Debate within Unionism: Thorough, Intense and Constructive

Regardless of the quality of the individual contributions about the idea of a United Unionism, it has been more a spasm than a proper debate and it is a proper debate that is needed.

Opponents of the idea have been keen to portray a United Unionism as some sort of monster.  This is premature considering there had not been anything approaching serious discussion let alone any formal proposals or agreement.  They will argue that they are warning of the possible dangers in such a process.  However, the dirty rush and negativity seems more to kill the debate at birth.

Others have advocated Unity under a model they personally prefer.  However, this approach will hamper the discussion as well.  Any examination needs to be as open to a breadth of ideas not bog-downed in an individual model.  So what is the basis of the United Unionist debate?  What form should the debate take?

The Westminster Mathematics

Any debate must be based on honesty and the Assembly projections for both the DUP and UUP based on the Westminster results are reasonable.  The DUP are well-placed to retain largest party status and the UUP should maintain their present size with scope for modest growth.  Therefore, there is no short-term electoral necessity for it.  However, this is not an argument not for trying rather it is an argument for it.

In any negotiation you need a Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA).  This gives each negotiator something to assess any proposed deal against.  A negotiation is healthiest when the respective parties have a good BATNA and both the DUP and UUP do.  Although, the longer-term strategic benefits of Unionist Unity should prove better than their BATNAs.

Furthermore, a Unionist Unity borne out of short-term necessity could be quite possibly the worst form.  It would be a shot-gun marriage most likely destined for a bitter and early divorce.

Known Brands

Beyond the BATNAs there needs to be recognition of the strength of a known brands.  The fact the DUP was able to come through the testing times it did in a strong position is a demonstration of the endurance of brand loyalty.  Similarly, despite the multiple somersaults and Janus like approach of the UUP in recent years, tens of thousands still go out and vote for them regardless.

Brand development, innovation and amalgamation are perfectly possible.  Also neither the DUP nor UUP brand is perfect but any new United Unionist brand has to be clear on how it can be at least as strong as the existing ones and preferably even stronger.

Moving Forward and Reaching Out

The discussion must also examine the two long-term strategic challenges for Unionism – the fall in turn-out and the need to expand beyond its traditional community.  It will need to be clear that the fall in turn-out is in working class areas and turning it round will involve serious and sustained work on the ground.  Anyone who tries to peddle the myth of a problem with garden centre prods should be taken to such a centre and introduced to a large shovel until they recognise the evidence of box turnout and voter registration shows a working class problem.  The core reason the UUP has been unsuccessful in tapping this vote for the past decade or more is because it isn’t there.

The assumption of critics is that the consolidation of unity would take the form of circling the wagons.  However, it could equally be a consolidation to create the space and organisational capacity for growth beyond Unionism’s traditional community.  Such work must be on a realistic basis.  Minority ethnic groups need to be considered as much as the Roman Catholic community.  Growth will be limited and slow.  The work needs to be through direct engagement with such voters, not using civic society groups as ciphers.

It will also give the opportunity to examine the role of identity politics and whether it is possible to provide credible and compatible messages to different audiences.  To suddenly pretend that there isn’t a relationship simply isn’t credible but neither should it be the sole basis of Unionism.

The Value of the Debate

The debate is worth having as Unionism does not do enough internal debate about itself.  The debate is worth having at tackling some of the mutual myths about the parties that develop as false barriers.  It gives an opportunity to get Unionism beyond than the ‘who did what when and why’ during the peace process.  The debate is worth having because regardless of overall success, it should create better and more productive working relationships.  The debate would facilitate people to move beyond a guttural reaction to the idea towards something more considered.

The Debate

The debate needs to be structured so that it includes the party officers and representatives, memberships and general public.  This is to ensure that any progress is built upon a meeting of minds at all levels.  The debate needs to examine the benefits of Unionist Unity, its risks (and potential means to manage them), the different levels of intensity it could take and the organisational options.  This should involve the production of public consultation papers, debates and town hall meetings.

The debate also needs to be time-bound.  The party conferences in October and November seem to provide a natural and obvious end date.  This would enable any new entity the lead-in time it would need before the Assembly election or if it fails sufficient time for their parties to make the necessary preparations for the Assembly.

It would be helpful if a local newspaper would be interested in facilitating such a debate – although that would have some problems.  The News Letter’s reach is not as wide is as needed and the Belfast Telegraph is sceptical of the idea.  Although possibly its scepticism could prove healthy and if it proved ultimately persuaded by the debate a worthwhile boon to any developments.

A properly managed debate would reduce the risk that of any failure leading to renewed bitterness and finger-pointing.


The difficulties in such a process should not be under-estimated with many seeking to undermine it throughout and many a bear trap of personality clashes to avoid.  However, a thorough, intense and constructive debate threatens no section of Unionism and would be good for Unionism overall.

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  • Drumlin Rock

    Fair Deal, think these are some of the most realistic comments I have read on “Unionist Unity” to date, and generally illustrate how it is not necessary or even feasible. Whilst closer co-operation and less confrontation are certainly in order and required by the electorate (the squabbling was a major factor in low unionist turnouts I believe), to put all our eggs in one basket is too big a risk when things go wrong, and there is a risk that you will lose too many voters on either fringe.
    To give an illustration, the case of F&ST illustrates how a centre candidate loses a small number of voters from each fringe, and cost unionism the seat.

  • On the subject of the Telelaugh proving scetical to any debate, when did they change their editorial stance from moderate unionist?

    INM has a lot of questions to answer. It cannot afford to ignore them – since tweaking their colder stance to unionism in the self-appointed ‘national newspaper of NI’ they have seen a steadily declining circulation.

  • On the subject of the Telelaugh proving sceptical to any debate, when did they change their editorial stance from moderate unionist?

    INM has a lot of questions to answer. It cannot afford to ignore them – since tweaking their colder stance to unionism in the self-appointed ‘national newspaper of NI’ they have seen a steadily declining circulation.

  • UUP Future

    This is a cogent and well-argued piece by Fair Deal.

    However for UUP Supporters it’s worth bearing in mind that the DUP have far more to gain from this kind of debate over “Unionist Unity” than the UUP does:

    i) “Unionist Unity” as a concept appeals to almost all DUP voters, whereas it has far less appeal to a v substantial chunk of UUP voters, especially moderate ones.

    ii) The DUP has nothing to lose from having this kind of debate – either it fails in which case they can turn to their own voters (and the right wing segment of UUP voters) and say “well, we tried our best”. (and probably they can de facto absorb the right/’Orange’ wing of the UUP even if official talks fail).

    iii) Or, if the talks succeed, then for the DUP it’s happy days and they’ll be by far the larger partner in any new ‘unionist unity’ entity. For the UUP it’ll be far from happy days, as a lot of their grassroots are closer to the centre ground (the ‘moderate’ wing) or to the Tories (the ‘blue’ wing)

    iv) So it makes a lot of sense for the DUP to come out with a kind of BOCO (“Big Open Comprehensive Offer”) on ‘unionist unity’ – but it could be strategically fatal for the UUP to go along with it.

  • alan56

    Can anyone explain how unionist unity maximizes the pro union vote, when in reality if you look at SB or FST that is simply not true?

  • Drumlin Rock

    there is a myth that one unionist party would get more assembly & executive seats and secure the first ministers post, even in the best case outcome this will not actually happen. Most voters dont want the parties to merge, they just want them to grow up and be a bit more civilised to each other.

  • I think it’s more radical an issue then just being more civilised to eachother.

    There is probably more enmity right now between the ‘unionist unity’ knuckledraggers and the CUs within the UUP then there is generally between the UUP and DUP.

    At least with the DUP you know what you’re getting. The ‘unity’ errandboys in the UUP need to define what is their use in a party that is not the DUP. If they cannot articulate it effectively, and indeed ignore it whilst going on to bleat about unity, then shouldn’t they just leave?

    The DUP are the tribal champions, McNarry and cohorts have no issues with any of their policies, what they are worried about is the erosion of their own safe little fiefdoms. That is the central tenet behind UUP ‘unity’ efforts.

  • *enimity…

  • or not as the case may be

  • “The ‘unity’ errandboys in the UUP need to define what is their use in a party that is not the DUP. If they cannot articulate it effectively, and indeed ignore it whilst going on to bleat about unity, then shouldn’t they just leave?”

    They’d probably reply:
    “If ours is the majority voice in the party then why should it be them leaving?”

    Regarding the first point, if “Unity” is the way the UUP as a whole wish to go, then ultimately I don’t see the point in the party remaining as an independent entity.

  • dundonald voter

    alan this is the truth. and the problem is even after seeing this for themselves they cant see it or worse dont get it. it wont work it dosnt work.

  • fair_deal

    Perhaps rather than debating what Unionist voters do or do not believe in we could actually do some research on it

  • alan56

    FD. Good point. Unionist opinion is usually surveyed in the run up to an electoral contest. Hackles are up and its all about winning. What is needed is deep research into what pro-union people actually want from their political reps and what are their policy priorities. We all have our notions about this but we don’t really know. Could be that unionist leaders have a vested interest in second guessing as opposed to really finding out.

  • Drumlin Rock

    I have to say my first real election involved in a party has been an education, voters are a very diverse bunch you are never going to please them all, so do you concentrate on keeping your core vote happy or try to drag in the fringe?

  • Drumlin Rock

    St E, I’m persuming your in the “CU camp”, and I’m not entirely sure who all the “knuckledraggers” are, apart from McNarry, but attitudes like that certaily increase the emnity, the party remained united behind the deal with the conservatives despite many misgivings, it dosnt have to be an either/or situation, but better relationships should be looked at with any party who broadly share our principles.

  • alan56

    Traditionally the answer is to keep core vote happy. But the core vote has fragmented somewhat so that becomes a more difficult call to make. First priority for unionist parties has been to ‘secure’ the union. Fair enough. Beyond that what are the socio-economic policies and indeed the type of society that unionists want. Right/left/secular/traditional or modern?

  • UUP Future

    Fair point FD about the research – esp. when you look at the kind of in-depth research which the mainland parties conduct after their defeats.

    I really think though that Unionist voters are so very diverse in their political characteristics that even the broadest kind of ‘united Unionist’ party couldn’t possibly bring enough people on board, and would end up reducing the overall Unionist vote and narrowing Unionism’s appeal.

    Even within the UUP there are a huge number of diverging elements: an Orange wing that’s closest to the DUP, a Blue wing that’s closest to the Tories, a Moderate wing that’s closest to the centre-ground, a Social Democrat wing that’s closest to Labour, plus many others who fit under ‘none of the above’.

    And that’s just within the UUP! If you then try and add in the DUP with all it’s (far better managed!) internal elements (not least a Free P wing that seems to have influence massively exceeding the numbers of Free Ps in NI) and with it’s huge working class base (who have no love lost for the Tories even before the spending cuts)…

    Also isn’t it a good thing that Unionists are so diverse – reflecting the great number of views out there in the wider British nation. This diversity is part of what it is to be part of the UK, part of what it is to be British. This was what the Tory/UCUNF cheerleaders missed – they said “lets be integrated in UK politics so you’ve got to vote Tory” while overlooking the many, many Unionist voters who felt the best way to express their integration into UK politics was to passionately oppose the Tories and their spending cuts.

    I most certainly think Unionists of all shades need to engage in a more open, civilized and respectful fashion. I just don’t think unionist unity is feasible, even if I thought it was desirable. It narrows Unionism’s appeal – actually runs against the long-term interest of Unionism.

    Political competition is a very good thing provided debate is conducted in an (albeit robust) atmosphere of mutual respect. It keeps both parties on their toes, always trying to out-do each other. A ‘united unionist’ party would mean that for most unionist MPs and MLAs there was no competition and even with the best will in the world this would inevitably mean complacency.

    Unionism needs to build the broadest possible support to ensure NI’s future in the Union – that means some on traditional ground who can shore up the traditional base, and some on more progressive ground who reach out and try to broaden that base, bring in non-voters and pro-Union Catholics.

  • Bulmer

    The UUP and TUV have both failed. So what’s the point in the DUP wasting their time in unity talks? What’s the point? Look at all the previous Unionist parties. Once they lose momentum, they usually quickly implode and end up with one councillor in Antrim and he gives up. The DUP will achieve unity by default next year. It doesn’t need to give a bunch of electoral losers a free ride. It’s like the Tories suddenly deciding to do a deal with UKIP and the BNP. And as pointless.

    And is the UUP seriously going to be able to field any credible candidates again? It’s got the mark of Cain on it from its recent behaviour. Will not more of its (younger ) members who want a political career not join the DUP?

    Also what is the main agenda item of Unionist Unity? Getting rid of the GFA? Indeed I suspect that the debate will be another sterile debate about restoring Stormont instead of coming up with ideas and plans to pull the Ulster economy out of its dependency on Westminster and build a truly cohesive society. Of course it’s easy to wax at length about the faults of the GFA . Bit harder to present a party that has a positive attractive message that would give the ordinary voter hope. The trouble is there are generations of supposed politicians who can’t see beyond the siege mentality politics of old.

    It’s interesting that the SDLP, as sterile and dead as the UUP is getting in a twist over unity. Only two parties have ultimately made GFA work and have reaped the rewards. UUP has done nothing to deserve any more chances.

  • Slither

    In a proportionate sense, unionist turnout has been increasing for the past 5 years. By which I mean that unionist turnout has dropped somewhat, but nationalist turnout has dropped even more. One could argue, thought I’m not entirely convinced myself, that this was a product of unionist disunity. Or to put a positive spin word on it unionist pluralism. A unionist could vote knowing that who he is voting for more precisely represented his actual views. UUP – integrationist and tory, DUP – ambivalent and flexible on national politics but accepting the guts of the GFA after actual decommisioning and not fudge like Trimble, TUV – majority rule (albeit with unionists not likely in the majority in the near future) with normal coalition building and hence the possibility of rejecting ex-terrorists in government.

    Can we even be sure that unionist turnout has really dropped in the past 5 years? For example turnout on 2010 compared to 2005 was up in a few extremely unionist places and down in most constituencies, but by far down in the most nationalist constituencies.

    I think I’d prefer the largest party = first minister and FPTP for Westminster seats rules both be abolished and having a whole plethora of unionist parties. If unionism is to take some Catholic, or immigrant, votes that seems to me to be the most efficacious way of going about it.

  • UUP future

    “Political competition is a very good thing provided debate is conducted in an (albeit robust) atmosphere of mutual respect.”

    Please take this comment in the spirit it is intended – but is there not a core problem with the present arrangements that the UUP simply have proven themselves incapable since 2003 of raise their game to provide a reasonable standard of competition?

  • Driftwood

    The DUP are a party that believe the Earth was formed 6,000 years ago and that Noahs Ark was able to pick up polar bears and kangaroos in a couple of days. Add virulent anti-catholicism and its history of incitement to violence.

    Does anyone seriously believe educated people are going to vote for them? Rather stay at home and read a good book (no, not THAT one) thank you.

  • slug

    That does not invalidate the benefits of competition.

  • slug

    For example, the DUP were obviously kept in check over links to developers extravagant double jobbing – and expsnes scandals – by the presence of competition from other parties. Alliance, TUV and UUP in the last election. With one unionist party, effectively the DUP would be able to get away with such behaviour more easily.

  • cynic47

    For unionist unity read tribal headcounting. There was a time when the unionist electorate were prepared to be part of a head counting exercise and they did so without question. Times have changed and the unionist family is a much more sophisticated animal all together. It simply doesn’t cut the cheese anymore to wave the union flag and expect a crowd to fall in behind you. Unionist has adopted a healthy broadness of thought as opposed to the leeming like way the nationlist electorate seem prepared to fall in behind the flag no matter who is waving it. Unionist thinking stretches from the extreme TUV mind set at one end and the liberal wing at the other side of the spectrum with many avenues in between. It is a little pathetic to watch the Orange Order trying to create one ship for all these groups to sail in. All this concentration of minds about Unionist unity has come about because the DUP thought that they would be clever and change the wording at St Andrew’s of how the First Minister would be elected. This was a totally selfish ploy by the DUP that backfired on them as their ability to solidify the unionist electorate has evaporated with their dirty linen getting a good public airing. If there is a Sinn Fein First Minister after next year’s Assembly election I hope that the DUP will put their hands up and take the responsibilty for orchestrating the circumstances to allow it to have happened.

  • slug

    I agree.

    I must say I wouldn’t touch DUP with a barge pole – they are just not appealing to me at all! I would leave unionism faced with them as the only option.

  • slug

    The benefits are based on the theory of competition but as far as I can see the UUP hasn’t transformed the theory into practice.

    You are ignoring the credit the media is due on those issues rather than other parties. In Unionist terms, it was the TUV that successfully capitalised on those not the UUP.

    Again you are falling into the trap of predefining what a united unionism means.

  • Re-engaged

    For what?

  • alan56

    Right enough, why the change in rule from community designation to leader of largest party for FM. If SF gain the FM then people will want explanations

  • slug

    For non-unionist parties.

  • slug


    The UUP were attacked again and again by the DUP suggesting that the DUP regarded them as worthy of attack.

    The media are important but in a tiny country they can be soft and ineffective on many issues that may be of importance.

    The DUP in government will no doubt find themselves taking decisions that merit opposition. Having two parties makes that possible. Having unionist unity leaves the path clear for corruption and lasiness.

  • Drumlin Rock

    Ideally two parties should cover most viewpoints, but there will always be the scope for “others” ie. pockets of PUP and the likes or a few “independantly minded individuals” it is debatable if a TUV type party is always needed though to pick up the more extreme views. As i have said before the expenses scandals are still having an effect here, and account for a large lice of the fall in the vote, the lack of strong or popular leaders in either main party has also had an effect. There is less than a year to go, but playing the game well could actually result in regaining some ground lost to nationalists.

  • cynic47

    Notice that none of the DUP bloggers are rushing to deny responsibilty for changing the regulations around the election of First Minister. Their silence speaks volumes.