Every unionist action should demonstrate life’s better with the union

Since the election I have been avidly reading the debate on this site regarding the future direction of unionism, with two themes standing out, unionist unity, and providing a positive vision for unionism focusing primarily on “bread and butter issues”. Some, like the DUP and David McNarry have stressed the former, others like Basil McCrea and Liam Clarke the latter. Personally, I cannot see why Unionism cannot do both.

Divided unionism has always been a contradiction in terms, and the loss of another unionist Westminster seat demonstrates that discord, in-fighting and petty squabbling between and within parties are indulgences unionists can no longer afford. If there is to be any hope of regaining South Belfast and retaining North Belfast for unionism next time round (assuming the current First-past-the-Post system is still in place) single unionist candidates are a necessity.

There are those whoever, like Ben Lowry of the News Letter and Alex Kane, who that argue that unionist unity decreases unionist turnout and encourages nationalist unity behind Sinn Fein. The other principal objection given to a united unionism is that there are fundamental differences between the unionist parties, which cannot be bridged. I will address each of these objections in turn.

With regards to turnout I would point out that falling turnout is not a uniquely unionist problem and indeed the largest decreases in turnout on May 6th were seen in nationalist constituencies, with a drop of over 10% in both West Belfast and Mid-Ulster. Even in Fermanagh and South Tyrone the focus on the drop in unionist turnout has led people to overlook the fact that the combined nationalist vote also fell by nearly a thousand. Given this pattern I do not believe a so-called “lack of choice” for unionist voters can be blamed for Rodney Connor’s defeat in FST.

As for unionist unity acting as a catalyst to nationalist unity, I would point out that the presence of an SDLP heavy-hitter in Alban Maginness on the ballot paper in North Belfast could not stop Gerry Kelly increasing the Sinn Fein tally by nearly 4,000 votes. With the exception of South Belfast, the SDLP is slowly bleeding to death as the nationalist community increasingly coalesces behind Sinn Fein with each election that passes. This is a process that has been ongoing since the 1994 IRA ceasefire and is likely to continue for the foreseeable future and unionism is largely powerless to influence or prevent it.

The idea however that it can be slowed by unionists remaining divided amongst themselves I find frankly risible. Declan O’Loan’s call for a single nationalist party may have seen him swiftly rebuked by Margaret Ritchie but his comments simply reflect the way the political wind is blowing and probably enjoys more support among SDLP voters and members than the party leadership would like us to believe. Nationalism is already uniting, unionists simply cannot afford not to do the same.

To those who say the unionist parties are too different to come together, I would ask them precisely what these fundamental differences are. In the post St Andrews, post-Paisley era, DUP is a far cry from being, as it was once dubbed, the “political wing of the Free Presbyterian Church”. The DUP has moved firmly onto the centre ground of unionism once occupied solely by the UUP and as it has grown has become much more diverse, pragmatic and, for want of a better word, “secular” in character.

The decision to enter power-sharing with Sinn Fein in 2007 and the fact that the party could nominate an 39 year old ex-UUP mother of three as First Minister (albeit temporarily) demonstrate best just how far the DUP has come. The UUP may say with some justification that the DUP have “stolen their clothes”, however, perhaps surprisingly, they seem to fit the DUP better.

The main outstanding difference between the DUP and the UUP at the election was the latter’s alliance with the Conservative Party, which, I hardly believe needs to be pointed out, was resoundingly rejected by the unionist electorate. However, I am amazed that there still seems to be a substantial number within the UUP who are in denial that UCUNF was a vote loser.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that while Rodney Connor was an excellent candidate, the Conservative insistence that he take the Tory whip at Westminster cost him the seat, causing some unionist voters to stay at home, and driving many more moderate nationalist voters into the arms of Michelle Gildernew, preferring effectively to forego representation at Westminster rather than elect a candidate pledged to help the Tories regain power.

In North Down, a seat which would certainly be Tory anywhere else in the UK and where the Conservatives had had their best ever result in Northern Ireland, the electorate overwhelmingly endorsed Lady Sylvia Hermon and her stance against UCUNF for which she had been effectively driven out of the UUP, and spurned the Conservative candidate, who I suspect may have done better had he stood for his former party.

In South Antrim, I believe the Conservative pact, plus attacks on David Ford becoming Justice minister, stopped many Alliance supporters from lending their votes to Empey as they did in the past to Burnside, thus sealing his political doom. In South Belfast, the UCUNF refusal to countenance an agreed unionist candidate against the wishes of the local UUP constituency association, even against a de facto nationalist unity candidate, lead thousands of demoralised unionists to stay at home and the overall unionist vote to dip below the nationalist tally for the first time.

Given that the UCUNF project has led to a UUP wipe out at Westminster and left the party in disarray at a time when the DUP seemed to be in serious difficulties, it seems incredible to me that there are those in the party attempting to flog this dead horse.

Were UCUNF to be formally dissolved, I personally see no reason why the DUP and UUP could not be reconciled. Given the past unhappy experiences of pacts and alliances however, principally the UUUC and UCUNF, I do not believe half-measures would work in the long run. My personal preference would be for a full merger, a new single united unionist party, not simply a DUP takeover of the UUP.

There are many of course, mostly within the UUP, who would oppose such a proposal. However, if unionists simply continue to let old grudges, petty feuds, self-aggrandisement and bruised egos keep them apart while the Sinn Fein tide continues to rise then they will be their own worst enemies. It is not unionist unity that is artificial, but unionist division.

Certainly there would be a wide and diverse variance of opinion on matters amongst the members of such a party, but this is true of any party, and does not have to be an impediment to unity. After all what unites people such as Gregory Campbell and Lady Hermon is far more important than any differences they may have.

The DUP today is probably as diverse a party as the UUP, and it would be hard to think of two MLA’s with such divergent views on the environment than Sammy Wilson and Jim Wells, yet they happily work together, while the ill-managed UUP forced out their only MP when it would have been much easier to come to an accommodation which would have kept her in the party without having to explicitly endorse the Conservative alliance.

I believe also the message of unity and hand of reconcilation should also be reached out to those who voted for the TUV in the last election. I would point out that the DUP, UUP and TUV all shared voluntary coalition as an ultimate aim, and that only by working together can we hope to bring that about. A united unionist party with the discipline of the DUP would I believe be a stronger force than the two parties currently are separately, and, as shown in the abuse heaped upon Connor in FST by Sinn Fein, one whose creation unionism’s enemies fear.

However I do not believe in unionist unity simply for it’s own sake. The drop in turnout, and the relative success of the Alliance party, show there is a desire among the electorate, particularly the unionist community, for a positive politics making a practical difference to their lives. The DUP’s optimistic, economy-centred message was endorsed by the unionist electorate, and I believe it is one which a united unionist party could take further still. Not only could this win back disaffected unionist voters who either stayed home or voted Alliance, I believe such an approach can reach the catholic voters UCUNF tried but failed to do.

On education in particular there is an opportunity to reach out to Catholic middle class parents, grammar school supporters whose views are not being reflected by anyone in the nationalist community, certainly not Sinn Fein, but neither by the SDLP, a party founded by grammar school boys, the trade unions, or even the Catholic hierarchy.

Unionism must stand up for these people too if we are to have any chance of turning the Sinn Fein tide. Practical unionism can win back hearts and minds focusing on how to make people’s lives easier and better by such steps as supporting local businesses to start up and grow, making people feel safe in their homes and communities, and defending and improving that great British institution the NHS.

In all areas of government, whether it be traditional areas of unionist concern like security, or Jim Shannon’s famous crusade against pot holes, the aim of every unionist action should be to persuade and demonstrate to all the people of Northern Ireland that life’s better with the union.

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  • lloyd

    One of the finest pieces I have seen on this website. All in all this is how the vaste majority of Unionists feel about the future for Northern Ireland, This is an important piece that should be distributed to Newspapers and unionist headquarters throughout the country, The time is now for pro-active engagement between all shades of unionism. The Union works for all regardless of class, creed or culture. This is the message that needs to be heard and Unionist representatives need to inform all about the benefits of maintaining the Union.

  • mark

    please please, somebody at UUP HQ read and understand this article, the UUP risks being totally sidelined unless drastic action as suggested by this article is considered and acted upon. As a UUP member and avid supporter it breaks my heart to see the SF candidates win by default because of Unionist bickering,
    Please consider that as a Unionist supporter in FST it was heart warming to see Rodney, Tom and Arlene work so effectively together only to be robbed by some trickery on the later counts.

  • “All in all this is how the vaste majority of Unionists feel about the future for Northern Ireland”

    As Fair Deal remarked on a connected piece:

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

    Well, Lloyd?

    With regards the title of this post:

    “Every unionist action should demonstrate life’s better with the union”

    Quite. Why did you only devote then 5% of the post to how that fine aim might be achieved?

  • Just to pick up a point about South Belfast. I was doing tallying for the Green Party during the South Belfast count.

    I was surprised how many votes there were for Alistair MacDonald in the unionist areas. 14 out of 62 tallied ballot boxes had >2/3rd voting for UUP + DUP. Yet in those boxes, 7% voted for SDLP.

    My hypothesis – some unionists are voting for a good MP, whatever his party, rather than just following the old sectarian lines.

  • slug

    “After all what unites people such as Gregory Campbell and Lady Hermon is far more important than any differences they may have.”

    Does something unite them?

  • great thread statement couldnt agree more

  • Mick Fealty

    Just made that very point in a round table at the UEA this afternoon. It is a very underestimated tactic. But it is only a tactic.

  • If the Conservative pact stopped Alliance voters lending their votes to Empey, what on earth would a DUP pact do? How could a united Unionism increase its franchise? Retrenchment and appeal to the core vote is the instinct of parties who have just been thrashed at the polls, and it always leads to an extended stay in the wilderness (think Foot and Hague). It is only when parties reach outside their core vote that they make electoral progress (Thatcher, Blair). Go ahead and try your unionist unity, but the whole will be less than the sum of its parts.

  • Crow

    “the nationalist community increasingly coalesces behind Sinn Fein”
    No more than the unionist community increasingly coalesces behind the DUP.

  • lloyd

    yea its called maintaining the union

  • MN

    The way to increase any bloc vote (in this case ‘unionism’) is not to reduce choice but to increase it. Reducing choice means that all is being played is the sectarian card. This ultimately weakens democracy and the union and increases the numbers of garden centre voters who don’t see the appeal of the ‘unionist’ party deciding who their elected representatives are rather than the electorate.

    That is playing the short game rather than the long one.

  • MN

    … and what we are left with are job for life politicians who don’t feel the need to engage with the electorate on any policy as simply being ‘unionist’ is enough to mobilise the voters.

    Leading to politicians who serve nobody but themselves weakening the region in every policy area, disengaging from the electorate and ultimately destroying the union.

  • union mack

    a united unionist party would be a disaster, it would inevitably be dominated by the anti-catholic, anti-gay bigots in the DUP (and some from the UUP). I wouldnt vote for it in any guise. Nor would many in this new generation of post troubles, secular and outward looking people of a unionist persuasion. A liberal alternative to the DUP is needed. If the UUP can’t do that, they have no purpose. If it’s about keeping SF out, forget it. SF thrive on the oxygen of unionist paranoia about their electoral success. I’d rather have two ideologically distinct unionist parties attracting a broader range of votes than one could, if this means SF be the largest party, so it is. SF being the largest party is no threat if the unionist vote overall is much bigger, and more importantly, unionism attracts new voters. SF are no threat in reality, if those unionists who are too gutless to challenge their policies and beliefs continue to do so, they appear to be much more competent than they are. Unionism needs to look further than a basic retrenchement into one party in an attempt to hold on to a Westminster seat, its narrow, backward and ultimately self-defeating

  • anne warren

    A companion piece to this post is cited on the right under “Seen Elsewhere”
    ‘Each man kills the thing he loves’. Unionist politicians and the Union.
    Worth reading with the comments, especially the sentence “The end of sectarianism is the only strategy that will convince voters of the validity of being part of the UK”.

  • John East Belfast


    What is the unionist tactic of voting for the SDLP in SB when there are two unionist candidates and one nationalist ?

  • dodrade

    Sorry I didn’t reply earlier I only just check the site today, I’d like to say thanks to Mick for putting it on the site (and changing the title for the better), and for the positive comments, I feared I hadn’t done myself or the site justice.

    In reply to Andrew Gallagher I would say unionist unity does not have to mean retrenchment. In Canada the reunification of the Conservative Party, whilst seeing an initial drop in the centre-right vote in its first general election, nevertheless saw the Tories return to power within three years of unification and in the 2008 general election the unified party got over 350,000 more voters than the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative had managed separately between them eight years before.

    The election result, with the success of the DUP and Alliance and the rejection of the TUV, clearly shows a unionist electorate moving towards the centre. UCUNF can also be seen as an attempt at going in this direction, but was fatally undermined by the fact that the Conservatives past record on Northern Ireland left them mistrusted by most unionists and anathema to nationalists. There is no reason why a unified unionist party cannot push further to the centre and attract new support, (including catholic, non-voting and ethnic minority) that the DUP and UUP cannot reach at present.

    MN, there is little point in having two parties selling the same product with slightly different packaging, that isn’t real choice, and the one unionist party which did offer a distinctive alternative was resoundingly rejected.

    Union Mack, unionism as a whole, including the DUP is becoming more liberal. I am a DUP member (as you’ve probably guessed) and I do not accept the view that the party is full of anti-catholic bigots. George Seawright is long dead, and his views were unacceptable even then, hence his expulsion from the party. I do believe however that unionism as a whole ought to reach out the olive branch to the gay community, and can do this whilst continuing to respect those whose religious views mean they disapprove of homosexuality. If the Conservative party can do it, if a little uneasily, so can a unified unionist party.

    Oneill, I admit I was a little skimpy on the details. Ultimately all voters want much the same thing, well paid jobs, lower taxes, good schools and hospitals, a better life for their children than they had. Deliver that and you will create more unionist voters. For all its faults, I believe most nationalist voters would prefer the NHS to the Republic’s medical card and private health insurance system, and it’s something I believe unionists should highlight more. One specific detail I would add is perhaps focusing less on inward investment and more on growing local businesses. Instead of attracting the next Allstate, we should be looking to help create the next Wrightbus.

  • dodrade,

    Thanks for the reply.

    Ultimately all voters want much the same thing, well paid jobs, lower taxes, good schools and hospitals, a better life for their children than they had.
    Agree 100%.

    Deliver that and you will create more unionist voters.

    Not sure on that all. It will consolidate further the Union but that will not necessarily translate into a higher vote for the Unionist parties.

    I think we may well be moving into a post-constitutional era of politics here were those who voted DUP/UUP before merely because they seen it as the best way to protect a Union under threat no longer feel the same need to trot out every election.

    If they have moved beyond what the DUP/UUP think they want (ie a regular confirmation of NI’s Britishness and a narrow cultural/social agenda) then a United Unionist Party, which naturally will be built upon those common pillars, is going to contribute zero towards either strengthening the union or increasing the pro-Union vote.

    The disturbing thing (for the pro-Union political class) is that it may well be the Union doesn’t need them anymore.

  • MN

    dodrade – you say “the one unionist party which did offer a distinctive alternative was resoundingly rejected.” – that’s very harsh – was it the new message ? or the cack handed way it was done ?

    They seemed to be playing the Hokey Cokey – true blue tories one second, ultra unionist DUPers the next. Were they the Tories ? Or the same old UUP with a new suit ? It was hard to tell and I *wanted* the link to work.

  • yeah. Had high hopes for this piece when I seen the title. Was disappointed to read another we’ve-got-to-unify-why-because-we-can’t-afford-not-to.

    Right down to the “look at what themmun’s are doing, we’ve got to do the same” tribal bollocks.

    And again, 100k votes for a centre-right mainstream party that ended up in government get overlooked.

    The debate on unionist realignment seems to be getting narrower, if the above article is anything to go by. How many times do we need to read the same regurgitated rubbish?

    What is clear is the complete split in the UUP – seriously doubting whether there is any point to this party any longer. We need an energetic centre-right leader to drag the wannabe modernisers out of the desert (and the 2nd job would then be to hold their votes under the new banner) while the tribalists can throw their lot in with the DUP, the undisputed tribal champions.

  • and how is that done again? Standing on a flat bed in the middle of summer? Aligning yourself with the right voting bloc in the 2nd safest seat in NI?

    The thing about maintaining the union is it takes zero effort. Cecil Walker did it for years in North Belfast and likely still would be now if the rise of a 2nd unionist party didn’t happen.

  • bang on the money.

    Still doesn’t have quite the same 1800s historical circle-jerking attraction for those espousing unity.

    What happens when unity doesn’t cut it for them?

    My money’s on a reformation of the 1912 UVF

  • sticks and stones, etc

  • it really does seem to be a battle for the definition of unionism – is it a community or a political ideal?

    I know which is more inclusive. It’s a pity the author of the article doesn’t.

  • dodrade

    MN, I was referring to the TUV. The UCUNF alternative was decidedly unclear.

  • The resignation of the prospective RC candidates from the CUs over the head of DUP involvement says your analysis of the DUP is incorrect.

  • thanks to DUP lite within the UUP.

  • midulsterunionist

    UUP should have said “look… the DUP is trailing us by 10 years, everything they now say we were saying a decade ago… we are the party leading the way on issues, we are the forward thinkers and here is the future… then went onto explain the new policies,

    Instead they became nothing more than a group of old timers taking shots at the DUP for policies pretty much identical to their own and calling for a “new fesh” alliance with the conservatives (like something out of the early 20th century)

    In my opinion they should get all the young unionists together and ask them what to do…
    then get all the middle age unionists together and ask them what to do…
    then get all the senior members and ask them what to do…
    then feel all that information onto one big list and one by one do the exact opposite of what the list tells them to do… trust me they are so out of touch it might actually help the party 🙂

  • HeinzGuderian

    What we need is an Atheist Party !!

    No religion in schools.
    No religious fundamentalists trying to push a 6,000 year old earth !!!
    No ‘never on a sunday’ brigade,riding roughshod over the wishes of the vast majority !!

    Somehow,I don’t think the dup fits the bill.

    How about the Democratic Atheist Party Pure Electoral Reform……..of DAPPER for short.

    Yours,in all humility,Dan…:O)

  • if ‘themmuns’ are doing it presumably according to the above logic everyone else should be as well…

  • RJ

    Ive got a Union for ya thats the Greatest one ruled from Brussels its called the European Union.

    as from the United Kingdoms its a Waste of Time
    and Serves not purpose but to make Unionist in Stormount think they are Somebody when in Reallity they are its Called Irish even according to Newspapers about 2 Months ago didnt think the Union Would last more than anoter 27 Years our Dear Martin McGuiness is the Most Popular Politician In Ireland whereas your Dear Miserble Peter is the Most Unpopular Person in Ireland.