empowerment to become politically active, regardless of what political affiliations they attach to themselves. We must allow ourselves to vote for what we believe in, rather than letting any external pressures, which may be being exerted onto us, influence our decisions.


Northern Irish politics is changing for the better, whether you choose to progress with it or not, and reconciliation and cooperation must remain at the forefront of our political actors. I can only hope that our current political crisis will encourage the masses, in the build-up to this election, to realise that urgent change from the status quo is necessary, to a more collaborative political composition.

 

Reuben Kane is a final year Law Student at QUB and aspiring commercial solicitor, with interests in Corporate Social Responsibility, Intellectual Property and Human Rights.


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