I am sorry to say that the answer for most unicorns is that they don’t vote or, if they do, its with a heavy heart.
Unicorns don’t ‘do’ tribal very well. Wrapping ourselves in tricolours or union flags and engaging in sectarian slagging is anathema. The result is that many thoughtful unicorns, whether they be in business or professions, do not vote and do not engage politically. To me that is an understandable, but futile position.
This unicorn came of voting age just in time for the Anglo-Irish Agreement to unleash into a maelstrom of rage and violence. And like many good unicorns I trotted behind my Dad to the polling booth and voted SDLP, because that’s what nice middle-class catholics are supposed to do. Because I was a bit of a sad individual even then, I took it as my civic duty to read and immerse myself in politics reading the Newsletter, Irish News and listening avidly to Talkback. I soon realised that it was making me despair of this place. By the 1986 General Election I was arguing with Dad and told him that “I refuse to take part in a sectarian headcount” – looking back now I do understand why I said it. But it was dumb.
We are complex folk in Northern Ireland, much more nuanced and mannered in our ways that it can appear at first but there are some truisms. And one of those is that in the absence of politics the violence flares and once it does its very hard to put it out. So I started to vote again, but this time as a political anorak I was heavily influenced by developments in Great Britain, where this concept of tactical voting was much discussed in relation SDP/Liberal Alliance. As I didn’t feel part of one tribe in Northern Ireland, why should I be limited to voting for one party?
That is still my position. I lend my vote to parties at elections and if they abuse it, they lose it. Mike Nesbitt take note.
So in the 90’s I flitted across SDLP, Alliance and Workers party, but the elections to the 1996 forum was a watershed – I lost the last vestiges of my nationalist virginity and added UUP to my vote. Why? Because for me it was a vote for peace and, if strengthening David Trimble made that more likely, then I was happy to do so. In fact, I was proud to do so. My wife also found herself voting SDLP for the first time for the same reason (I wonder does that make her a Phoenix?).
In the intervening years I have become ever more convinced of the need to use my vote in the way that will give the best outcome at all elections. I don’t just vote on party lines – policy and personality also matter. Policies matter because frankly many of our parties haven’t historically had much beyond”Do you consider yourself British or Irish?” To be fair they are mostly getting better – slowly. We now see policies on education, economy, environment, water charges etc. Those too often tend to be populist and aimed at ‘the core vote’ rather than carefully researched and argued positions of principle. Our politics are still very immature.
Personalities also matter – come across as untrustworthy or a hatemonger and Hell will freeze over before you get my vote. In fact I will tactically vote to stop you and so will other unicorns and phoenixes.
How does this unicorn vote?
I am a social liberal, secularist, unionist and Northern Irish catholic (lapsed) in a mixed marriage and committed contributing to a better future for my children – which in my case means growing a vibrant private sector and a genuine shared future for all regardless of class, religion or race.
Alliance is a natural home and one I do feel comfortable with up to a point, but sometimes it is too woolly and socially sometimes disappointing. The recent vote in the Assembly on gay marriage, for example, could be taken as indicative of a broad church or a lack of courage. I am afraid it looked like the latter. At the moment it is the best vote for me IF the local constituency patterns justify it. However the attacks on the party and its courageous response does strengthen my affections and respect for the party and its members.
SDLP, oh dear, the party of Hume, Devlin, Fitt and Mallon is a shadow of itself. While it had a chance to become a post-Nationalist power , its laziness on the ground in working class districts and fear of the rise of Sinn Fein has taken it back down a darker green route than I care for. I suspect it has plenty of unicorns holding their noses and voting for it. I still will vote if it stops me having Jimmy Spratt as my MP, as will my wife (yes, phoenixes vote SDLP if provoked by the unspeakable). But these days SDLP is never my 1st preference and increasingly 3rd, 4th or even 5th.
What about the Ulster Unionists? I like and respect John McCallister and Basil McCrea, but Mike Nesbitt, Tom Elliott and Michael Copeland are clear that they do not want ‘my sort’ about the place and, to be fair, the feeling is mutual. That is a pity because a party of small business with more roots and social conscience than the NI Conservatives might have had a chance with me. Although my father-in-law is a life long Ulster Unionist activist and he feels that I may be being generous to the current leadership.
Sinn Fein fascinate this unicorn in the way that watching a tiger in the zoo does. Interesting, but I would not want to get any closer. I do not forgive or forget what was done notionally in my name as a Northern Irish catholic. It sickens me to my core. Even if time was to heal or detoxify, I have a fundamental problem with a party that is still ‘The Movement’. The degree of central control and the ill-considered dogma that is spouted as fundamentalist truisms is depressing and damaging for Northern Ireland. There are bright committed people in Sinn Fein and many who I am sure vote for them with clear conscience. I cannot see me ever doing so.
Which brings me to the riddle that is the DUP. If you had asked me even five years ago I could not conceive of even considering voting DUP. But two things could change that. Their policy documents are better than those of most of their opponents and, crucially, Peter Robinson’s claim to want to reach out to the likes of me did strike a chord. Afterall even unicorns like a hug.
But do I belive that the party can move? yes I do think that they could.
Do I think that they will? No sadly not, I cannot conceive of Nigel Dodds, Gregory, Edwin et al moving as it would mean eventually rinsing off that dark orange hue and moving away from a fundamentalist approach that rages against the modern world. It would mean them accepting the values I hold dear – tolerance, secularism, rationalism, equality (of race, religion and sexual orientation); values which I believe are essential if Northern Ireland is ever to be properly at peace with itself and find its place in the United Kingdom.
I want to help create a modern secular peaceful Northern Ireland which is secure in a United kingdom that values it as a truly modern, moderate constituent nation. I do not believe what, too often, passes for Unionism can ever deliver that, but together we could make something special.
(I have found expressing myself a cathartic experience, I hope I haven’t bored you, but in the next blogs I want to explore identity and flags)
post script: I have read Stephen Agnew’s blog this evening with interest and then followed with reading the record of this morning’s debate. So for completeness I thought it was a good honest speech from the Green Party’s leader and one with which I would largely concur – certainly in terms of identity, symbols and the right to peaceful protest.
As for TUV and UKIP, well I really don’t think they would like me and my politics, so I won’t waste your time or mine or either.
Please feel free to comment.