Unionist-leaning historian Henry Patterson is among many who expect pressures for united unionism to grow.
Yet Peter Robinson’s spectacular defeat has profound implications for the future of his party and for that of unionist politics as a whole.
This may not presage the return to the laager that a previous drive for unionist unity involved, when it snuffed out the flickers of power sharing 37 years ago. But it could have baleful consequences. Unionist unity might well prompt a parallel move for a united nationalism and squeeze the SDLP. That would be a tragedy just when the party has polished up its cross community credentials by refusing to play a sectarian game in the election. The risk paid off or at least did no major damage. The Ulster Unionists’ initiative of an alliance with the Conservatives was notably less successful and poorly handled but may have been ahead of its time.
In Naomi Long’s stunning victory and Sylvia Hermon’s more predictable one, Liam Clarke detects ” the rise of centrist forces.” While Liam is close to the ground and I’m very far from it, I wonder how robust they are. While traces of working class unionist progressivism can be identified (they always existed, as Patterson’s work among others recounts), history shows they were always buried in the next sectarian stand-off, real or contrived. Nor have they effectively crossed the divide since the NILP in the early sixties. The next stand-off may be over the erectile symbol of the First Ministership. It cannot be ignored but it is hard to imagine a less creative cause.
What character would united unionist adopt? The old Tory deference is long dead, but Ulster nationalism is too narrow a political ground for stability. In the election the centre held, just. But “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
Can the green shoots of working class Alliance prosper further? Politics could be nudged in a more contructive direction by exploiting the precedent of a third party candidate and a notable victory.
How about Naomi as the cross community candidate for First Minister and the end of the Assembly designations, combined?
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London