Ulsters Last Stand?: Can Unionism Move Beyond Insurance Policy Politics?

How has Ulster unionism arrived at where it is today – fractured and uncertain, yet dominated electorally by the DUP, a party that tells us it offers unionists sure footing in uncertain times? In his latest book, Ulster’s Last Stand? Reconstructing Unionism after the Peace Process (Irish Academic Press, 2010), Prof. James McAuley from the University of Huddersfield tackles that question.

McAuley claims that the hegemony of the DUP depends in large part on the party’s ability to talk about events associated with the peace process in terms that appeal to unionist sensibilities, values, and fears. The DUP does this so well and so convincingly that it seems to offer unionists the best ‘insurance policy’ for maintaining the current constitutional arrangement (page 193).

Although it lacks a sustained analysis of the role of religion within unionism, the book is a competent academic survey of much of the recent literature on unionist politics. While this should be of interest to students of Northern Irish politics, it could also serve as a useful introduction for a general audience comprised of outsiders to unionism, who – McAuley says – tend to view unionists as a strident, reactionary, monolithic block.

The chapters on ‘new unionism’ and ‘new loyalism’ are especially helpful in providing insights on diverse currents of thought within unionism. New unionism, exemplified by Prof. Arthur Aughey, Norman Porter, and the politics of David Trimble in the latter part of his career, is presented as an open, inclusive, civic philosophy that has room for competing identities and perspectives.

New loyalism, exemplified by David Ervine, Gusty Spence, John McMichael and Garry McMichael, is described as a viable, left-leaning political alternative that could free working class unionists from the tactically limited and unimaginative politicians in the larger unionist parties.

But McAuley recognises that the ideological options offered by new unionism and new loyalism seem to have lost the battle for the hearts and minds of contemporary unionists. In his chapter on ‘Unionism and Loyalism in a Settled Peace?’, he says (page 189),

The subsequent ‘dislocation’ [of the peace process] allowed alternative political discourses, such as those of new unionism or the PUP’s emphasis on communality and the particular experiences of Protestant working class communities, to be heard.

In part at least, this marked an attempt to realign the frames of interpretation as new unionism sought to reposition its politics around a more inclusive form. For some this alternative frame did gain a measure of credibility within unionism. New constructs of unionism, however, cannot be forced into a position of dominance, especially if the majority of those who claim unionism see this as an illegitimate articulation of their central beliefs. Thus, the fate of both new loyalism and new unionism was to remain at the margins of political life, seen by the majority as unable to represent unionism’s core values.

More specifically the articulation of new unionism and new loyalism, promoting ideas of sharing responsibility and cultural pluralism, ran counter to the everyday understandings and experiences of many unionists. The DUP interpretation thus became more creditable within unionism because it drew directly on existing collective memories and broad cultural frames that are understood and believed by a majority of unionists.

While I think there is some legitimacy to McAuley’s characterisation of the DUP as offering insurance policy politics, the book doesn’t adequately consider the extent to which the DUP may have itself changed and incorporated some ideas, policies and discourses from new unionism or new loyalism. I think that the DUP has done so, at least for some audiences (for me the more interesting question is whether such change is cynical or represents a genuine change of heart). For instance, I recently took students on our Master’s in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation to hear Ian Paisley preach at Martyrs Memorial Church. When he graciously invited the students to speak with him after the service, what he said could easily have been mistaken for a form of civic unionism. Neither does the book get much into the nitty-gritty of the way the DUP has strategically played the electoral system to its advantage as well as moderated some of its policies – ground that has admittedly already been ably covered in Christopher Farrington’s work.

Unionism’s fixation on the constitutional arrangement is historic and understandable. McAuley’s book claims that unionism has not moved very far, if at all, beyond the constitutional question and that this can slow down the fermentation and dissemination of other political options and ideas.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    The “new loyalism” is not a credible “movement”. Im not convinced that John McMichael belongs in this group but more importantly he has been dead for over two decades. Gary his son and the UDP……despite being given a helpful hand by the gerrymandered Forum Elections never meant anything.
    David Ervine is dead the best part of five years and was a figurehead for a movement that did not actually exist. Gusty Spence is almost 80 and a figurehead. Where are the “new” loyalists?
    More importantly unionism (like nationalism) NEEDS two parties. The (unionist) electorate actually want an alternative and the better insurance policy is perceived as being offered by the extremes.
    Its no coincidence that the Trimble-Mallon led government was rejected as both sides moved to DUP and SF. The never ending talk of compromise actually spooked the two electorates.
    The best solution the Overclass can come up with is to reform the voting system.
    The Overclas, the two governments, the media are frustrated by the two party system within the two tribes. The capacity of either UUP or DUP (and of course SF and SDLP) to deliver/compromise would be enhanced if there was no real alternative within the tribes.
    I get the impression that the DUP is as much hamstrung by the process as the UUP was a decade ago.
    The agenda is not being set by politicians…..it is being set by the voters. And this democracy is arguably the saving grace of a very flawed process.
    The truth is that all parties fight on two fronts.
    DUP are fighting UUP and TUV
    UUP are fighting DUP and Alliance.
    AP are fighting UUP and SDLP
    SDLP are fighting AP and SF
    SF are fighting SDLP and “dissident” nihilists

    Therefore the capacity for Unionism (or Nationalism or indeed the “Middle Ground”) to move(as you put it) is limited or non existent.
    To those of us who believe that the Peace Process/Agreement is an end in itself (and I suggest this might actually be majority opinion as evidenced by tribalism) …..then there is no real problem.
    Unionisms ability/inability to “move” will interest Professor cAuley much more than the unionist electorate.

  • Cynic2

    The problem is that a large number of Unionists have moved on but the politicians haven’t. This represented a huge opportunity for the UPP but the Fermanagh Cabal ensured defeat by electing a man bereft of vision and focused on the size of chicken coops not the future of the country

  • “Therefore the capacity for Unionism (or Nationalism or indeed the “Middle Ground”) to move(as you put it) is limited or non existent.”

    Agreed, fjh. The 1998 constitutional ‘settlement’ and the forthcoming decade of commemorations will ensure that the constitutional question will still be to the fore. There will be talk of a shared future but who can talk with much credibility on this issue?

  • Fair Deal

    From this summary of the book it doesn’t seem to recognise the strand within the new unionism of the 1990’s of a desire for being better at politics/competence – something the DUP ultimately offered in the 00’s especially in comparison to the UUP.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    While I am happy with the arrangement itself and see no pressing need to “move on” to the “next stage” which effectively re-writes the Agreement……the present arrangement which as I stress allows for all parties to fight on its “right and left” (for want of a better term)…..is an opportunity as much as a limitaion.
    As the thread is specifically about unionism, there is ample opportunity for the UUP to attack the DUP on its record of governance, its attachment to a particular church, its inate social conservatism out of place in “multi cultural Brutain” etc……..the problem is that the current UUP Party look weak and are only intent on fighting DUP on as even more traditionsl……thus losing support to AP (possibly in stages thru so called “liberal unionists” who will at some point defect or throw in the political towel).

  • 241934 john brennan

    The constitutional question is settled – majority consent, freely given, north and south, ah la John Hume’s single tansferable speech. 12 years on from the GFA, neither the DUP, nor Sf is calling for a referendum.

    Suggest the NI Secretary of State decrees we have one during the May elections – if no change then – and if DUP/SF are now the democrats they claim to be, they can show it by concentrating on bread and butter politics for the next decade. – normal elections, not macho sectarian head counts about who gets to be first minister.

    No slogans on gables – just bread on tables!

  • Rory Carr

    I don’t suppose John, if the SDLP were in a position to garner the majority of nationalist votes and if those votes happened to outnumber those of the largest of the fractured unionist parties, that we would be hearing much from you of the sectarian head-count nature of the First Minister’s position.

    p.s. Bread is hardly an issue. We are not in pre-Revolutionary France nor pre-Soviet Russia.

  • andnowwhat

    Ah John, I woul;d love to see an election where it was not allowed for them to even mention the constitutional question. Not even any union flags or tricolours allowed on posters, just real politics.

    I wonder how they would do?

  • madraj55

    andnowwhat…… As John Hume said, if the word NO was retracted from the English language they would be mute, so I’d expect a similar scenario here. Versalitility or adaptability is practically foreign to this lot.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    But as Prof McAuley shows, the idea that the politics of unionists is monolithic doesn’t bear close scrutiny or indeed a reading of the contributors to Slugger. But perhaps “unionist politics” is!

    As I’ve been saying for a while, unionism is only a preference as to which country you want your politics to happen within; for political programmes, you look at the next level of discourse and politics. And I think there what you find is pretty messy: politics by unionists, if I can use that term, tends to be pragmatic, unideological (great) but also lacking in long term vision, energy and clarity. I don’t think there is too little versatility and adaptability, but too much, if anything. What both main parties need more of is a clearer political identity and sense of direction that they can bring to Northern Ireland.

    Personally I’d like to see an overtly left of centre unionism come out of the closet with a bit of confidence. We tend to get a fairly incoherent bumbling along.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Do the Lib Dems, Conservatives, Labour and UKIP speak about policy matters more than insuring British interests?

    I don’t think the “mainland” unionists are any different, to be honest!

    One Nation, Broken Britain, Better Together, Better Off Out … It’s all Insurance above the micromanaging involved in policy.

  • Billy Pilgrim

    Wow, FP.

    Good post. But have you really been working on it for three years?

  • FuturePhysicist

    Well the Irish parties are no less “secular” when it comes to constitutional issues, Irish Labour, arguably the most secular in terms of nationalism of the four main parties, accused a then government of “Economic Treason”.

    Nationalism and Unionism didn’t fall out of the sky, nor were they maintained by 400 year old fears about religious triumphalism and supremism, there are social and economic reasons and motives behind both. The accusations of being engineered by some political class are only any good if you can deal with people as they are, not how you would like them to be and offer them sonething better.

  • Charles_Gould


    Those unable to recognise the moral integrity in both main traditions on the island have a blind spot.

  • The only problem with politics is the party system. Of course all political creeds and all political ideologies have their strong points and their weak points. Unionism has virtues, as has conservatism, and socialism, and Nationalism. The party system doesn’t allow these to be acknowledged in public because there is a big PR lie to sell to your voters to capture their support.

    Right now Nationalism is in the ascendant, less because of its lofty ideals, as much as that it is the right time and the people numbers help its momentum and the alternative doesn’t make jobs -whereas Ireland (ROI) promises riches or at least opportunity.

    Should Unionism make everyone here rich, I’d say there would be less fomenting for change, likewise if Unionists could see their interests served in a UI – they would ultimately make the decision on that basis.

    To get there the insurance politics of both sides would need to meet the loss adjuster.