Shortly after Tom Elliott became leader of the Ulster Unionist Party last September he declared that he would not attend GAA matches. I felt that this simplistic, ham-fisted declaration was short-sighted and naïve on his part and it certainly didn’t deliver extra votes last week. Attendance at the odd match and engagement with the GAA would have allowed him to demonstrate that there would be an expansive and innovative dimension to the character of his leadership; that the future he sought to foster would not be impaled by inertia, or diminished by the closed mind-set of a political hermit.
Despite the painstaking pace of vote counting last week, both the outcome of the Assembly election and the conduct of leading politicians, especially in the course of the past year, indicates that they are capable of making gestures and statements that move the political narrative forward in a manner that reflects the sentiment and disposition of the electorate.
Mr Elliott’s outburst in Omagh about the Irish flag being ‘foreign’ betrays a fundamental ignorance of the symbolism of the flag – which is to recognise the different traditions on the island of Ireland and, by implication, the Constitutional safeguards afforded to those traditions. The Irish flag is therefore not a foreign symbol in the Anglo-Irish context because it recognises the cardinal principle of personal choice with respect to the definition of the nation.
I share his agitation when any national flag is displayed disrespectfully or where protocol is disregarded. A national flag is not a piece of carnival bunting intended to propagate narrow vested interests.
However, the interests of society are also not well served when a political leader uses condescending shibboleths, such as the descriptor ‘scum’, because these simply pander to vacuous subversive vanity that is not connected to elected politics. The political mainstream should function at a higher level of sophistication and that means that Mr Elliott will need to have one footprint in the promising future, aligned with those who have something positive to contribute to society, if the Ulster Unionists are to be an integral and effective part of that process.