No need for unionist unity but unionist civility might help

Unionist unity is for unionist politicians a bit like belief in God is for American politicians: one has to claim to subscribe to it no matter what one really thinks. When asked many if not most ordinary unionists suggest that it would be a good idea. It has also in the past served unionism very well: the fairly united response to Home Rule was almost certainly a major help in the early twentieth century. More recently the united response to the Anglo Irish Agreement may not have defeated it but it did make unionist anger very clear and may have helped prevent further concessions from the Thatcher government.

Years ago when the UUP was the dominant unionist party some talked about unionist unity and there was an assumption that the likes of Peter Robinson might, after Paisley left the scene, be persuadable to become important members (though probably not leaders) of the UUP. Over the last few years when Peter Robinson talked about unionist unity there was often the suspicion that what he meant was the DUP swallowing up the UUP. Now of course we are in a state of flux with the main unionist party, the DUP, assailed from two sides with the TUV and UUP offering their own distinct visions of the unionist way forward each quite different both to the others and the DUP’s.

The question then is would unionist unity gain anything and would it have significant detriments?

Clearly unity would have certain significant advantages: the pool of talent from which each party draws its leaders, representatives, policy makers (and even spin doctors) would be enlarged. At times each of the parties has probably privately bemoaned its relatively limited talent pool and has wished that it could pinch some talented members from one of the other parties. That is of course not a problem by any means unique to unionism and even in UK wide major parties there have been occasions when they have wanted to bring in outside talent (or take it from their opponents).

A second advantage from unity would of course be financial. Money is often overlooked in politics or it is left to an unfortunate treasurer to try to sort out the money. None of the unionist parties is vastly wealthy and certainly they have much less money than the likes of Sinn Fein. A united unionist party would of course have access to greater funds than any one party alone. This would clearly be useful in production of all the different things required: buildings and offices cost money, the hiring of venues can be expensive, production of pamphlets and manifestos is costly. In addition having staff and paying people to work on constituency issues and even on policy is very expensive and clearly one could save money from fewer parties.

Finally there is the argument that unionist voters are turned off from voting by having too much choice. This is a recurrent suggestion from the less politically motivated and although it may sound like an anathema to the highly motivated, it may make more sense than people tend to think. As an example the government tried very hard to introduce choice into the NHS with choices for operations etc. However, very frequently it was found that what patients actually wanted was not choice but high quality care from their local hospital. The average patient did not want to pour through success, complication and infection rates for four or more hospitals: they expected their local one to be good enough. Equally one might argue that for the less politically committed unionist voter a straight forward option of a single good quality unionist party with convincing representatives might increase the chances of the garden centre vote turning out.

All the above arguments may have significant merit. I would submit, however, that unionist unity if by that we mean a single unionist party would be detrimental to unionism. The central problem is of course that unionism is not like say: an operation. It is not a case that one needs a single sort of unionism; it is much more like retail, the different unionist parties offer their options to the public and they can chose the one they want.
Unionists who cast their votes for each of the three parties (or do not bother to vote) are also likely to have very differing hopes and wishes for their party of choice. Some will regard their party as the paragon of all political virtue, others that they are the best option in the circumstances. In addition some voters will view the parties they do not vote for in a relatively favourable whilst others will regard them as a shower of bigots / lundies / idiots or whatever.

With such diverse aspirations it is unreasonable to expect the unionist parties to coalesce under one banner and it might be, that far from increasing the vote, a single united unionist party would actually decrease the total unionist percentage.

Of course multiple unionist parties presents problems at elections, particularly first past the post elections such as Westminster where they ensure FST remains firmly in SF’s hands despite a large unionist minority and may very well keep South Belfast with the SDLP despite a unionist majority. A significant degree of vote shredding could also result in the loss of Upper Bann and even possibly East Londonderry. This is a problem which should not be underestimated and the unionist electorate may be extremely annoyed by major self inflicted losses. Although each of the parties has its own distinctive position and major disagreements with those of its opponents; some cognisance needs to be taken of the danger of foisting upon the electorate their non representation by republicans. Overall, however, this danger is unlikely in Upper Bann, even more so in East Londonderry; in South Belfast would result in representation by a perfectly reasonable member of the SDLP and in FST would result in the nationalist / republican majority electing their own candidate. As such although it might cause some irritation a lack of pacts would not be the end of the world.

A greater problem could even exist in the next assembly and council elections. Although they are proportional representation, there is the danger of non transfer of votes; clearly one cannot force an elector to vote for someone number 2 or 3 but the climate of bitterness and invective between the parties does not help make them transfer attractive. A supporter of each of the parties could legitimately point to major failings in each of the other parties and indeed in their public representatives. However, the level of personal invective should undoubtedly be lowered and the tendency to accuse one’s opponents of utter bad faith, of having achieved absolutely nothing and indeed of such nonsense as being a closet republican needs to be stopped. Clearly the art of political spinning is not going to go away you know (and as a practitioner of that art I am hardly going to stop) but acceptance of some good faith from one’s unionist opponents might be appropriate.

There are many reasons, both theoretical and practical, why unionist unity is not an option or even desirable at this time. However, as I mentioned previously there are good reasons for a confident unionism and indeed there are reasons to see a degree of consensus on the appropriate direction of travel for unionism. We should continue to argue and debate about the way forward but to constantly accuse one another of dishonesty or bad faith is not especially useful nor popular with the unionist electorate.

  • elvis parker

    Incredible an entire article about unionism and the electorate without considering how Unionism might reach out beyond the ‘normal’ Ulster Protestant vote

  • Brian Walker

    Turgon, I’m all for unionist civility but what a delicate plant it is, as you should know!

  • Turgon

    That is coming tomorrow. I am trying to space the posts at the moment,

    I do not think you self define as a unionist and I expect little from you. However, if you tried not telling lies about me you might find my civility towards you increases. You will see I can be perfectly civil to many people on this site. In your case, however, your lying aboout me and assorted claims which you have made about me which you know to be false (seeing as you know exactly who I am) have somewhat reduced my time for you.

  • Laughing (Tory) Unionist

    And the best bit, Turgs, is that you’re paying Walker’s pension. A puddle of self-satisfaction when on he was on the telly, if anything, even worse when silver surfing. Still, he singlehandedly makes the case for closing all state media this afternoon.

  • loki

    As always, interesting and worth reading. However, I don’t think your line re: enlarging the pool of talent holds. The DUP only promote family members and the UUP only select middle-aged men. Not sure about the TUV yet, but I have a horrible suspicion they’re not exactly trawling the deep end of the gene pool. There are one or two notable exceptions. Thus, unionist unity diesn’t exactly leave me delirious with joy in terms of widening the talent pool. Those with genuine talent are also often viewed with jealousy and suspicion, especially if they tend to fight their corner in any sort of articulate manner.
    It’s also worth remembering that the other parties have this problem too. there’s no real succession planning in NI politics.
    I also see the DUP is so keen on harmony that they’ve selected Ms Foster for FST. Perhaps she can explain to her ex-UUP collleagues why they should vote for a triple-jobbing Minister who really won’t be at Westminster that much ‘cos really the DUP is all about Ulster Nationalism, not UK unionism.
    “Is it greed that drove Wolfe Tone to a pauper’s grave?” Begins to look like it from where I sit.
    Or am I just deeply cynical?

  • Laughing (Tory) Unionist

    Why do people need to pretend they believe that the DUP are ‘about Ulster nationalism’, when they don’t actually think that about them? Unless they do (think thus of the Paisleyite sewers), in which case a few questions arise for those who subscribe to this crypto-conspiracy theory:

    * why do you think that the DUP won’t *admit* to being ‘Ulster nationalists’, but instead run round ever more dementedly stressing their Unionism?

    * Conversely, if you think it’s a sinister cover-up that only a handful of you have had the smarts to see through (this hidden, yet discernible Ulster nationalism masquerading as unionism), presumably because the dull Unionist folk of Ulster wouldn’t vote for it otherwise, why then do you think that a plurality of unionists are so much stupider than you that they haven’t been able to show your, well, penetration?

    I’m always hugely interested in the mindset of those who think life is more complicated that it seems to be and would welcome any answers elaborating the, to me, already over-complicated theory Loki holds to.

  • Thereyouarenow

    Ulster Unionism needs as much diversity as possible.
    For all its huffing and puffing it is a very Homogenous product.

  • loki

    Have you listened to DUP statements? Never anything about res tof UK. No bigger picture and precious little interest in or participation at Westminster, except to pick up hteir salaries. BTW Wallace Thopmpson doesn’t mind pope being inflicted on English Prods, just the ones here.
    So yeah, I reckon they’re Ulster nationalists and not true unionists

  • Laughing (Tory) Unionist

    So a.) you know better than they do what they are; b.) they’re lying to everyone else/lying to themselves; & c.) a majority of unionist voters are stupid enough to fall for this? You’re a modest cove Loki, and I feel lucky to be alive in the same and typing in the same threads as your good self.

    PS 1st policy on the DUPe’s website: guff about national politics (, 1st thing on the UUP’s website? Introspective, intra-unionist bile: Indeed, were one to rely upon the UUP’s website for your understanding of NI politics, you could quite forget there were nationalists. But then I suppose that is a Grand Old UUP Tradition.

  • smcgiff

    Interesting Article, however Unionism is safe from unity.

    While Unionism will rally around when something as seminal as Unity is at stake – which is not likely any time soon – its members will, like all politicians, be self serving at other times. Hence, multi parties even within sectarian divides.

  • John East Belfast


    There are now different types of unionists and hence that will require more than one type of unionist party.

    I think in the first half of the last century one Party was possible – although even then not desirable.
    We had big house & Middle Class unionism happy to be in the same party as the Protestant working class who were expected to know their place and the whole thing was held together with the glue of the Orange Order and the Protestant religion.

    However it splintered in the 1960s with the demise of both the significance of religion and the Orange Order as well as the rise of the civil rights movement and then clear divisions arising within unionism on how Northern Ireland should work. Paisley exploited the religious side and also what he saw as weaknesses within emerging moderate unionism helping to put the latter in its box. He managed to do the same again (from a power point of view) in recent years.

    However the world (and Northern Ireland) has changed – and divisions among unionists about the importance of Protestantism v Secular as well as along social lines (leaving the Protestant working class feeling left out) as well as the relevance of the Orange Order are now all apparent.
    I dont think you can nor is it desirable to try and pull all those strands back together.

    I have no time for Paisleyism and have a totally different instinct on how the Union can be protected and advanced compared to the DUP and TUV.

    Methinks the only time you will so such unity again will be during the times of crisis that has fostered it in the past.

    While that is not the case we will all be paddling our own canoes and offering as wide a choice as possible to the very varied unionist electorate

  • Driftwood

    The DUP is basically formed around a religious fundamentalist caucus, not surprising given its founder, and always behaved suspiciously of UK governments over the years.
    The UU have always been more secular and pragmatic in approach, and less offensive to our friends on the mainland hence the Tory link up.

    I personally think the DUP are an embarrassment to Northern Ireland. Paisley was a shit-stirrer supreme and a party that is anti-evolution, homophobic and hostile to any liberal agenda (sunday opening etc) would be treated with contempt anywhere else in the UK.

    So, Loki, spot on.

  • why do you think that the DUP won’t *admit* to being ‘Ulster nationalists’, but instead run round ever more dementedly stressing their Unionism?

    The DUP doesn’t admit it espouses Ulster nationalism, because it doesn’t recognise what it espouses carries many of the characteristics of Ulster nationalism. No-one’s accusing the party of anything as sophisticated as joined up political philosophy, just an Ulster ‘Volk’ preoccupation coupled with blithe disinterest in the rest of Kingdom.

    Conversely, if you think it’s a sinister cover-up that only a handful of you have had the smarts to see through (this hidden, yet discernible Ulster nationalism masquerading as unionism), presumably because the dull Unionist folk of Ulster wouldn’t vote for it otherwise, why then do you think that a plurality of unionists are so much stupider than you that they haven’t been able to show your, well, penetration?

    Sad to say a majority actually shares the DUP’s little Ulster mentality Darth. And no, I’m not speaking for the UUP. It isn’t bereft of little Ulstermen itself.

    The truth is that unionism which is actually interested in participating in modern Britishness remains a minority pursuit in Northern Ireland.

  • Laughing (Tory) Unionist

    So by your absurd test of uniformity, because most unionists don’t pass your test of what makes them British, they’re not British. Way to go to Tolstoy. Or once again, thank **** self-loving*, anti-unionists like you don’t get anywhere near the big boy decisions.

    * I’m assumign here that Pushkin here passes his own test.

    Seriously though, as they say in Belfawst, for unrflective, uncomprehending arrogance and political incapacity, I’ve read a ‘unionist’ quite as stupid as Chekov’s since the greand ole days when Alex Benjamin used to troll round here making election predictions.

  • Greenflag

    elvis parker ,

    ‘Incredible an entire article about unionism and the electorate without considering how Unionism might reach out beyond the ‘normal’ Ulster Protestant votey elec’

    What’s so incredible about that ? Read any election results since 1880 or thereabouts ?

    Loki ,

    ‘Not sure about the TUV yet, but I have a horrible suspicion they’re not exactly trawling the deep end of the gene pool.’

    Just as well .There are creatures in the deep end who should never be brought to the surface . Hideous enough as it is 🙁

  • greand ole days when Alex Benjamin used to troll round here

    Irony that you would accuse anyone else of trolling.

    Anyhow if I were you I’d give your reading glasses a wipe because I’m certainly not disqualifying anyone from being British.

    That said, I’d expect that those who purport to hold as a raison d’etre the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom, might show the least interest in issues as they effect the whole UK, as opposed to just Northern Ireland, or a disinclination to use ‘Brits’ as a pejorative term for national government, but there you go.

    As an anti-unionist I clearly haven’t got my priorities straight. Fear not, the bowler hat’s ordered and I’ve sought out a wonderful Mission Hall which really has its 17th century Calvinism down pat.

  • Loki

    LTU See? it’s not just me thinks the DUP are Ulster nationalists. BTW, think you’re being a bit hard on Chek, I find him ususally sensible and erudite. (how’s that for a great word?) I take it you have no wish to raise the level of debate in NI to a higher level or would you just prefer us all to stop thinking and swallow the DUP’s illiterate and untrithful crap?
    Maybe if we had a sensible deabate about unionism we might start being rahter more civilised towards each other. Turgon has a point there

  • Brit

    A question directed mainly at the Unionsts on here but is there any signficant figure in NI political life who is a left-liberal, secular, non-sectarian, progressive Unionist? Someone who an atheist Labour party member de facto Unionst like me could identify with?

  • Greenflag

    Loki ,

    ‘Maybe if we had a sensible debate about unionism we might start being rather more civilised towards each other. ‘

    Can you have a sensible debate about ‘unionism ‘ ? NI unionism is by virtue of it’s geographical location and it’s local history a different species from ‘British ‘ i.e English unionism or indeed Scots or Welsh varieties .

    As an anti unionist I look forward to ‘unionism ‘ developing into a 50 piece political jigsaw with a piece for every newly hatched hare brain that emerges from the primordial soup of sectarian righteousness and certain salvation 🙁

    Irish nationalism and republicanism is the model to follow . After the establishment of everye first item on the agenda is the split 🙁

    No wonder the Vikings , Normans , English etc were able to bate the crap out of us .

    I suspect this phenomenon of myriad ‘divisions’ within Unionism is just another marker along the long road to ‘assimilation’ in the Irish as opposed to the British polity 🙁 ?

    Abandon hope all ye etc

  • John East Belfast


    Chris McGimpsey.

    One thing though for certain – you wont find such beasts outside the Ulster Unionist Party (even with a Tory link up messing up the left of centre bit)

  • loki

    i’m sorry, could you please tell me exactly what Irish republicanism/ nationalism has achieved that is positive for NI? I’m a republican in that I’m not a big fan of monarchy but I do think we’re much better off as part of one of the largest economies in the world. I’m Irish as much as I’m British and given Viking enthusiasm for rape and pillage, there’s a fair chance of some Scandinavian genes in there.
    United Ireland- possible in a parallel universe, but not this one

  • Driftwood

    Sylvia Hermon? though I don’t know if she is a Dawkins fan. If not she certainly doesn’t trumpet religion. I think the Conservative and Unionist Party is the only major party in Northern Ireland where religious background (or none)is simply not an issue.

  • Greenflag

    Loki ,

    ‘could you please tell me exactly what Irish republicanism/ nationalism has achieved that is positive for NI?’

    Political stability and until recently a growing economy in the Republic which as per Davy Stockbrokers should recover to 4% growth in 2011. I stated that Irish Republicanism and Nationalism was the model for Unionism to follow in reference to it’s political party structures i.e dividing into left /right and centre groupings . I had thought at one time that it would take a repartitioned Northern Ireland for that political development to ensue but I was mistaken . The DUP seem to be emerging as the FF of unionism with the UUP as FG and the TUV if they ever get a toehold post election as the now extinct Clann na Poblachta .

    ‘but I do think we’re much better off as part of one of the largest economies in the world.’

    So do I 🙂 However my large economy includes 28 countries with a 500 million population . Yours does to but you seem to be of an insular bent.

    I would’nt worry about or take to much comfort from your genes . They won’t save your asset value when the pound takes a hammering as we approach the next Westminster election . And no Cameron will be just as powerless as Brown in the face of the ‘money men . The UK needs to be in the Euro to give it’s people longer term financial stability and some protection in a world where 4 trillion dollars is traded in international currency transactions EVERY day .

  • borderline


    I think the Conservative and Unionist Party is the only major party in Northern Ireland where religious background (or none)is simply not an issue.

    Care to repeat that at an Alliance meeting?

  • Driftwood


    I did say MAJOR party, ruling out fringe groups like Eirigi, Alliance, Greens etc

  • borderline

    Point taken Driftwood.

  • sunny south east

    it seems unionist unity is fractured and will only unite when there is a definite threat of a united ireland earlier bloggers have accused the dup of being ulster nationialsts. I wonder is it taking cues unwittingly from the snp plaid cymru etc., the only outspoken british national parties are the ukip and the bnp. The labour goverment rebranded the UK to stop its decline on the world stage it has failed. The tories are an england first party england dealing with fringe groups such as the english democratsand english independence party who member seem to be english tories. The ukip and regretably the bnp have had success in labour and tories seats. The bnp got nearly a million votes in the local elections a lot in local areas. If these end up being the strongest defenders of the increasingly disunited kingdom. The unionists can forget arguing about unity or which party is more unionist maybe start asking what state is the union is in and where is it going you cannot be loyal to a poltical entity that may not exist. This is not a rant about to rejoin the south as the south is getting more at ease with the present arrangment paying for the money pit called stormount is the biggest barrier to a ui also sinn fein for every vote they gain in the south they piss of two votes. My question to unionists is where do your interests lie if they are increasingly not being shares or repudiated by the politic of as you say the mainland?