Will unionism’s long 2012 be seen as the year when the wave broke?

With the #flegs protests seemingly diminishing, it seems like a good time to wrap up where 2012 has brought unionism, although it can be pretty much summed up in one word – crisis. It was a year in which there were early signs of modest progress visible to DUP leader Peter Robinson in March and by November he felt confident to proclaim that the constitutional debate had been won. And remember, in 2012 we were told repeatedly how ‘Catholics’ were being taken within, and reciprocating, the embrace of unionist outreach. Looking past the rhetoric, though, there seems little to support his optimism and the public statements  neither matched the actions nor the apparent angst that those statements seemed designed to hide.

Modest progress  (or, Denial)

Are there actual trends to support the DUP leader’s claims? The empirical data on elections is collated here on CAIN and doesn’t exactly offer him much food for comfort (and notably, the pattern since the 1980s suggest that an improvement in fortunes for ‘Others’ mirrors a drop in the Unionist vote). Similarly, however crude a parallel, the increasing proportion of the population estimated as Catholics in the census continues to grow mirroring rises in the nationalist vote and a long term decline in the Unionist vote. Indeed, the census data for those declaring themselves ‘British’, ‘Protestants’ and the recent electoral trends suggest that the term ‘majority’ in the local political lexicon is now pretty much redundant.

Those long term trends do, however, provide the real context for Peter Robinson’s Catholic outreach tactic. For the strategy, read, ‘we now need you to save the union [for us]’. But this outreach is hard to reconcile with the reality of the show of unionist (and loyalist) unity on Clifton St at the end of the summer. The demand then? Some inalienable right to play The Famine Song outside one of the oldest Catholic churches in Belfast, a church which sits on one of the main arterial routes into the city centre. There were echoes of the familiar themes of pan-unionist defiance of the Parades Commission and credibility-stretching denials of sectarianism. And unionism yet again publicly defined itself as Orangeism, Protestantism, monarchy and a self-declared Britishness that doesn’t really resonate across the water (where it is seen, ironically, as an Irish thing). This coalescing of unionists interests was to be a recurring feature of the year.

Simultaneously, there was also disregard of the inherent (and self-defeating) risk to parades accessing that Clifton St/Donegall St route to the city centre by creating yet another parading flashpoint. For those who don’t realise, there are very few usable routes into the centre from the north of the city due to the proximity of the loughshore and the peculiar post-glacial topography. Around the perimeter of the city centre lies a prehistoric high water mark and raised beaches left by elevated sea levels after the end of the last Ice Age. This pushes pretty much all routes, apart from the Shore Rd, onto Clifton St. These raised shorelines, around 7-8 m above modern sea level are no longer visible amongst the modern cityscape other than a sudden steepening of the roads as they leave the city centre, such as on Donegall Street.

Down with this sort of things (or, Anger)

Events at St Patrick’s, though, were dwarfed by the subsequent flags protests, surely one of the most illuminating episodes in recent political history. The initial emphasis was on the Alliance party, with the circulation of 40,000 leaflets in one of those increasing shows of unionist unity by the DUP and UUP. The leaflet was to pressurise Alliance not to vote for a measure on designated flag days that had already been endorsed, albeit reluctantly, by unionist-led councils like Lisburn as far back as 2003. Debacle after debacle followed the Belfast City Council vote with protests, road-closures and riots.

The DUP and UUP, continuing their rapprochement from the summer, and having initiated the flags protests, made a most traditional of responses to a crisis in convening yet another Unionist Forum. Peter Robinson hailed this Forum as the most representative in 50 years. As ever, its composition merely reinforced that narrowly defined ideology incorporating loyalism, Orangeism and Protestantism. But a lack of leadership or imagination in the UUP and DUP was nowhere more apparent than the clear abdication of public media roles to various loyalist bit-part players.

Far from a unified show of strength, though, some of the protest violence suggests even deeper problems within unionism. Take, as an example, the attack on the DUP-led, 365-day-a-year flag-flying Newtownabbey Council Christmas party. Was this a clear failure of unionists in even educating their supporters on the actual issue, or, does it reflect an outright disenchantment with local unionism in favour of the likes of the BNP and UKIP? Whether the latter might translate electorally, isn’t clear, but it showed that there are clearly other significant fault lines within unionism.

And the lack of leadership wasn’t confined to the political sphere. The PSNI role in the protests, in particular closing roads where only a handful of protestors were present to the disadvantage of significant portions of the population, doesn’t suggest a force that is yet capable of the symmetrical policing required at political protests. Repeated ineffectual announcements of the illegality of blocking roads stood in stark contrast to the inaction of the PSNI when confronted by such ‘illegal’ acts.

Postscript: Be very careful what you wish for (or, Bargaining)

By the end of the year, the DUP even felt emboldened enough to follow all this up with calls for a border poll (with an obvious subtext that a narrow win now would provide a pretext to veto any further polls for a generation). In the limited media debate that followed, no-one really quizzed the DUP on what would happen if they lost the poll.

Obviously, the full political outworking of 2012 will not be seen for a while. It is entirely plausible that there will be political drift from the more centrist elements of the UUP towards the Alliance (or Greens etc). Arguably, the Alliance may end up being the main political beneficiary of the flags protests. If they, and the likes of the Greens, see their party support grow at the expense of unionism (see above), it will add emphasis to the transient and transitional nature of the political institutions here which never envisaged a significant proportion designating as ‘Other’. The irony of slippage in ‘Unionist’ support to ‘Other’ weakening the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement won’t be lost on many people. From the bravado of the border poll call, the flags, Unionist Forum and the parades issues at the end of the summer, retrospectively 2012 clearly revealed a deepening crisis in unionism that even the rhetoric cannot disguise.

And if you feel like it, you can go to Donegall Street and, looking back up towards Clifton St, you can see the place, somewhere just above St Patrick’s, where that prehistoric wave broke and began to ebb away.

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