Shortly after launching NI 21, the leader of the short-lived party, Basil McCrea MLA, insisted in a studio discussion that he was supportive of the retention of the Union but did not describe himself as a unionist.
He was treated with derision, bordering on scorn.
A few years down the line, and this is no longer generally the case, with a growing constituency identifying as ‘pro-Union’ whilst distancing itself from ‘party political’ Unionism.
Are Northern Ireland’s Unionist political parties capable of the ‘retro – fit’ necessary to address what is known to be exercising their thinking as polling suggests they face a reduced capacity to speak as the sole voice of Unionism
Speaking on BBC’s ‘The View’ during the autumn of 2021, following publication of a survey by the Institute of Irish Studies, Professor Peter Shirlow noted, that of those who identify as neither Unionist or Nationalist in Northern Ireland, over 60% would vote in a Border Poll to remain in the United Kingdom. He further commented that a majority who vote for the Alliance party would opt to remain in the United Kingdom.
Put this alongside projected support for Unionist parties and this points to a significant majority in a referendum for retention of the Union.
Is anyone within the DUP, UUP and TUV asking why parties, with the constitutional argument at the core of their politics, are failing to attract those, many in the lower age groupings, who reject Unionist labelling?
Why has the term ‘Unionist’ and its associated branding become toxic? Why is Political Unionism losing support? Is it that they are happy, as before, to merely turnout the ‘core vote’; a case of ‘what we have we hold’ however tenuously.
Therein lies a clear misunderstanding that many pro-Union voters no longer feel you have to be the flag-draped donkey that jumps into the lake to take a drink.
It suggests that political Unionism continuing to view non-party aligned unionists as a threat, lacks the will, courage and capacity for radical and strategic change; insensitive to the political and human nuances reflected in a range of surveys and polls.
Speak to young voters and they hold the view, unfair to some, that the DUP is only interested in filling wallets and clinging to office.
The UUP is seen as evasive on the acceptance of the outcome of the election with regard to First Minister and trying to face in two directions at the same time.
Unlike those, who are now having to assess the possibility of a ‘retrofit’ in the face of climate change and need for a greener economy, the same imperative seems absent from any Unionist priority list. Glossy policy documents may be slowly emerging but reputational branding, selective commitment to potential democratic outcomes and attachment to outdated but favoured cultural symbolism act as a block to engagement.
As a consequence, unionist politics fail to adopt policies grounded in values which leaders know to be necessary to sustaining what they purport to promote.
Robust evidence is growing that this reticence and resistance to change is inflicting damage as various Unionist parties merely compete for the biggest slice of a diminishing ‘electoral cake.’
Unionism has sought to function as a war of sacred causes. This has acted to skew decision-making and lock old means into attempts at fresh thinking. With Unionism fragmented and exhibiting similar traits, opportunity for renewal, beyond window-dressing, may be passing.
This is, after all, a conversation that has been taking place within Unionism from the 1970s into recent times.
In 2010 and 2013 the then leader of the DUP, Peter Robinson MLA appearing to put the party on a different trajectory, referred to ‘educational apartheid’ and a need to end ‘segregation in education.’
At a DUP Spring Conference in Fermanagh 3 years later he advised the party faithful:
The old Orange-Green, British-Irish dichotomy no longer adequately sums up the myriad of shades of identity here. Unionists, as much as nationalists, need to come to terms with the changing environment.
The old-style unionist majority is a thing of the past, but we have within our grasp the opportunity to establish a new more broadly-based voter consensus which will guarantee Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom for generations to come.”
Shortly after this a highly-placed DUP individual confirmed in a conversation that:
‘Peter knows that things have to change and will be strong in taking the party in a new direction. People will have to listen.’
The evidence suggests that either he changed his mind or the party saw no necessity to alter its ways. Whatever the diagnosis that prompted the initiative, the remedy proved disappointingly ineffective.
What has happened in the leadership battle and the apparent ‘Night of the Long Knives’ in South Down and Lagan Valley bear all the hallmarks of a re-run of the 2010 and 2013 attempts to transform the DUP. Interestingly, Peter Robinson is believed to have a strategic role once again.
In view of the tensions in South Down, any anticipated difficulties in addressing other party liabilities must already appear insurmountable.
That ‘unreformed regimes are at their most vulnerable when they seek to re-construct’ resonates.
Understanding that there is a relationship between policies that improve lives, whilst transforming Northern Ireland’s society, and constitutional sustainability seems then to be acknowledged at the level of lip-service but is forfeit to the old narrowness of the oft-referred to broad church of traditional Unionism; still manifest within the membership and cultural tropes of the main Unionist parties.
A significant proportion of pro-Union voters have had enough.
Content and energised to opt for a more diverse and inclusive Northern Ireland with emphasis on political accountability alongside economic, health, educational and social issues they will make their constitutional preference evident if and when there is a border poll; knowing that the politics they seek to promote makes the latter less likely.
Consent, as embedded in the Good Friday Agreement has greater possibility of being sustained through an issue and evidence-based solution-centred approach to making Northern Ireland work for all, than failed Protestant Unionism, too many echoes of which are heard in the tone of political Unionism.
In addition, the debacle of Brexit, political scandals and prejudiced positioning on issues like Gaelic culture and equality, the stalled delivery of New Decade, New Approach and the hokey-cokey pre-electoral rhetoric and actions on the NI Protocol all act as a vaccine that successfully protects from outdated thinking and actions.
There are some who pin hopes on the UUP but recent polls, whilst encouraging for the leader prior to his twitter-storm, indicates only limited growth in support in spite of attempts at re-imaging. The party needs to move quickly beyond patronising straplines and performative inclusion.
With, as yet, no clear suite of policies, beyond the aspirational, new offices still being opened to raise profiles and candidates awaiting nomination for the NI Assembly election in 2022 maybe there is time to grow.
However, it is fair to suggest that in looking at the array of candidates chosen thus far, there is no clear vision or messaging in that they range in economic terms from left to centrist and right-wing; on social issues from liberal to conservative.
Will lack of consensus once again galvanize around the constitutional question and if successful in being elected, with the UUP emerging as a coalition of individuals rather than a cohesive parliamentary group of representatives; united merely by a desire to take power from the others.
Similar to previous incumbents, the leader risks being hostage to a party reflecting a similar profile to the past and the impetus for future electoral pacts and strategic compromises may become irresistible in spite of what is being said now.
Regrettably, on a personal level, there is no avoiding that, whilst UUP leader Doug Beattie MLA fronted up to the exposure of disquieting and unacceptable remarks from his past, there is no doubt that he has damaged the UUP and his own reputation, however momentarily, he must hope.
Trust is hard earned but easily lost and there are those who now query how genuine is the ‘progressive stance’ which the UUP wishes to portray; that it goes beyond tactics.
Thus far, much of the progressive imaging pertains to issues which have been decided by Westminster. Focus on these can only be assumed to be targeted at its current constituency rather than the already converted with whom it is playing catch-up.
To borrow from the recent reassurances of several politicians in the Stormont chamber: ‘The UUP needs to show that it is not that party anymore.’
For now, the DUP as the main voice of Political Unionism needs to engage with its own historical failings.
The developing situation pertaining to the NI Protocol indicates yet again, a slow-learning DUP.
Whatever the personal views of the DUP representatives around Brexit, the party failed to engage in any meaningful way with Europe or the All-Ireland Dialogues, allied itself to the hard Brexiteer lobby in Westminster even though there were rumblings that it favoured a soft-Brexit, ignored the majority view of the NI electorate, closed its ears to the special position and needs of Northern Ireland in the context of the Good Friday Agreement and if at all, influenced the admittedly flawed NI Protocol and the TCA to a limited extent.
Having left Northern Ireland hostage to a border in the Irish Sea, trade, medical and logistical disruption, democratic deficit, divergence, vulnerable to negative impact flowing from state subsidies, source of origin and limited participation in the Internal Market and any future UK trade deals, the solution now offered by the DUP is to walk away from a situation they helped in no small way to deliver; a ship adrift in the prevailing storms it is helping to build.
When the dust of the NI Protocol and the election settles will political Unionism still be afloat or will it have passed the point of much needed renewal to become a greater danger to the Union than its opposition?
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.