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Whenever faced with a situation not to our liking there is a normal reaction. It is to look for an answer – the quicker the better. Yet, sometimes the better response is to be sure we are asking ourselves the right question.

“Never ask a question that you don’t want the answer to’ is always a good maxim. Yet, being willing to ask questions of ourselves is an act of confidence, not of weakness.

The NI Assembly elections were both a shock and a wakeup call for unionism. Following the results of last weekend what question might it be helpful for political unionism, of whatever hue, to ask itself? 

Perhaps a starting point is to reflect on this – How is political unionism experienced by those who are outside of its own community?’ 
We experience each other through a mixture of actions, words and unspoken signals. It is in everything from one-to-one dealings to what is seen and heard in public, and everything in between. So, what do the neighbours see, hear and feel?

No-one is being asked to do a Groucho Marx, “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others”. We all have deep convictions as well as things we do not like. To ask ourselves ‘How are we experienced by others’ is not to deny any of this.

‘But I know who I am and what I believe. My neighbour should know me well enough by now. If they don’t that’s not my fault!’ 
Good communication is defined as communication that is clearly and successfully delivered, received and understood. In other words, it is not just about how well I think I have said something to my neighbour – it is also about what it is that they hear, see and, most importantly,experience?

‘But our beliefs and who we are are being caricatured by others’ may be another response. 
It is the very nature of politics to paint ourselves in the most positive light and our opponents in an equally negative one. That we are living in a society emerging from and bearing the wounds of 40 years of violent conflict gives ours an added edge and emotional charge. This actually makes the question under consideration even more important.

But politics is all about spin these days. Why should I care about what comes across to my neighbour anyway?’ 
The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines spin “as a pejorative term … to refer to the sophisticated selling of a specific message that is heavily biased in favour of one’s own position and that employs maximum management of the media with the intention of maintaining or exerting control over the situation, often implying deception or manipulation”. 
Whether we are all knee deep in spin does not negate the question, ‘what does my neighbour hear, see and experience when I communicate with them?’ It makes it more relevant!

Neighbours do not always agree, like or even trust each other. There is often a history between neighbours, some of it pleasant and other bits of it quite the opposite. Wherever we happen to be in the range between liking or disliking our neighbours we still live with them. Neither does it take away the question, ‘How is our politics experienced by those who do not share our persuasion?’

The vast majority of unionists in Northern Ireland are ordinary people who simply want to get on with life. They wish to do so within a political context. The same is also true of the nationalist community. The disagreement is in the shape of that political context. The question of sovereignty at the root of the conflict has been clearly resolved by the Good Friday Agreement, in that Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom.

Within the unionist community there is more of a willingness for sharing of power, political accommodation and living peaceably with their neighbours than is given credit for.

Most simply want what everyone else wants – to have a good life – and that their neighbours have it as well. But is that what the neighbours are seeing, hearing and experiencing politically?

To see this as no more than a superficial process of tweaking the PR would be to miss the point. Nor is to suggest that it is the only political community in Northern Ireland that needs to ask itself questions.

So, why does any of this matter for unionism? 

It matters because last weekend happened!

Earl Storey

Journey in Self Belief Project   

Maynooth University