For some time, I’ve been trying to put my finger on why unionism seems to be in a state of perpetual existential crisis, and have managed to settle on some semblance of an explanation. I put it down to unconditional unionism, a condition amongst the most ardent political unionists that pledges unconditional support for the UK Government, Union and its institutions.
Critically, unconditional unionism restricts any criticism levied towards the UK Government to the superficial, thereby weakening the ability to vigorously hold elements of the UK state to account. Whereas parties like the DUP might ‘urge’, or ‘respectfully request’ that government pursue a policy, it scarcely gets saltier than this. The most extreme reactions from political unionists have seen them label the UK Government as perpetuating a “betrayal” for the Withdrawal Agreement, describing Boris Johnson as a “lousy unionist”, current PM Rishi Sunak as lacking “passion” for the Union, and the Northern Ireland Office as perpetuating an “anti-Union bias”, amongst others. As you can see, it’s all very nebulous, obsequious and critically, holds no sway whatsoever where it ought to count the most – Westminster.
Republican, nationalist and other parties however, are not bound by such doctrine, which means they have greater flexibility to target criticism, be that at the government or institutions, giving them a no-nonsense and practical appeal. It allows non-unionists to conduct root cause analyses of issues to a systemic level beyond where unionists can comfortably go, who constrained by their inability to see fault in the structures which continue to fail them. This means other parties can question the fairness and value of the entire system of Westminster government from which the English draw their power, including the Westminster institutions, which are sacrosanct to unionists. This not only makes non-unionist opposition more potent to challenge the status quo, but fans the flames of debate about the appropriateness and equality of how the UK state hangs together and operates.
This explains the success of Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon’s reiteration of “not a union of equals”, which activates the latent fear within the English Government of sleepwalking into an introverted, globally diminished, bereft of influence, “little England”. To a lesser extent, Sinn Fein’s calls for British-Irish joint authority provides a high bar, essentially a sword of Damocles suspended over the heads of NI political unionists, one which would be another step along the road towards a declining UK. Both of these statements have something in common – they are consistent and reasonable given the current state of UK politics.
This can be compared to the increasing frequency of inconsistencies from NI political unionists who on the one hand, support Brexit, but not the implementation, and request that NI be treated no differently to GB, whilst at the same time arguing that Westminster should stick to the Sewel Convention to cease imposition of abortion law and the Irish Language Act. That is not to mention unionist history which is replete with layer upon layer of repeated ‘betrayals’ at the hands of successive UK Governments. This includes the now widening democratic deficit that sees EU trading oversight in NI, agreed by the English who repeatedly override NI political unionist concerns.
In 2021, the Welsh Government published propositions for reform of the Union, and most recently the Parliamentary Labour Party has embarked on similar proposals, New Britain, led by Gordon Brown. It is clear that the debate on the UK’s constitutional status is gathering pace at a time when NI political unionists are experiencing an historically low representation (and with it influence) in their hallowed Westminster (Figure 1), have ‘no platformed’ themselves at Stormont, and are increasingly being side-lined by the English. Ian Paisley MP’s attempt to introduce a Bill in the House of Commons requiring a super-majority to secure separatist referenda success is a physical manifestation of the insecurity NI political unionists are now experiencing.
Figure 1 – Number of NI Westminster MPs by social cleavage
This situation has prompted ex-First Minister, Baroness Arlene Foster to counter with statements warning about the effect on the English of continued debate on Scottish separatism – worried that England might decide it does not want Scotland anymore, which would have significant implications for NI. This, from the same figure that publicly re-endorsed the UK’s most prolific liar, Boris Johnson, before he withdrew from the leadership race that would see him PM for a second time, despite him spectacularly throwing her and the DUP under the proverbial Brexit bus. On the face of it, it appears that political unionists are exceptionally poor at learning lessons.
In reality, it is their unconditional unionism that leaves them open to continued exploitation and robs them of the ability to both analyse and disrupt to obtain advantage. The most recent example being unionist focus on the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s admission that elements of the NI Protocol were overly strict. Those strictures, however, were ultimately willingly agreed by the UK Government, and yet political unionists can only bring themselves to deliver lukewarm criticism of the establishment that delivered the decisive blow. Rather than a cooperative affiliation between English and NI political unionists, the relationship instead arguably resembles something more akin to a dysfunctionally abusive and coercive relationship. Moderate unionists are starting to notice it given the frequency and intractability of betrayals that is making their cause strategically unappealing.
Rather importantly, this unconditional unionism is not reciprocated by those who actually administer the Union – the English Government. We are used to the misnomer ‘UK Government’, but anyone who can count to 650 understands that it is in fact the rarely described ‘English Government’ that is the ultimate arbiter on what the Union is and how it functions. This is especially hard to stomach for NI political unionists, because if they accept the premise of parliamentary supremacy, otherwise read as the supremacy of the English Parliament (1st), then it renders NI political unionists as the least important with the least influence (4th), coming in behind Scotland (2nd) and Wales (3rd). Bluntly, it sees NI political unionists operate in a perpetual state of paranoia, as they seek to ingratiate themselves with the English Government which regularly rejects their advances, whilst attempting to save face at home after falling foul of strategic blunders that were only made possible because they trusted their English counterparts due to their ingrained blind allegiance.
Indeed, the fact that the Parliamentary Labour Party actively prevents electoral candidates from standing in NI, and the Conservative ‘and Unionist’ Party have willingly and partially economically hived off NI from the rest of the UK by undermining the Act of Union itself, indicates that there is unlikely to be a UK Government on the horizon that is sympathetic to NI political unionist concerns.
It is no surprise then, that the UK Government regularly exploits this unconditional support, which has seen them happily breach the Sewel Convention, safe in the knowledge that NI political unionists are duty bound to curtail their criticism and will eventually accept anything handed down from Westminster in the way the system was designed. This occurs despite political unionism taking part in the Westminster Parliament, which has not correlated with a strengthening of the Union as one might expect. Despite broken promises from successive Prime Ministers (going back 100+ years), NI political unionists are hardwired to intrinsically believe the British establishment are custodians of their future, and therein lies their predictable weakness.
An Ipsos poll in Dec 22 indicated that NI would vote decisively against a united Ireland; 50% supported its continuance within the UK, with only 27% supporting Irish reunification; 23% either didn’t know/would not vote. Otherwise put, the Union appears safe (for now), which limits the risk of adopting a more conditional unionist approach – one that aligns itself nicely with the emerging narrative on voluntary / involuntary union.
At present, Westminster is continuously assured of NI political unionist support. Far better for NI parties to transition to conditional unionism, which would see them throw off the pointless emotional attachment to Westminster in favour of a more transactional approach. It could see them work more closely with the growing body of nationalist MPs from devolved nations which would see them question the appropriateness of structures and values that Westminster (England) holds dear, therefore further highlighting the threat of an already growing tide of nationalism within the wider UK itself. Taking nuanced positions on issues whilst inviting discussion (however difficult) would demonstrate to Westminster that some unionists are in fact, ‘persuadable’ of an alternative constitutional settlement and not wedded to existing arrangements. This could encourage England to proactively reimagine the case for voluntary union alongside unionists from the devolved nations, instead of relying on the current cohort of NI political unionist ‘useful idiots’ we now have, which only serve to actively repel reasonable and logical voters.