So Tom Elliot isn’t going to stand again for election.
A countryman at heart it seems the work and worry of the politics of reconstructing an effective Unionist Party wasn’t where he could move to happily. Who would argue that Unionism doesn’t need some reconstruction? But there may be those who would argue that it’s a waste of time. A waste of time, that is, for what used to be mainstream, middle of the road, decent Unionism has now become sidelined Unionism with too many gripes and not enough inspirational power or policy. The popular ground has been well populated by the DUP who have put themselves together as a working party with direction, political skill, character and ability.
So why do we need another Unionist Party? Or, for that matter, why do we need the SDLP as well as Sinn Fein? Why were we not warned that the middle ground would flip with the extremes to become an irrelevant kind of ‘slippage off stage’ while the extreme would flip into the centre where all the action, including the engagement, would take place.
I would argue that at this point in history we should not yet be ready to give up the ground to two large parties. I am not content that a growing strength in the Alliance Party is enough, together with other smaller parties. I am not quite ready to give up the other parties because I don’t believe we have managed to accept what it is to live with diversity in a way which respects difference and takes it seriously. Every now and again there slips out under the door of tight-lipped tolerance not only an inability to accept that there might be some validity in another view of the world but also an absolutism which refuses to even listen to that other view of the world.
Accepting that there are diverse views of the world and accepting that there can be room for listening without having to be converted to the opinion of the other is a place we need to reach if we are to move towards a future which is defined more by how society is reconciling than by how it is divided. We have to be able to listen to each other, maybe even to articulate the views of others as well, learning that seeing the world from another place isn’t all a bad thing. This should have no fear for anyone for what it enables each one to do is to see themselves better, to see how they are seen and how they are heard, increasing the effectiveness of what they present because they now know how they are seen and heard from the outside. It only makes sense. Diverity matters and the acceptance of the validity of diversity matters. But that is not the same thing as saying that difference doesn’t matter. Of course it matters and of course there are differences that will be intolerable and political views of the world that need to be challenged. But diversity does matter. If we can’t see diversity and listen to the differences then what hope is there on gender, race, disability or any other issues where there are vast and natural differences as well as those created by society.
All of this is to say that for the time being Unionism has something to offer within the package of diversity that we are still learning how to get our heads around in Northern Ireland. Mr Elliot’s stepping down provides the opportunity for the party to elect someone different, with different skills than the leaders of the past precisely because Unionism needs different skills at this point in its history. It can’t move entirely away from controversy because other parties will not accept all that Unionism claims. But it does need a big personality and certainly some big ideas. It also needs some big vision to pick itself up and out of the little ideas and into something worth proposing, worth risking, worth spreading and arguing for across society. I really hope that Unionism manages to pull it out of the hat. There are some big gaps in the market for creative and sensible thinking – Unionism gets it chance in just three weeks time!