The Northern Ireland Assembly Election 2022 has fundamentally changed Northern Ireland politics: Sinn Fein has emerged as the largest party, allowing it the right to nominate a republican First Minister for the first time; the Alliance Party has more than doubled its representation in seats to become the third-largest party representing the Other bloc; the SDLP has lost a third of its seats, dropping to fifth place; and the Green Party lost its only two seats.
As for unionism: the DUP lost three seats, now being the second-largest party; the UUP lost a seat but is ahead of the SDLP now, making it the fourth-largest party; and the TUV, despite achieving about half the size of the Alliance Party’s first-preference votes which got it 17 seats, only ended up with its one seat (TUV: 65,788 first-preference votes; Alliance: 116,681 first-preference votes).
This election has been the worst-ever election for unionism. The DUP is no longer eligible for the First Minister position and is no longer the largest party. Other writers have already gone into the reasons as to why and how the DUP has lost support throughout the years but in this article, I will consider the supposed panacea of a single unionist party.
As a UUP member, in any election I canvass for the UUP in, I am always asked repeatedly on the doors “Why can’t all the unionist parties come together?” Many unionists think a single unionist party would solve all of unionism’s problems, but would it? As an LGBT unionist, I believe it is a reasonable expectation that I should be allowed to be openly gay, to advocate pro-LGBT stances and to attend LGBT events such as Belfast Pride. I am also pro-choice. Would I be allowed this freedom of conscience in a single unionist party? I genuinely don’t know. I personally don’t think social issues should divide unionism and that we should all accept that all unionists will have their own views on them and should be allowed to vote according to their conscience. This is the policy position of the UUP and it works very well for the party.
However, understandably, many DUP and TUV members do not want their party to abandon their social conservatism as party policy. For them, social conservatism defines their parties. My challenge to that position would be that the social conservatism that defines the DUP also defines the image of unionism due to it being the largest unionist party. In the minds of many voters in my generation, political unionism comes across as old-fashioned – something that our parents voted for. My generation is much more socially liberal and wants to live in a secular society where you can be who you are. Outside of my political circle of friends, I don’t know many people who vote for a unionist party – they instead either don’t vote or vote for the Alliance Party. This is no longer a perception but is now a fact that unionism has to deal with, as confirmed in the election results and with the Alliance Party gaining seats from the DUP.
Protocol and Devolution
Even outside of social issues, the unionist parties differ on how to respond to the Protocol. The UUP is opposed to the Protocol but is markedly taking a different approach to it, while the DUP and TUV are taking a much more hardline approach to it: as of writing, the DUP has committed to not entering the Executive until the Protocol issue is resolved to their satisfaction. I believe the DUP is a devolutionist party at heart but is using its leverage to achieve a solution on the protocol. I have no idea where it will all end up. But what I do know is that the TUV would be much more sceptical on whether Stormont can truly work, as the TUV believes that Sinn Fein does not want Stormont to work because they claim that Sinn Fein does not want Northern Ireland to work. How would the UUP and DUP reconcile this position with the TUV?
Candidate Selection, Leadership, Splits
Candidate selection in any party is competitive. Look at all the troubles the DUP had with it. If you were to merge any unionist party with another, how would this combined unionist party deal with all the personalities making their competitive claims to be candidates? Even then, who would lead this combined unionist party? The DUP as the largest unionist party could claim that it should. The UUP and TUV are critical of the DUP leadership, so why would they agree to that?
Another question to ask is would all unionists necessarily vote for this single unionist party? Is it not simply the existing unionist parties put together under a new brand? The next question I would have is how soon it would all last before it would eventually split due to personality clashes, factionalism or on fundamental issues? We saw a commitment to united unionist opposition to the protocol initially but it all to fall apart soon after due to differences in approach.
The more I think about a single unionist party, the more I realise just how difficult it would be to achieve. Political parties are already loose coalitions of people who agree to be represented by a brand that upholds its principles and policies. A single unionist party would widen this coalition to one that is simply “We’re Unionist, but that’s about it.” Not all pro-union voters are necessarily worried about who holds the First Minister post or even constitutional issues. Many will vote for a party that delivers on the issues that matter to them.
Michael Palmer holds a degree in Politics from Ulster University and is interested in political ideology, the politics of popular culture and wrote a dissertation on unionism/loyalism.