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Unionists must seize this opportunity to transform Northern Ireland for all

The Democratic Unionist Party collapsed power sharing in early 2022 (Alamy)

4 min read

The current debate within unionism, both in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom, is fundamental to the whole future of the union.

It’s between the consensus builders, those who believe in a union based on consent, and those who want to change the rules so they don’t have to persuade anyone.

The greatest strength of the union is the solid majority of people in Northern Ireland who support staying in the United Kingdom. We should cherish, nurture and seek to expand this support at every opportunity.

With the Windsor Framework, unionism has the chance to move forward, bank the wins and set the agenda

For those of us who believe passionately in the union, the solution is straightforward.

For as long as we have a plan to maintain that support then the union is secure for generations to come. That means a broad appeal. A union of people, to borrow a phrase. One that recognises the diversity of all those who support, or could be persuaded to support, the union.

It means continuing to secure the support of people who do not necessarily identify themselves as unionist, who do not vote for unionist political parties, or even vote at all.

We have to grasp that in Northern Ireland a growing number of voters identify as neither unionist or nationalist. But these voters will certainly have views on the constitutional status of this place should the question be forced upon them.

There is a question of how we maintain broad appeal for the union in that context.

In truth, the answers are not really that complex: stay forward looking, focus on the future prosperity of Northern Ireland, and prioritise the most important issues for people. Cost of living, the health service and the economy.

If your political concern is divergence with Great Britain, then put childcare support for young parents here at the top of your list of issues to fix, not bottom. If your focus is equal citizenship, then make it your top priority to ask why people in Northern Ireland have to wait longer than anywhere else in the UK for hospital operations.

Be inclusive and tolerant on social issues, recognising that at some stage younger generations are going to sweep away those who want to rewind the clock on progress in society.

And of course be pragmatic –not absolutist – on Brexit solutions.

Former Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith speaking at the Ulster Unionist Party gala dinner on Saturday, 1 April, 2023

Most people here understand instinctively that how trade in goods in Northern Ireland is managed requires some flexibility and unique solutions post Brexit.

Brexit constitutional betrayal campaigns were fought by some in 2019 and again last year. Did those campaigns and their central messages strengthen unionism?

With the Windsor Framework, unionism has the chance to move forward, bank the wins and set the agenda. 

We need a long-term strategic approach from all unionist parties, rather than trying to compete in the social media frenzy now or the tactics of the next few months.

We now have a new window and we have to use it.

A window to look to reform and transform the NHS in Northern Ireland.

To boost investment, business and therefore social mobility and family incomes.

To maximise the unique opportunities of Northern Irish trade to better the lives of everyone who lives there and rocket boost the foundations and strength of the region. These opportunities are unique in the UK and have the ability to transform the life chances of the next generation.

This is the moment to have confidence in the protections the Good Friday Agreement brings and the support for the union in Northern Ireland and to focus on the real prize.

That moment is now, not in months hence. That window is now, not next year. This time for the sake of all communities and people in Northern Ireland, we have to seize it.

 

Julian Smith, Conservative MP for Skipton and Ripon and former Northern Ireland secretary. This is an extract from his recent speech to the Ulster Unionist Party gala dinner.

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