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.