Unionism needs a Reformation of its own, one that turns it into a movement that is fit for the modern era…

I woke up early on the 9th of June 2017 to tune into the election coverage and see how the new UK government was shaping up. All of the Northern Ireland seats had been decided before I had retired the night before and it had been a reasonably good night for Unionism taking 11 of 18 seats, with the DUP capturing 10 of them. However, when I tuned into the election coverage, I was alarmed to see the DUP included within the election graphic on the bottom, which included the big parties and their seat tallies. Northern Ireland is never covered at a national level, so an anxious feeling came over me. This feeling was justified when I discovered the interest in the DUP was because they would hold the balance of power as the election results had created a hung parliament. It may seem strange that as a Unionist this concerned me, but there were two key reasons for this, namely (a) I didn’t feel the DUP were equipped for this responsibility and (b) Northern Irish Unionism does not always travel well and it is this that I wanted to discuss today.

There is no doubt that political Unionism drives and has driven the Unionist movement since Northern Ireland’s inception in 1921. Over the years this has increasingly became a problem as political Unionism is outdated, too often interwoven with scandal and incompetence. For what still seems like a majority in Northern Ireland who want to maintain the Union with Great Britain there is a greater reluctance than ever before to vote for a political Unionist party. Many are arriving at the conclusion that by voting for a Unionist party it could actually undermine the integrity of the Union.

I wanted to explore some of the key areas where Unionism has failed in recent times and where it is still failing.

Leadership

I will admit that I was genuinely excited when Arlene Foster took over the reins of Unionism from Peter Robinson. Peter Robinson’s tenure had become troubled while his appeal amongst the electorate was limited. However, someone like Foster could broaden Unionism’s appeal and modernise it in the process. Unfortunately, this never happened, Unionism has gone backwards during Arlene Foster’s tenure. Unionism has had to be forced into changes by Westminster with regards to same-sex marriage, Ms Foster was centrally involved in the RHI scandal and has failed to address internal scandal with her party. Unfortunately, her enduring legacy is likely to be the botched Brexit negotiations which have resulted in a sea border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The DUP has also declined in seats under Ms Fosters tenure and while I have much respect for her handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, many Unionists are looking for a change of leadership. Ms Foster, as the leader of Unionism, remains in a weakened position despite her handling of the Covid19 pandemic and as the sea border comes to fruition her position further declines. It is fair to say that Unionism has not been blessed with effective leadership over the years, the one standout exception was David Trimble whilst leader of the UUP, his contribution in moving Unionism into a position of power-sharing has too often been overlooked and underplayed.

 

Lack of Vision

Unionism is often very clear on what it does not want and is very vague and indeed elusive on what it does want. This was evident during the Brexit negotiations; the DUP were against the backstop but never put forward what they did want and, in the end, what was delivered was a constitutional crisis for Unionism. Unionism has also failed to move with the times, by creating a Northern Ireland at ease with itself where cultural aspects such as the Irish language could be protected, they failed to understand that such actions would in actuality strengthen the union. As I wrote in a previous article, by opposing the Irish language and other such proposals they were undermining Northern Ireland’s position within the UK as people felt that to get these rights, Ireland needed to be united. Unionism needs a clear vision on its plans for the future that more reflects the Northern Ireland of 2020 rather than the Free Presbyterian church of 1960.

Lack of Talent

One of the reasons Arlene Foster has remained as the leader for so long despite a troubled tenure is the obvious point that there is no natural successor. Simon Hamilton had been flagged as a potential replacement and was seen as a rising star before he left the political arena.  Losing Nigel Dodds from frontline politics was also a significant body blow to Unionism as the Westminster team look rudderless at present and gaff prone. There are of course many talented people within both the UUP and DUP and Jim Allister of the TUV is a standout performer within the Assembly. However, taking a look at the talent within Sinn Fein, Alliance and the SDLP – political Unionism is certainly coming up short.  Questions have to be asked as to why it is unable to attract talented members into its ranks and is the current lack of talent contributing to Unionisms overall decline?

Worst Foot Forward

Most people will be all too familiar with the same old faces from Unionism who appear on radio programmes or on TV panels and whom generally perform very poorly, damaging the Unionist brand in the process and turning many people off Unionism. It is particularly galling when someone representing Unionism is clearly ill-informed but is still putting forward and incoherent case. Unionist parties need to ensure they are putting forward members who are across their brief and who can perform well within the media. Many Unionists now turn off when a Unionist appears on TV or on the radio as the cringe factor and the roasting, they are likely to get is usually too much to endure and this has resulted in Unionism being lampooned. Unionists such as Alex Kane and indeed Doug Beattie are an exception to this rule – Sam McBride is another excellent performer.

Communication

Unionism has never been good at getting its message across, from “decent people vote UUP” to the DUP posting support for the British military while using a picture of foreign military soldiers. It was often felt that the DUP never effectively communicated the delivery of the £1 billion from the confidence and supply agreement and what it was spent on or clear communication on their voting within the House of Commons and why they voted as they did.  Unionism would benefit from hiring someone to professionally communicate their messages and to better manage their online footprint, particularly in relation to social media which is generally miles behind rival parties.

The Sinn Fein Bogeyman Has Gone

Whipping up hysteria about Sinn Fein and their links to the IRA at election time while happily sharing power with them the rest of the time, no longer cuts mustard with the Unionist electorate. This tactic has proven to actually help increase the Sinn Fein vote. Unionism needs to better concentrate on its own message, ensuring positive and clear policies are being put forward that the electorate can get interested in.

Treatment of Homosexuals

Throughout the 1990’s and into the 2000’s it was almost the norm that a DUP politician would write a letter into the Newsletter lambasting somebody in the gay community for a litany of reasons. This always bemused me as I could never quite understand how the gay population seemed to play such a pivotal role in undermining the union. Of course, political Unionist outrage against the gay community was not restricted to the letter’s pages of the Newsletter, we had Iris Robinson MP infamously referring to homosexuality as an “abomination”. Ian Paisley junior found gay people “repulsive” and even during Covid-19 DUP Councillor, John Carson found time to blame this pandemic on the gay community. In a sign of progression within DUP ranks, openly gay member Alison Bennington who went on to comfortably get elected as a Councillor was attacked by a fellow party member Jim Wells who said that former party leader Ian Paisley would be “aghast”. None of these actions ever resulted in any internal disciplinary action being taken, it’s difficult to imagine any other political party across western Europe who would have allowed this in modern times.

As for rights on same-sex marriage, political Unionism of all shades blocked it, Mike Nesbitt whilst leader of the UUP advised that Unionism would be on the wrong side of history by blocking SSM, however in a later vote he abstained.

By continually blocking SSM, political Unionism faced a number of key issues:

–          Within their own ranks are members who are gay and further afield voters, so by blocking SSM they were rejecting these individuals.

–          By insisting that Northern Ireland must have the same laws and rules as GB, political Unionism in NI conveniently ignored the fact that SSM was legal in GB so in fact this was making Northern Ireland legally different from GB.

–          Blocking SMM and discriminating against homosexuals has nothing at all to do with Unionism and all it served to do was negatively impact a vulnerable section of the community and potentially turn them off voting for the Union permanently.

When Arlene Foster took over the leadership of the DUP, many Unionists were expecting a slow shift in stance towards a more pragmatic approach towards the gay community. This did not happen and in fact political Unionism had to have Westminster enforce legislation in Northern Ireland legalising SSM.

Beware of the Tories

Political Unionism in Northern Ireland has always had an extraordinarily complex and challenging relationship with the Conservatives which bemuses, amuses and confuses outsiders in equal measure.  There have been very public spats between the two including over the Anglo-Irish agreement where Enoch Powell a former Conservative and then UUP member, James Molyneaux and Ian Paisley all denounced Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative party over the deal and were ignored.  When the DUP formed the confidence and supply agreement with the Conservatives in 2017 the with the most obvious spat being over the Brexit Withdrawal agreement via which the Conservative party overrode Unionist concerns and effectively created a customs border between GB and NI. It is bewildering that to this day despite warnings and indeed betrays Unionism and currently the DUP continue to kowtow to the Tories in an almost humiliating manner.

Incompetence

One key reason for the downfall of the UUP was due to their handling of the Belfast agreement, both during negotiations and while overseeing its implementation. A weary Unionist electorate became tired and indeed embarrassed at what they perceived to be UUP incompetence. The party was overseeing defections, internal spats and many felt that Sinn Fein was comfortably outmanoeuvring them. With the Executive continually collapsing the electorate had had enough and handed the reigns of Unionism over to the DUP.

The DUP has been able to boast ten years of “stable” power-sharing government in Northern Ireland; however, this has been muddied with the Executive having collapsed for a whopping three years. During the DUP’s time at the helm they have been instrumental in two significant elements of incompetence, one which led to the Executive’s collapse:

1.       The Irish sea border is considered as the greatest own goal by Unionism in recent times and has in effect damaged the integrity of the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Rather frustratingly the DUP have been very quiet on this but as the costs start to impact on the Northern Ireland market, the position and argument for the union is undermined. It is difficult to imagine how Sinn Fein could have done more damage to the integrity of the Union than this and the DUP needs to own this error.

2.       The Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) straddles the border of incompetence and corruption with the DUP coming out of this severely damaged. The very public falling out with their former party member Jonathan Bell and the boycotting of local media for reporting this story has severely damaging connotations to it.  It cannot be ignored that Arlene Foster the now leader of Unionism rolled out this scheme without proper cost controls which has reportedly cost the public purse a whopping £500 million. None of this bodes well for a party tasked with making Northern Ireland work.

As the Unionist electorate have chosen the DUP as their leaders, it cannot be understated the anger and embarrassment they are feeling at continued incompetence. Looking at parties such as Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance who appear to be much more competent – Unionism is feeling very shortchanged by its political representatives.

It’s rather ironic that at the time of writing this Ian Paisley has inadvertently sent an email to over 300 recipients lambasting the Northern Ireland Assembly, something he retracted upon discovering his error – citing it was “jocular” humour.

Scandal

All political parties from time to time get involved with scandal and unfortunately that is par for the course in politics, however Unionism has for some almost became a byword for scandal with little to no consequences for the perpetrator unless the electorate dish out its verdict.

Misogyny and Miscellaneous

The last few weeks have typically been damaging for Unionism. Jim Wells on Radio Ulster indicated that “there was not stopping those who were Irish from moving to the Irish Republic”. Many Unionists (myself included) will consider themselves Irish, but what this tells Irish people who do live in Northern Ireland is that Unionism isn’t welcoming of you, can we be surprised if they vote for unification in the future?

In Lisburn council, the DUP voted against an anti-misogyny motion for rather spurious reasons. As a political movement that is vastly unrepresented by females, this move will further alienate females with Unionism; goodness knows what female voters will think?

DUP member Mervyn Storey questioned the funding of the long-awaited medical college at Magee and while the query was more about police funding, putting the focus on Magee could only lead to negative connotations that Magee would effectively be eating into the policing budget.

Voting through a particularly controversial agricultural bill at Westminster much to the anger of the local farming community. This bill lays open a path for unfettered food imports into the UK with little or no cognisance taken of the standards achieved when it comes to producing this food initially.

Expenses for Unionists with Westminster are frequently table-topping and there have been examples in the past of Unionists having to pay some expenses back. This goes back to the old school of thought of “fill your boots” and is certainly not something the taxpaying public appreciates.

Retrospective respect for the backstop, the DUP now concedes that this was a good option that should have been taken. This has caused vast anger within Northern Ireland considering the opposition the DUP took to this and the subsequent deal that has been foisted on Northern Ireland. Their belated acceptance of the backstop is much too late and has seriously undermined the DUP’s position and abilities.

Conclusion

It’s difficult not to feel that with the erosion of political Unionism the link between Great Britain and Northern Ireland might actually be stronger. Political Unionism has disillusioned the Northern Ireland public of all political shades and has resulted in many Unionists turning away from politics. Unionism needs a Reformation of its own, one that turns it into a movement that is fit for the modern era, that is open and inclusive and really sells the benefit of the Union rather than opposing every single thing it is confronted with until such times that it has to in effect suck them up.