Choyaa: Unionism continues to decline and decay…

On February 28th, 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was dominating the news and any segments left on the schedules were being devoted to the cost-of-living crisis that was gripping the world. At this time in Northern Ireland, the main item on Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show was a 60 minutes interview with UUP leader Doug Beattie about a failed attempt to get Jeffery Donaldson to re-join the party in May of 2021. The initial story broke on February 23rd when Stephen Nolan revealed some of the details on his BBC1 programme, however, despite the overblown sensationalism, the story elicited very little interest, and by February 28th when Beattie appeared for the interview the story was well and truly dead.

The interview acted as a microcosm of where Unionism has been stuck for many years, the infighting which has more often than not played out very publicly, the pettiness that too often engulfs Unionism, poor decision making, and unawareness or lack of focus on the bigger picture. It was difficult to see where the very traditional Jeffrey Donaldson would have fitted into the self-styled liberal UUP, but disregarding this point, a UUP leader devoting so much time to this story by appearing on a radio interview seemed petty and very ill-judged, reminiscent of a jilted lover participating in a kiss and tell. The interview played out poorly within unionist circles with the UUP’s judgment questioned, it effectively portrayed the party as being, trivial, amateur, irrelevant, and certainly incapable of leading Unionism. What could have been a moment of mild embarrassment for Jeffrey Donaldson resulted in a UUP own goal. Against this backdrop of UUP ineffectiveness which has so often played out, the DUP has remained unchallenged within Unionism despite its many problems, however, as the May Assembly elections showed, Unionism is no longer fighting each other for votes, it is battling an expanding “other” demographic as well as those unionists who in increasing numbers are preferring not to vote and Unionism is in no position to address either of these demographics at present.

Unionism has been plagued with numerous problems in recent years:

  • Infighting which has become toxic and corrosive,
  • Failure to present voters with policies they can buy into.
  • Frequently appearing dysfunctional
  • Lacking strategic intent
  • Declining vote
  • Too many unionist parties in a declining demographic
  • A disconnected base that is not energised by the main Unionist parties

Unionism had a poor Assembly election losing 7.5% of their seats (three in total), and 4% of their overall vote, down from 44% in 2017 to 40% in 2022. All three of the main unionist parties had a very disappointing election, outwardly each party has sought to put a positive spin on their results but serious questions must be asked of all of them.

DUP

The DUP had a horrid 12 months leading up to the election with two leadership changes, internal party bad blood, and haphazard decision making all whilst facing extreme pressure from the TUV on the DUP’s perceived inaction regarding the Northern Ireland Protocol. The DUP has obvious decision-making issues that continue to haunt the party, these range from their botched management of the RHI scheme to how they handled the Brexit negotiations whilst holding the balance of power in Westminster and a troubled track record during the COVID pandemic. Other internal problems that too often appear to be left unaddressed, from party members involved in scandals to internal party discipline, are all areas that greatly frustrate the public which the DUP will have to take much more seriously going forward.

The Assembly election campaign was textbook DUP, it involved conjuring up the bogeyman of a Sinn Féin First Minister whilst warning of the possibility of a border poll. Unionism has grown tired of the Sinn Féin First Minister threat and was hungry for more aspirational policies. This election tactic by the DUP has proven to no longer work as was illustrated in the 2019 Westminster election and it also has the effect of driving up the Sinn Féin vote. The threat of a border poll appeared dubious and Unionism by and large didn’t buy this, nobody was under any illusions about Sinn Féin’s aspiration for a border poll, however, becoming First Minister was not a guarantee that one would occur.

The election was good and bad for the DUP, they lost three seats, and their share of the vote dropped by 6.7%, however, the doomsday predictions for the party did not occur and they managed to successfully fend off a serious challenge from the TUV. The day actually could have been even better for the party had they managed to get their vote out and they will be looking to address issues in Strangford, North Antrim, and Lagan Valley ahead of any future election. There is no doubt that by running fewer candidates the party made the correct decision but it will need to carry out a forensic examination and take the necessary remedial action across all 18 constituencies on why its vote share was reduced. One constituency where the DUP continues to come painfully close each election to taking a seat in West Belfast, however, the party seems to concentrate more on areas such as South Down and Lagan Valley whilst taking its eye off other key constituencies, compare this with Sinn Féin who managed its vote successfully across all constituencies.

One of the key reasons why the party avoided a meltdown was due to Jeffrey Donaldson being at the helm, although it took the party two attempts to get this outcome – more flawed decision making. Donaldson remains one of the most respected individuals amongst unionists and this resulted in more voters placing their trust in the DUP than otherwise might have been the case but the DUP needs to expand its team beyond the party leader with big hitters such as Gavin Robinson still too invisible to the general public.

Many questioned Jeffery Donaldson’s appearance at that anti-Protocol rallies, it looked at times like he was a reluctant passenger rather than the leader of Unionism. This is something that Jeffrey Donaldson will have to address, with the TUV fended off and the UUP not making any gains, the DUP is the undisputed leader of Unionism and they will have to forge their path ahead. This is why any solution to the Protocol will need the DUP’s approval and they in turn need something that they can sell to their base. However, the predicament that Northern Ireland is in at the moment with no Assembly means the stakes are very high, and whilst there is a need to bring closure to the Protocol issues the DUP must tread carefully to ensure that the Northern Ireland public is not punished and that Northern Ireland is not left weaker due to the DUP’s actions. The underlying goal for the DUP should be to get the Assembly and Executive back up and running.

On an internal level Jeffrey Donaldson has given glimpses of what he is about, he was able to get most of the defectors from the DUP back when he became leader and he finally managed to address the Jim Wells’ issue which had been festering for years. With a raft of issues within the party needing to be addressed including its strategies, discipline, poor communication, and ensuring the party is better able to reflect its voters and indeed grow them, the DUP has its work cut out. Make no mistake, the DUP has been given an unexpected second chance, if they refuse to change and improve, they will not get another.

UUP

When Doug Beattie took over as the UUP leader, there was a palpable level of excitement within Unionism and this was complemented by individuals in the media who started to refer to the “Beattie Bounce” which was partially based on improving ratings for the party in local polls. On paper, Doug Beattie was the correct choice, a decorated military veteran with real-world experiences and a clear strategy on where to lead the party, namely they would aim for the “liberal unionists”. As happens all too often in politics, the wheel came off the UUP project when offensive historical tweets by the party leader were uncovered. Despite Doug Beattie taking ownership of these tweets the issue has lingered somewhat for the party and interviewers still regularly bring them up. Some within Unionism feel that Beattie has been damaged due to these tweets and they have effectively made him a lame duck when it comes to speaking up on issues that impact Unionism with some feeling that he is instead trying to play it very safe. Aside from the historical tweets, the UUP’s use of social media has been erratic and at times self-destructive. UUP activists got caught up in the social media bubble with some mistaking popularity on Twitter with popularity in reality. UUP online activism is at best amateurish with very similar messages pumped out by party members, they usually include a jibe at the DUP or something that includes the words “positive”, “inclusive”, “progressive” and “confident” along with the obligatory “Union of People”. One person going rogue on social media is their former leader Steve Aiken who seems technologically gaff prone with a regular output of tweets that often embarrass and undermine the party and its central message.

The issue with the UUP’s online activism has been raised with them on several occasions with many musing that they’re continually missing on the ground but always present online. Party activists too often appear overly sensitive to criticism and the party as a whole appears to want to be loved more than want to lead. Tim Cairns made the following observation which perfectly encapsulates some of the UUP’s problems.

Along with problems on social media and frequently being missing on the ground, the UUP isn’t clear on what it’s about. The premise was to be more socially liberal but this doesn’t quite chime with party membership and at least 1/3 of its MLA team is more on the conservative wing of politics. The UUP’s messages too often get tangled up, one of their central policies is integrated education but they voted against this bill in the Assembly citing that it was a “bad bill” although they didn’t feel it was bad enough to use the petition of concern to halt. Their opposition to the Irish Language Act is well documented and the party appears happy for Westminster to enact this as it takes the decision away from them and their non-answers on the taking up the Deputy First Minister position again undermined their liberal credentials.

The UUP’s response to the Protocol has been deemed by some as lacklustre although the party feels it is taking a more realistic position, the issue is that the UUP has not been able to sell this to the public. The UUP’s position is unclear and its actions concerning the Protocol are not widely known except for some vague references to the “command paper”. The UUP got into further difficulties at the anti-Protocol rallies, first, they didn’t attend, then Robbie Butler unexpectedly attended a rally in Lagan Valley but it was Alliance who broke this on social media leaving the story to spin out of the UUP’s control.

Some UUP members continued to appear at rallies until Doug Beattie called an end to the UUP participation. In true UUP fashion members continued to attend the rallies in defiance of their party leader meaning discipline in the party remains an issue.

Party discipline spiralled out of control when the West Tyrone constituency rejected Ian Marshall as their candidate with many openly backing the TUV and even DUP candidates in the constituency. There was the bizarre decision to run two UUP candidates in Fermanagh and South Tyrone where they had less than one quota with the inevitable result being that the UUP would lose their only female MLA. The party continues to have issues with rogue members openly endorsing rival parties and their candidates often in preference to UUP candidates. It’s very difficult to encourage non-UUP party members to vote UUP when party members are supporting other parties.

There are questions over the UUP’s relationship with unionists and there are difficulties between voting unionists and the UUP. Doug Beattie appears to be very unpopular with sections of Unionism, although the abuse directed at him by some factions of loyalism is completely unjustified. The election had a damaging impact on Beattie’s leadership, having not encouraged intra-unionist transfers, he was left at the end heavily reliant on these votes to get over the line. It should be noted that with the infighting inter-unionist vote transfers were extremely poor but ironically Beattie who didn’t encourage this benefited from unionist transfers. The UUP will take some comfort that Beattie got home but it will need to address the haphazard approach that the UUP has taken. The UUP will also be encouraged that it still has a base of supporters that will stick with the party but with a 1.7% fall in their vote share since 2017 and with the loss of one seat and several others now vulnerable, the party is positioned very precariously and the issue for the party is that with each passing election the base is getting smaller.

Unionism needs a second party that offers a significant alternative to the DUP, at the moment this is being provided by the Alliance party. Sadly, for the UUP as they attempt to find themselves, they’re becoming increasingly irrelevant. With a hugely damaged DUP, the party failed to take advantage of this at the Assembly elections and instead declined further. The main issue is that too many unionists don’t find the party strong enough on the Union and instead opt for the DUP whilst others don’t find the UUP liberal enough and vote for Alliance instead. It’s difficult to imagine many Alliance party voters switching to the UUP and perhaps this market is lost, the UUP has to find its own identity, trying to be the Alliance party with a blue and white Union flag will only result in the party wandering forever between the winds.

TUV

The TUV predictably finished with one seat, there was much talk about them commanding a sizeable bloc in the new Assembly but within unionist circles, this was not something that was taken particularly seriously. The issue with this movement is that it relies completely on Jim Allister and without Allister, there is no movement. The legacy of the party to date has been a corrosive influence within Unionism, as far back as 2010 in Fermanagh and South Tyrone several ballot papers were spoilt with “TUV No Surrender” scrawled on them. Sinn Féin won the election by four votes and a subsequent court ruling found three unaccounted for ballot papers which meant Sinn Féin would still win but by just one vote. The TUV became very unpopular within Unionism in Fermanagh and South Tyrone as a result of this. The TUV has continued to cost unionist seats, in North Antrim, their voters failed to transfer to Mervyn Storey resulting in him being eliminated ahead of the Patricia O’Lynn for Alliance and the inclusion of the TUV in both Strangford and Lagan Valley further shredded the unionist vote there costing at least one and possibly two seats. A central problem for the TUV is that it is a protest vote against something and from a unionist perspective this has resulted in the vote being further shredded.

The TUV can claim the be the only unionist party to significantly increase its vote to 65,788 (vote share increased by 5.1%) but with only one seat returned there were a large number of TUV supporters questioning if they had used their vote wisely.

The problem for the TUV is that it is unlikely to ever expand beyond Jim Allister and with a declining unionist voter market, voters will be more reluctant than ever to cast a vote for the party, especially if they feel it will not result in seats. The policies of the TUV are also unworkable, refusing to share power with Sinn Féin is a non-starter in 2022 and leaves the TUV as a fringe movement with the sole aim of influencing the DUP and to a lesser extent the UUP. There is no doubt that Allister is an effective operator within the Assembly but even his judgement can be off, this was particularly prevalent when he doubled down on praise that he offered to former party member David Tweed when sexual abuse allegations were made against Tweed by his family members.

It’s difficult to see a future for the movement and once Jim Allister retires, so too will the TUV.

Final Thoughts

Unionism has been through several election cycles now where it has returned with fewer votes and seats and this trajectory will only continue until there is fundamental reform within Unionism. The endless infighting, the inability to formulate policies that the Northern Ireland public can buy into and the lack of ability will only ensure Unionism continues to decline and decay. Unionism has to reconnect with its base and this needs to be done methodically and purposefully, not via a megaphone on the back of a lorry. When Unionism was no longer a majority in the Assembly in 2017 there should have been an introspection, when Unionism declined further in 2019 there should have been an introspection, on both occasions, this did not happen. Now in 2022 Unionism needs to talk to itself and reengage with its base across Northern Ireland, because until it does it cannot reach out to the expanding Other demographic and until it does it will continue to decline. Northern Ireland has changed but Unionism doesn’t seem to have noticed and certainly has no plans on how to address this, the long-awaited internal discussion has to happen right across Unionism before the decay really sets in and the inevitable decline follows.