Why Unionism cannot afford to divert attention from its own failings any longer.

The publication of the Census Statistics prompted, predictably, a flurry of party and non-party political commentary

In an indication that Catholic Nationalism is alive and well, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood MP referred to the increase in the Catholic population as a ‘seminal moment.’

At least he spared us the ‘hand of history.’

Sinn Féin MP, John Finucane, in comments close to those of ‘Ireland’s Future’, Professor Colin Harvey, who spoke of ‘seismic change’, welcomed ‘irreversible change.’

Green peas in a pseudo ‘herrenvolk’ pod.

Without any sense of irony, spokespersons for the DUP party, no longer the largest party, having played a Protestant card and adversarial venom throughout its history, made light of any implied threat to the Union through aligning religious allegiance with political preference.

It would be interesting to note how much canvassing has been carried out over the years by the party in what are designated as ‘Catholic areas.’

The Alliance Party which has benefitted most from the growing rejection of the historical positioning of religion, identity and politics came closest to recognising change as reflected in the census indicators

Former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, MLA commended the emergence of a changing and modern pluralist society which ‘vindicates the stance of his party since 1998.’ The downward trajectory in the UUP election results, since that time, would indicate failure to resonate with the changes he welcomes.

Intentioned or not, zig-zagging electoral stances have platformed embracing diversity as, at best ‘tokenism’; at worst ’communally condescending.’ Actions have not matched words.

It is not sufficient to claim that you want Northern Ireland to work for everyone whilst clinging to the baggage of the past. The best way to get rid of unwanted baggage is to offload it.

The armed struggle is over and politics has moved on to different ground.

Making Northern Ireland work for everyone is a process not a product yet Unionism continues to embrace the short-term.

Various UUP leaders have dipped their toe in the water of progress only to stall when faced with the stormy undertow of risk-aversion and insecure Protestant Unionism; too often inclined to lower standards of democratic practice.

The unashamedly evasive answer to the possibility of a Sinn Féin First Minister by Unionist leaders during the last election for the NI Assembly, added to the list.

It is not just change in demographics that points to a Unionism that is managing decline.

If it is the aim of the UUP to present as modern and pluralist, something has gone badly wrong in the messaging and leadership and this, with the stance of the DUP and TUV, is feeding into a disconnect between what one leading Unionist refers to as ‘political’ and ‘referendum’ Unionism.

This is an over tidy and risky analysis which fails to recognise the ‘toxicity’ that clings to ‘analog’ unionism in a digital age whilst thinking that maintenance of the Union can be sustained by a co-ordinated headcount of Protestant or traditional Unionism and an unaligned and diverse pro-consensual and democratically embedded GFA position.

Evidence across all polling profiles points to their being diametrically opposed in terms of values, cultural understanding and how Northern Ireland can only work as a shared home for everyone through reconciliation, transparency, mutual respect for and the celebration of cultural hybridity and the delivery of all strands of the Good Friday Agreement.

This is a pro-Union position imbued with a confidence, devoid of the traditional fare of symbols and emblems; that Northern Ireland, whilst supporting the right for others to differ, is better-off within the status-quo constitutional position and sees the positive economic and social changes taking place as showing the potential of what can be achieved by sharing and collaboration.

This is reinforced by a growing preference within this constituency and beyond to move beyond tribal labels and obsessive constitutional positioning; to re-visit funding streams and legislation which contrive to sustain legacy identities whilst failing to target inclusive collaboration around shared and more pertinent issues.

Underpinning this, is the inescapable realisation that from 1921 onwards Unionism, defeated in accepting Home Rule for Northern Ireland, not only abandoned Unionists in 3 counties but, as the two new jurisdictions worked to consolidate, pursued constitutional politics too reliant on electoral headcounts and not enough on persuasion.

A traditional route was laid out which was followed faithfully until 1972 justified in Unionist thinking by the over-reach politics of various Dublin governments.

During the 50 years when it has not been responsible for the governance of Northern Ireland there has been little evidence of a change of tactics. A stagnant and deluded yearning for the years when Unionist politicians dominated and were in charge runs like a fault-line through Unionist politics to pollute any meaningful social or economic political decision-making.

Historically, measures on welfare, health and education for all were brought forth but rarely created; usually due to decision-making at Westminster but not Stormont.

As in 1921, a movement which rallies to the cause of NO SURRENDER continues its strategic surrender to the aims and objectives of its opposition; always campaigning but never serious about realising inclusive governance and community cohesion.

Unionism never functioned as a cross-community coalitional force. The abandonment of the proposals for education by Lord Londonderry was a case in point alongside the shunning of anyone arguing for a fresh analysis of Unionist orthodoxy.

Past emphasis has seemed always to have been informed by preservation locked into a Union without unity; without concession to reducing polarization. Recent tactical changes, loudly trumpeted in words, present merely as drifting around the edges rather than addressing more deeply rooted problems.

It’s a travesty that resilience in facing external and internal challenges has not been matched by less aggressive and fearful responses with greater sensibility and accommodation to different views and legitimate social as well as political grievances; living in the now to transform historical segregation and communal patterns.

The confidence that things would merely continue has been shown to be hollow and deceptive.

The Census figures in all their dimensions- political preference, identity, cultural and ethnic diversity- call for a major re-boot and a need to over-write previous narratives.

This is a persistent thread running through many comments, including much that is friendly fire.

The need for change goes deep and will only result from radical measures and internal reform aimed at embracing the freedom to do what works; grounded in the needs of the people and targeted on contributing productively to the new pattern of non-binary relationships that is emerging.

Dublin, London, Washington and Brussels would do well to take note also; to stop pandering to divisions rooted in an earlier age.

Protestant Unionism is in terminal decline. Membership of the United Kingdom is not in the gift of any single grouping.

Consent for a Border Poll does not require Unionist consent.

Binary culture and communal power-blocs maintained through making the wrong seem right and being choosy on reforms necessary to delivery equality in line with the British way of life are in decline.

A sense of brotherhood brought together by ‘not an inch reverse gear politics’ is in decline.

Unquestioning allegiance to decision-making that has been the cause of so many Unionist miseries is in decline.

Tolerance of Unionist politicians consumed with battling each other over power only to struggle with how to use it to govern for all the people, is in decline.

People may look to politicians on the hill but not to encourage the view that they have nothing to learn from the people.

Manipulation of the process to put unelected representatives in office is not admired.

They are tired of patronage and polarisation; of politicians who love to be angry.

They are disaffected by the abuse of expenses, scandals and the waste of public money.

They grow impatient with the stalled history of ‘Fresh Starts’,’ New Decade, New Approach’ and the non-delivery of outcomes.

It seems that anything good that is happening and there is much to applaud, is happening in spite of politicians and their attritional approach to political decision-making.

The capacity for tacitly accepting and finding excuses for intimidation and brutality, for what to anyone else in the world would be seen as psychopathic violence, in the interest of winning votes, is in decline.

Unionism will cling to the indicators which still show a voting majority for the Union but as other surveys have shown this may not last long into the future.

Sarah Creighton could not have made this any clearer in her recent article on Slugger O’Toole regarding the perception of political Unionism within the younger generation.

Many, are just not into banners, bonfires and parades.

They, and not just the young, have a global perspective beyond the parochialism of local damage control politics.

Elections point to a large non-voting percentile within a pro-union constituency.

Unionism has become for them, a toxic brand.

Worryingly for Unionism, active and retired politicians outside Northern Ireland are beginning to address the issue of Northern Ireland joining with the Republic of Ireland. Former Conservative Minister, Norman Tebbitt is one such example.

Since the early 1970s, there has always been a section of the main Westminster parties less than committed to the ‘precious Union’ where Northern Ireland is concerned. Several Conservative Secretaries of State were all too easily persuaded to loosen the ‘cords that bind.’

Faced by economic turbulence, the complexities of the Ireland/NI Protocol, the subvention and the paid for non-attendance devolution in this place, could momentum grow externally to end the 100-year link between Northern Ireland and the rest of the Union.

If Unionist politicians are not asking themselves this question, they are in denial and should remember how the DUP was let down by the ERG.

The latest stance of NI Minister, Steve Baker MP on the Ireland/NI Protocol is clearly a cause of unease in Unionist circles.

Unionism has much to ponder and cannot afford to divert attention from its own failings for any longer.

It needs to grasp an alternative perception of reality and respond.

Ethical and cohesive decision-making around the positive things that are happening in Northern Ireland would be a good place to start.

Whilst Unionist leaders would never wish to admit it, Sinn Féin President Mary Lou MacDonald TD set a good example in getting rid of jaded, lack-lustre and accident-prone representatives.

Any reboot has to be strategic, not just vocal, and far reaching; aimed at assembling a new voting coalition, achieving fresh organisational form and navigating new growth.

In the services world, a failing restaurant will not survive by simply altering the colour of the menu.

Politically insecure Unionism is a dish now less appetising to the palate of a growing number of voters.

It is not a good place to be when winning margins on any vote for the future depend on consent.


Discover more from Slugger O'Toole

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

We are reader supported. Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger. While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.