Hearts and Minds: “Largest single bloc in the pro-Union community is non-voting”

To lose one Unionist leader may be described as a misfortune. To lose two, begins to look like carelessness. But when all three of them are knocked out of the ring, you really do have to ask yourself if the electorate is trying to make a point!

For Jim Allister it was always going to be a winner takes it all battle. Jim’s problem, however, is that his style of campaigning made the town crier of Pompeii sound optimistic. A political vision based on Private Fraser’s mantra that ‘we’re doomed, we’re all doomed,’ is hardly likely to attract much support—even from the zimmer frame end of unionism, which remembers Lord Carson when he was still in short trousers.

It’s hard to believe that there is much of a role left for him in politics: indeed, the passengers boarding the Marie Celeste had a brighter future ahead of them than members of the TUV do now.

Again it was hard not to feel sorry for Sir Reg, the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance. He has dreamed the impossible dream for so long in his pursuit of a lasting pact with another party—any party, as it happens—that he must have believed that a parachute jump into South Antrim would work. Instead, rather than tilting at the windmills, he crash landed on them, taking the entire UCUNF project with him.

He has already announced that he is stepping down, albeit in a process which will take longer than a Cliff Richard retirement tour. There are a number of would-be leaders waiting in the wings—not one of whom has a mission of sorting out the mess, a mess that most of them have contributed to in one way or another.

The problem for the UUP is that it still regards itself as the ‘big tent’ party: but it’s a tent so big that it accommodates an unlimited number of clowns, side-shows, divas, programmes and ringmasters. You may as well try and round-up jelly as bring order to the UUP.

Meanwhile, the electorate of East Belfast did to Peter Robinson what his DUP officers didn’t have the courage to do—take him down a peg. Robinson has now reached the life support stage of his political career, with hardly a week going by without the need for a vote of confidence or a huggy-wuggy photo-opportunity from his colleagues.

He is damaged goods. He knows it. They know it. Every pat on the back from his MLA team is merely them deciding the best spot for the dagger. And he really must resist any unexpected invitations this summer for a trip on the Orient Express or a cruise on the Nile.

As ever, when things look particularly messy in the unionist ranks, the talk turns to unity and an uber Unionist entity which will sweep all before it. But let’s be honest, anything that puts Basil McCrea, David McNarry, Jeffrey Donaldson, Arlene Foster, Owen Paterson and the Grand Master of the Orange Order in the same vehicle, will turn into one of those bizarre events hosted by the World Wrestling Federation: in which a lot of spangled, aging weirdoes bitch-slap each other for the delight of an audience which can’t tell the difference between blood and tomato ketchup.

The problem with unionism is the lack of vision, long-term strategy and inspirational leadership: That— and the fact that it is fuelled by paranoia and an almost congenital disposition to see republican bogeymen and unionist moderates around every corner.

The largest single bloc in the pro-Union community is the non-voting bloc. And it is growing at each election. Maybe these people don’t have the same dread of a united Ireland; or don’t believe it will come anytime soon; or just don’t trust the present unionist machines to represent their interests. But whatever their reasons for not voting, someone needs to find out and then find a way of engaging them and encouraging them towards a polling station.

The Union isn’t dependent upon demographics alone. It needs vision and leadership: but where is the person who can provide it?

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  • Realistic Idealist

    …Sinn Féin

  • Greenflag

    ‘The largest single bloc in the pro-Union community is the non-voting bloc. ‘

    Could the same not be said for the pro UI community ?
    Could the same not be said for the entire NI electorate ?
    or the UK or ROI electorates ? Almost 50% of USA citizens did’nt vote in their Presidential election .

    The problem facing ‘unionism ‘ in NI is all that Alex Kane states above and more .

    ‘Unionism’ is boxed into a political cul de sac of it’s own making and so too is SF . The very nature and demographic of the NI polity condemns both constitutional opposites into opposing corners . At the same time a rude new accommodation is being slowly accepted .It’s an accommodation of postponed dreams , cloudy visions and reliance on the Westminster Exchequer to keep the peace .

    I suspect that a very large bloc within ‘unionism’ in NI know it has no long term future and that in itself is a self fulfilling prophecy . In itself this doesn’t matter as the GFA has secured NI’s place in the UK until such time as a majority within NI vote to depart the UK and that is unlikely anytime soon ‘

    Maybe Alex should let sleeping dogs lie ? The important issue is that the current political peace holds and there is no return to non politics as the preferred means of ‘communication’ across the constitutional divide .

  • Greenflag

    What are SF’s economic policies and how would SF resolve the current economic bind that faces both the Republic and NI ?

    There is a reason that SF gets 8% of the vote in ROI . That reason has a lot to do with the lack of credibility of their ‘economic ‘ alternatives . People can’t eat a UI

  • Neil

    I agree it’s something that needs work. However people’s unflinching confidence in FF/FG might be a little shaken now that the Irish economy is fairly well in the shit heap, in fact I fail to see how things could be much worse.

  • John East Belfast

    “…in fact I fail to see how things could be much worse”.

    Caitriana Ruanne as Irish Finance Minsiter perhaps ?

  • Neil


  • Greenflag

    ‘I fail to see how things could be much worse.’

    They could be a whole lot worse not just in Ireland but worldwide and as both ROI and NI are dependent on the worldwide economy it’s in our immediate interest not to rock any more boats .

    People’s confidence everywhere in the western world is shaken .All the USA needs now is a North Korean invasion of the South to send the Dow Jones down to 1,000 after which worldwide economic armageddon beckons.

    Simultaneous wars in Iraq , Afghanistan and Korea while 75% of the worlds oil reserves are now held by countries who are not enamoured of US foreign policy and in many cases very much opposed to said policy .

    Yes on second thoughts it could’nt be much worse for the world never mind Ireland .

  • I think if you don’t vote, you can’t be counted as pro-anything other than abstaining from voting. The main question (for both unionism and nationalism) is their capacity to energise voters. Automatically counting any non-voters as being pro-Union carries a double risk in demonstrably saying that they have moved away from the platform on which you stand (the same applies, obviously to nationalists) or are not sufficiently motivated to come and vote against the alternative. The real growth demographic in NI may well be ‘Other’. Are we going to end up with an Office of First, Deputy and Other Deputy Minister?

  • You mistake a political cul de sac for a political end goal – the fact that the union is going to endure leaves the question – what need is there for explicit unionism?

  • the ‘economic binds’ facing NI and the Republic are very different beasts.

  • Amid all the inbred commotion over unionist musical chairs (or ‘unity’ as the buzzword goes), Kane comes up with a cutting analysis of where we really are.

    Leadership and electoral apathy are the two key failings of unionism from a non-partisan perspective. We need to see a will to tackle this, but it’s a chicken and egg scenario as I feel we need new ideas and political groundwork to be carried out before these long term issues are resolved.

  • joeCanuck

    Pretty good analysis, Alex. One quibble only; the tent actually blew away while reg was having his meeting with the OO and others.

  • Bulmer

    So what is going to get the vote out?

    Clearly kick the pope bands and bunting won’t cut the mustard. As to the nonsense idea that people are unhappy with the GF agreement and want it destroyed, surely that red herring has to be buried as well.

    What they would like are politicians who engage with the current realities. So they mainly voted for the two parties who made the GFA work and ignored the wreckers.

    If they won’t vote for the extremists does that not indicate that its the centre/left who aren’t voting, the people who put Blair into power in England and provide a substantial part of the Lib Dem vote but who are totally ignored in Ulster.

    But then we now have two independents who do represent this perspective. Maybe more of them might encourage out more voters if they thought they could make a difference.

    What won’t entice them is more fear mongering. We’ve had 40 years of that and the border is still there.

  • PaddyReilly

    Why do people not vote? Talking to party workers I have received the following answers:-

    1) It would be illegal to do so. Placed on Electoral Register in advance of 18th Birthday, the election falls before this. A 14 year old managed to vote in Lancashire: this indicates that there are 14 year olds already on the register. Foreigners get put on register, without inquiring as to their Nationality status, which is of course subject to change.
    2) It would be contrary to God’s law to do so. The Reformed Presbyterians, Jehovah’s Witnesses and some of the Brethren do not vote.
    3) Moved away. In a city, or even suburbs, this is the largest class of no-shows.
    4) Dead: or comatose.
    5) Abroad, but did not register for postal vote in time.
    6) Second Homes. Students can vote at their place of study, or at home, but not both.
    7) A plague on both your houses.

    The type I have not come across which Alex Kane apparently believes in is, I’m a pro-Union Ulster Protestant Unionist (true blue) just waiting to be enticed out by whatever gimmick Alex Kane comes up with. Unionist flooding has been tried in, for example, Mid Ulster, where it was hoped this would keep Martin McGuinness out, but this did not work: it was countered, successfully, by Nationalist flooding. FST was the most recent case of this forlorn hope, which did not succeed.

  • Neil

    To be fair, I’m speaking specifically about whether SF, much derided for their lack of economic knowledge by, um, FF & FG and their supporters primarily, would have made matters worse?

    Given that the folks who made Gerry look like a eedjit with regard to economics (I’ve only ever heard about this TV debate, I didn’t actually see it), were pretty much in charge of the wholesale destruction of the Irish economy, I don’t see how SF’s economic understanding or lack thereof would have made matters worse in Ireland.

    It’s certainly a hard sell to say that the current government have made a fantastic job of things, and given that FF & FG are the only people who’ve had a chance, and given they’ve royally fucked it up, then maybe some of the people they’ve been deriding as being economically dumb might actually do a better job.

    I am responding to the idea that SF get 8% of the vote because of their poor economics, then FF who secured more than 40% of the votes must be economic masters of the universe. But that logic’s obviously flawed. They have 40% of the vote and they’ve totally fuicked the economy up. Maybe the folks on 7% know more than you think.

    Certainly I don’t think SF being in government south of the border would have an impact on the Korean situation.

  • pinni

    `these people don’t have the same dread of a united Ireland; or don’t believe it will come anytime soon`

    Exactly. We have moved into an era of `normal` politics in NI and that doesn`t inflame the same tribal passions. It is clear testament to the success of the current political agreement between the `warring` factions.

    The concept of a UI has been put on the long finger with most people willing to acknowledge that a UI is an acceptable yet unattainable goal in the short and medium term, and probably into the long term as well – say 2116, for easy counting.

    1 million Protestants (-TUV supporters) may have been mollified, but they haven’t gone away, you know!

  • The unassailable fact is unionist politicians have presided over a drop in unionist voters in the thousands since the signing of the GFA.

    This is pointedly telling the politicians a new direction is required post-GFA that hasn’t been coming – Ulster is still in danger and we’ve got to unite to defend …zzzzzzzz.

    The pro-union (ie non-separatist) voting bloc Kane identifies requires new political ideas not a recycling of ones born in the 1800s.

  • It’s certainly a hard sell to say that the current government have made a fantastic job of things, and given that FF & FG are the only people who’ve had a chance, and given they’ve royally fucked it up, then maybe some of the people they’ve been deriding as being economically dumb might actually do a better job.

    I try to leave my party politics at the door, but I’ll have to take issue with this one. Given that FG were out of power for the entire boom, your equal spread of the blame speaks more of your own party prejudices than an honest analysis.

  • Greenflag

    I was’nt suggesting that the present government have made a fantastic job of things but up until 2007 when the Wall St crap finally hit the fan the ROI Government was ‘internationally ‘ praised and held up as an economic example to follow .

    There is more to SF’s low support level of 8% than economics . There is the fact of the longer term loyalty of voters to the three main parties who together receive some 85% plus of the vote thus making it difficult for not just SF but for any smaller party to break through the political ceiling .
    ‘Maybe the folks on 7% know more than you think.’

    Then they need to open up and let would be voters hear it whatever it is . Just shouting for a UI won’t cut the mustard anymore not that it ever did in ROI except perhaps in a few border counties at times .

  • Alias

    There is a lot of good one-liners in Kane’s piece.

    There is an obvious way of reengaging unionists with the voting franchise (at least with Stormont): change the method of altering the constitutional status of NI back to the method outlined in the Ireland Act 1949, i.e. that it would be altered by parliament rather than by plebiscite.

    One of the reasons it was changed in the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 from parliament (which had been disbanded) to plebiscite was to ensure that any election to any subsequent parliament did not become a constitutional poll, thereby obscuring internal issues and potential making it more difficult for the two tribes to cooperate on the internal issues that the restored parliament should address.

    The other reason was to ensure that if demographics or other factors (such as unionist disenfranchisement) led to the catholics becoming the majority in any restored parliament then they would not be able to use their majority position to change the constitutional status of NI.

    At any rate, given that Stormont held the power to change the constitutional status of NI, it was a core dynamic of unionists that they should remain in control of it. That no longer applies, so, other factors notwithstanding, it is predictable and perhaps inevitable that they would become less focused on the internal parliament than they were before the method of altering the constitutional status was itself altered.

  • I know this is pedantic … but … on the (admittedly, soon to be outdated) 2001 census figures ‘1 million Protestants’ should actually read ‘770,000 Protestants’.
    Forget the electoral numebrs, the big number to watch next year is actually the ‘no religion/religion not stated’ percentage in the census.

  • WindsorRocker

    Alex has been banging on about the non-voting unionists for over a decade.

    The non voters only vote if they need to.

    Apart from the save Dave years and the 1998 referendum they haven’t needed to vote and therefore haven’t bothered.

    The principle advantage of unionist unity would be to create a single block that campaigns on the manfiestations of the union rather than the union per se.
    With unionism relatively united on a pro(whatever)-agreement line there is no incentive bar a constitutional border poll for the “non voters” to vote so best to create a bigger more powerful unionist block to leverage the likes of d’hondt, the FM issue and maybe get out some of the non voters who wouldn’t be garden centre prods.

  • Slither

    Nevertheless the unionist share of the vote in the 1998 assembly election was 47.5%. In the last election it was 50.4%.

    To compensate for voting system a comparison of the Westminster election in 1997 to 2010 is 49.3% unionist to 50.4% unionist.

    Per labour force surveys in that period the total 16+ population has become 2% more Catholic and 2% less Protestant.

    Since the GFA was signed the electorate has become 2% more Catholic and unionist parties have got a 2% greater share of the vote. Considering what has happened to seats this sounds bizarre but it’s actually true. Since the GFA unionism has neutralised the sectarian demographic adjustment and added a bit on top.

    At first this looked like random noise that could be explained away but with the 2010 election this is almost looking like some kind of trend. The last Labour Force Survey says that the 16+ population is 48% Catholic. For about the last 7 years the nationalist vote has been stagnant at 42%. That 6% gap, where Alliance pull in 4-6% of the total vote, is actually starting to look weird.

    I don’t really have an explanation, but I think that it’s time someone pointed this out and actually tried to explain it.

  • Slither

    A plebiscite is simply superior in terms of democratic principle. The total nationalist vote may bear more relation to the support for a united Ireland than the SNP vote does in Scotland, but I don’t think it’s right to assume that if a vote SDLP then I would vote for a united Ireland (and to a lesser extent vice versa). Also Alliance, Green etc. voters should have their say directly and not presumed.

    Apart from that a plebiscite, directly on the issue, has far more legitimacy on an issue of change of sovereignty. Even such a thing as leaving / entering the EU.

  • Brian Walker

    The big theme Alex Kane left out is any discussion of what parties do in government. It’s as if the Assembly never existed. Amazing when you think about it. A look outwards towards delivering something, anything, might prompt new ideas and divert from the present state of political onanism.

    Wasn’t this what was intended in setting up the system, that as threats eased, the sharp edge of sectarian politics would slowly be blunted, even though nobody is really willing yet to give political voice to the common interest?

  • PaddyReilly

    “One million Protestants” as a slogan obviously hasn’t gone away, but as an obstacle it never existed in the first place.

    I was looking at the Ulster “Solemn League and Covenant” recently, researching a fairly rare surname, and it was obvious from the predominant occurrences of any particular Christian name in units of two and four that more than half the signatories had signed twice. Thus instead of the 471,444 signatories we may posit a more conservative 300,000, which, coincidentally, is about the number of Unionist voters in the recent election.

    The 2007 election votes for the two jurisdictions must be considered:-

    Fianna Fáil 859,300
    Fine Gael 563,900
    Sinn Féin 323,083
    Labour 208,600
    DUP 207,721
    SDLP 105,162
    UUP 103,145
    Green 101,736
    Prog Dem 56,396
    Alliance 36,139

    The Sinn Fein vote, mostly in Ulster and Louth, outnumbers all the Unionists.

    Given that opinion polls find that 54% of Unionist respondents could live in a United Ireland if they had to, we are only left with about 140,000 problematic individuals, and I suspect that most of them would concede when they see the odds against them. The prison service of a United Ireland would be quite adequate to cope with any group who take the law into their own hands.

    As every election sees a Unionist loss, and none a Unionist gain, then the dark eleventh hour is obviously approaching. This is the first time Unionists have failed to gain the majority of Westminster seats. Presumably in the next election North Belfast will succumb, either to SF electioneering or the new Alternative Voting system, and Unionists will be a distinct minority: there may even be a new another Alliance seat.

    In Stormont the current Unionist/Loyalist majority of one will disappear at the next election, with gains by Alliance and Nationalists. By the time of the election after that, Unionist will no longer be the largest designation. When that happens I think you will discover a new bolshiness among the Nationalist population, with no-one now prepared to accede to the delaying of unification.

  • meanwhile, back in the real world, the separatists vote was 40 or so %, up .2% from the previous election.

    Better have a wee look over the pseudo science again

  • The Raven

    “The non voters only vote if they need to.”

    Yeah. I’m a unionist who doesn’t vote. This time I did, however. I voted for the UCUNF candidate in East Londonderry, for one reason and one reason only: to unseat the absentee landlord MP who I haven’t seen for the last four years, and who’s email responses to queries I have, remain conspicuously absent from my inbox.

    I almost vote for the Sinn Fein candidate. Why? Because I know the guy would have done a good job. Why *didn’t* I? Because I genuinely and mistakenly believed that he was a third place runner.

    So all this might make the more deeper-browed amongst you wonder how I could ever call myself a unionist. Well I’m a light green unionist, who frankly doesn’t really mind if the majority will decides that we remove the border. I think there are a lot more out there than you might think.

    And we may vote very tactically on occasion for what we perceive to be “a better option” – whether it be for Margaret in South Down, or Lesley or Cathal in East Londonderry.

    But then again, because we don’t feel particularly “threatened” by a loss of union, we probably just don’t vote at all.

  • Steve

    st etienne, I think you are the one deluding yourself.. Roll on the next elections!!

  • DC

    There is no realistic way to a united ireland over the medium term.

    The costs of it must send shivvers down the Irish gov’s spine – esp after the financiall crash.

  • PaddyReilly

    Westminster Election Results

    Year/Unionist seats/Total seats
    1983 15/17
    1987 14/17
    1992 13/17
    1996 13/18
    2001 11/18
    2005 10/18
    2010 9 /18

    Looks like a consistent downward trend to me. The percentage of votes is not strictly relevant, because people are voting to produce a particular effect (loss or gain of seats) and not a particular percentage.

  • WindsorRocker

    Not being threatened by the loss of the union is different from not feeling that it is under threat.

    If you frankly don’t care then about the border then why even describe yourself as a unionist?