In future struggles, unionists need to be both right and attractive…

On the day Sammy Wilson rightly apologises for his use of highly inappropriate language about An Taoiseach, Newton Emerson makes a vital point to unionism in his Irish News column…

…the way City Hall operates is the way Stormont would operate without the petition of concern. Whoever could make common cause with the unaligned bloc, now including the Greens and occasional socialists as well as Alliance, would win the day.

There was a timely demonstration of this last September when Belfast City Council approved a new Irish language policy, with Alliance enforcing a compromise between nationalists and unionists over provision for Ulster Scots and other languages.

The Stormont analogy would be passing Irish language legislation as part of a wider cultures act – precisely the compromise the DUP claims to want and Sinn Féin has rejected.

The assembly’s new arithmetic is likely to be as enduring as it is at City Hall, with Alliance in the driving seat for decades – perhaps indefinitely. The 2021 census will reveal if the Catholic population is set to level off at just short of a majority. If so, Northern Ireland becomes a three-legged stool at the third leg’s permanent command.

The assumption that most unaligned voters are soft unionists was shattered by a LucidTalk poll last October, which found Alliance, Green and ‘other’ voters sit on a three-legged stool of their own – in a border poll, one third would vote for the union, one third for a united Ireland and one third are undecided.

These undecided centrists, around 3 per cent of the electorate, could determine everyone’s fate – which once again has been widely noted.

It’s an echo of something we said back in May 2003, in our own study of Unionism and the future, A Long Peace, when we posted a useful thought experiment, in which numbers between unionism and nationalism were evenly split…

…the strange mathematics of this parity referendum renders traditional allegiances irrelevant. What will be decisive will be those who, for whatever reason, choose not to pass through their ‘home’ lobby. In theory, only one defection would be needed to swing the vote; one Protestant voting for a united Ireland, one Catholic voting for the status quo.

In practice, apathy could be just as important as apostasy; the absent and swing voter both up for grabs. Voters would judge the Union on how successfully it performs against possible alternatives. They would be swayed by the relative performance of leaders associated with the unionist and nationalist causes.

The attractiveness of Great Britain and the Republic as partners would also be compared. In the privacy of the voting booth, a number of questions would come into play but, as in peacetime elections across the world, ‘what’s in it for me and my family?’ would probably be dominant.

And on the sofa at home, when deciding whether to go out and vote, something even more basic: ‘do I really care?’

With the still largely unacknowledged growth of the centre ground, we may never reach that crunch point. Other places like Denmark, show small centrist parties can carry considerable convening power.

But often they are not much more than a lock on the overweening instincts of those more broadly based parties whose baser instincts they must manage as best they can.

It has to be said that electoral political arithmetic can draw well-meaning centrists into something that is both far from liberal and (often through sins of omission) something of a relativist moral quagmire. As we noted in the last lines of that 2003 report:

Ultimately, this is a battle for people and not for land. 1066 and All That tells us that the English Civil War was ‘an extremely memorable struggle between the Cavaliers (Wrong but Romantic) and the Roundheads (Right but Repulsive).’

In future struggles, unionists need to be both right and attractive. For that, a firmer, bolder, more far-sighted unionism will be needed. In a ‘long peace’, after all, people must want the Union for it to survive.

Much as Sammy Wilson’s apology is welcome (he’s said far worse in the not so distant past), Unionism in general, and the DUP in particular have a lot of lost ground to make up . Time to stop blaming others, and to make friends in unusual places.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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