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.