Envisioning the Future


Envisioning the Future Conference

Uniting UK joined with pro-Union people from across Northern Ireland to discuss Northern Ireland’s future in the Union at a conference on 19-20 October. Uniting UK’s contribution and the executive summary document can be found below.

Conference - Foreward

Remaining part of the UK is the main choice within the electorate of Northern Ireland. Support for that proposition sits within communities with more intercommunity consent for the Union than is the case among supporters of Irish reunification. There are evident- reasons why this is the case. Some value the NHS, others see benefits in trade and culture between these islands while some view Irish unification as disruptive to their lifestyle and identity. It is often wondered why the political leadership within unionism does not do more to promote the values, commitments and future of the Union. Indisputable evidence points to Northern Ireland as a place on the move. Growths in Fintech, cybercrime and the creative industries point to an economy emerging out of the ashes. Violence has rapidly declined and we all, on a daily basis, encounter more mixing and integration between communities. Too little in terms of envisioning a future that is shared and socially progressive for all is articulated within our politics. Unsurprisingly, around half who wish to remain in the UK no longer vote for unionist political parties. The lack of energy and initiative from within the political arena and its failure to promote the contribution the pro-Union community provides, through social economy, challenging educational disadvantage, the empowerment of women, anti-prejudice and much else is sorely missing. A failure of political leadership means that the pro-union community remains understood as dysfunctional, disorganised and even belligerent. A community viewed as lying like a wreck on the shore - disempowered, unimaginative and incapable is now a common and faulty stereotype.

Envisioning the Future challenged such perceptions and more importantly presented a community that is evolving, inclusive and all encompassing. With regard to hearing despair, we found hope. With regard to the claim of inactivity, we find action. The conference underlined that much of what is thought about the pro-Union community is misplaced, ill-informed and without merit. This 2 day event promoted positivity and evidenced the optimistic, confident and constructive leadership within a community that prefers deed over the perpetuation of self-pity. Fromthe thousands of women who have gone through empowerment schemes, through schools producing more pupils with much needed educational qualifications and culture as a shared resource as opposed to a point of conflict, we witnessed the whole nature of how problems are considered, responded to and ultimately resolved. This is a leadership replete with the optimistic, the inclusive and the inspiring.

It was an event that highlighted how civic and community structures have not only emerged in recent years but how they are impacting upon unemployment, restorative justice, upskilling, dispute settlement and the whole capacity to replace challenge with solution-finding. That leadership was and remains taboo breaking and should be better known throughout society.

As Helen Keller the American author summed ‘keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow’. Those in society who keep the positive hidden do so as an act of aggression based upon maintaining myths about communities to deny their goodwill, confidence and generosity. Two days in Ballymena was very much about letting the sun in to provide the heat and energy for the building of a new society.

Conference - Overview

'Envisioning the Future' conference took place on 19-20 October, in Ballymena, Co. Antrim. Facilitated by the North West Cultural Partnership. It brought together a diverse range of key-note speakers, panellists and participants from pro-union communities to discuss a positive future for all in Northern Ireland.

At a time of political uncertainty and civic instability, the conference aim was to gauge the attitudes and reflections of a wide cross- section of the Pro-union community using a series of predetermined themes and to gather ideas for a unified strategy. Themes of the conference- included:

  • Why the Union? The economic, cultural and social case for remaining part of the Union.

  • Culture as a solution? Cultural programming and its benefits to leadership and civic society.

  • Education: What next? Innovative approaches to education. How we address educational under attainment.

  • Our story in the making: How do we get a positive message across the media.

  • Solutions? Practical examples of models and programming that works. How do we spread the innovation

  • Unified Strategy: How do we build on momentum.

Each speaker was afforded the opportunity to share their thoughts, insights, experiences, and successes with regard to education, community work, political Unionism, and the role of the media. The information gathering process included interactive polls throughout the conference. Attendees were also invited to submit questions and comments for panelists during the on-stage discussion sessions. The entire conference was filmed and vox pop interviews of attendees were also recorded - all with permission from participants for possible future use.

Our vision is to promote pro-union identity, ideology, culture and heritage without fear of discrimination. We wish to see culture embraced and celebrated by all and to change any negative narrative of the pro-union community by furthering understanding and appreciation. We wish to prove the benefits of being in the union with the United Kingdom and show the progress and sustainability of NI.

The purpose of the conference was not only to network and inform, but to brainstorm potential solutions that individuals, communities and organisations could pursue to invoke positive change. Networking allowed for those from the more rural parts of NI to connect with those from cities and form important relationships that may be helpful to their respective areas and organisations.

The information that was shared by each speaker and panelist allowed those who may have had similar ideas or experiences to understand the disadvantages or benefits of good practice and positive programmes. The information shared also gave attendees who may not have had an in depth knowledge of a specific issue a more complete picture. Brainstorming was another crucial part of the conference providing each attendee an opportunity to voice their opinion on key issues and what possible solutions we can create to face these challenges.

This document represents an executive summary of the conference and synopsis of key themes and issues that emerged. More information can be requested at: newgatearts.com

Our Story in the Making

The fourth session of the conference investigated Northern Ireland’s role in shaping its own future. The speakers of this session, John Hanna and Philip Smith, from Uniting UK - an organisation that promotes common values through constructive and meaningful relations throughout the United Kingdom. John Hanna highlighted a recent poll that suggests some believe 'Unionist political parties are the biggest threat to the Union' and that the promotion of Unionism should be done at the community level. Unionist parties must also adopt a more optimistic approach and promote a positive vision of the Union. Philip Smith quoted Peter Robinson, as saying Unionism “should look for converts, not Lundies”.

One conclusion drawn from John and Philip’s presentations is that a body which actively promotes the union should be formed, and that the pro-union community should not be complacent around this. They spoke on Vision 2031, a grassroots campaign that crowdsources input from all communities in order to build on the strengths of the Union. They stressed the importance of appealing to the younger generations about the issues that matter to them, and also including all people in pro-union arguments regardless of ethnicity, sexuality, or cultural background. They also said the union should be promoted through strong fact-based arguments, because this is where arguments for Irish unification often falter.

Conference - Summary

Use the button below to download the full executive summary.

Unified Community

Unified Strategy

Professor Peter Shirlow

Professor Peter Shirlow (FaCSS) is the Director at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies. He was formerly the Deputy Director of the Institute for Conflict Transformation and Social Justice, QUB. He is the Independent Chair of the Executive Office's Employers' Guidance on Recruiting People with Conflict-Related Convictions Working Group and a board member of the mental health charity Threshold. He is a Visiting Research Professor at the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice. He sits on the editorial boards of Irish Political Studies and International Planning Studies.

Professor Shirlow has undertaken conflict transformation work in Northern Ireland and has used that knowledge in exchanges with governments, former combatants and NGOs in the former Yugoslavia, Moldova, Bahrain and Iraq, He has also presented talks to members of the US Senate and House of Representatives and is a regular media contributor.



Intuit Mailchimp logo
Facebook icon
Instagram icon
Twitter icon
Email icon

© 2020-2024 Uniting UK