Searching for the holy grail of Unionist Unity…

An often-discussed but little-understood aspect of Unionism is how divided it is on almost every topic. The divisions go far beyond competing visions and healthy debates and are frequently about power, control, and egos mixed with a generous dollop of Ulster thran. As a consequence of internal divisions and warring factions, Unionism has suffered, the bloc has shrunk, it’s continually on the back foot and there are endless fears about further splits. A movement whose core objective is to maintain the Union with Great Britain but cannot maintain any form of union with itself is an irony not lost on many.

The underlying problems associated with the often-divisive nature of Unionist politics have never been understood, much less addressed. The “need for Unionist Unity” is a term half-heartedly bandied about by Unionist politicians, usually in the lead-up to an election, and even that leads to greater disunity as nobody can agree on what the term means whilst others take offense from it. It has often been said that if the leaders of the UUP, TUV, DUP, and PUP were left in a room to discuss “Unionist unity”, by the end of the meeting there would be seven Unionist parties, 18 different policies, and at least one resignation from politics. An ongoing gripe from Unionism is that it’s “not being heard”, the problem is that there are dozens of different versions of Unionism and as a result the overall message is opaque.

In 1968 Unionism was united, outwardly at least but problems were bubbling under the surface. The then Northern Ireland Prime Minister Terrence O’Neill famously stated that “Ulster stands at the crossroads”, the statement was aimed at Unionists against a backdrop of civil unrest and mounting pressure from the then Labour government. When O’Neill made the speech he was attempting to fend off a serious split within Unionism due to his “Five Point Plan” which proved controversial within Unionism. The attempt would prove futile, and fractures that were always there would soon be exposed. The reforms introduced to Northern Ireland were controversial not only within Unionism but also within the UUP. O’Neill called a surprise general election to shore up support, UUP members stood on pro and anti-O’Neill tickets. Pro-O’Neill candidates won the most seats but the results proved that Unionism was divided and shortly after the election, Terrence O’Neill resigned.

At every big decision in Northern Ireland’s history, Unionism has found itself split, isolated, or both, and each time the UK government has dismissed Unionist opposition. O’Neill’s reforms split the UUP. The UUP narrowly backed the Sunningdale agreement but internal revolts and wider Unionist opposition led to the agreement collapsing. Unionism collectively opposed the Anglo-Irish Agreement but the UK government supported it, widespread Unionist opposition and protests eventually resulted in the treaty failing. The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 was and remains a key example of Unionist division. The UUP officially backed the agreement but the party was split and it lost swathes of members and supporters due to its stance, when the referendum results were in it proved that Unionists were divided and both pro and anti-agreement Unionists declared that they had won the day. In 2023 an opinion poll reported that the majority of Unionists no longer support the Good Friday Agreement. Unionism has fractured further in recent times on Brexit, the Northern Ireland Protocol, and the subsequent Windsor Framework, the latter of which the UUP has cautiously supported and the DUP cautiously rejected, par for the course, the government is pursuing the ‘Windsor Framework’, despite Unionist opposition.

Since the 1960s, the number of Unionist parties that have formed has been astronomical, to the point of farce. The most significant outworking of Unionist disunity was the emergence of Ian Paisley who was a founding member of Ulster Protestant Action (UPA) which emerged as a pressure group from within the UUP. The UPA split with Paisley’s supporters forming a “Premier” branch that they used to reinforce their control, the group would eventually reform into the Protestant Unionist Party (PUP) in 1966 and after further divisions, the party emerged as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in 1971.

The formation of the DUP was a critical moment in Unionism and it effectively brought to the fore many of the divisions that had existed within Unionism. One year after the DUP was formed the UUP split further with the formation of the Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party (VUPP), which opposed the Sunningdale Agreement. The VUPP itself split in 1975 when its leader Willaim Craig proposed a voluntary coalition with the SDLP in the event of there being a state of emergency, leading to the formation of the United Ulster Unionist Party (UUUP), one of those involved in the UUUP was Reg Empey who went on to lead the UUP and was an ardent supporter of the Good Friday Agreement. These splits within Unionism have been a staple of Northern Ireland politics.

The most recent splinters include the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) emanating from the DUP due to opposition to the St Andrew’s Agreement and NI21 emerging from the UUP. In the current Northern Ireland Assembly, both independent Unionist MLAs emerged as the result of a falling out within both the DUP and UUP. Over the years, most Unionist parties and groupings formed as the result of internal disputes and subsequently folded as the result of internal disputes, below is a taste of some of the Unionist parties that have existed:

Outside of Unionist parties, there is a raft of organisations, groups, and civic forums that operate independently from each other, and within these various assortments, there are even more splits. The Orange Institution which is often cited by Unionists as a unifier is split, there is an urban and rural split, Belfast and outer Belfast split and beyond this, there is the regular Institution and the Independents, not to mention divisions at county, district and lodge level. The Protestant population which remains overwhelmingly Unionist/pro-Union is split with so many churches and independent offshoots that it would be impossible to list all of them.

There have been numerous civic forums organised that have faded away both from disengagement and internal disputes, frequently these groups were disjointed and personality-driven. The Protocol despite being labelled an existential threat to the Union by many Unionists at no point resulted in a coordinated response from the Unionist parties or wider Unionism. Popup anti-Protocol rallies organised by “grassroots Loyalists” resulted in some Unionists politicians who were speaking at the rallies being booed with many others attacked from the platform speeches and a poster of Doug Beattie had a noose drawn onto it. In addition to this, DUP and UUP offices were attacked by Loyalists.

The rallies despite trying to elicit widespread support never became mainstream and certainly afforded little opportunity to engage in meaningful discussions. Even anti-Protocol Unionists such as Richard Garland received threats due to his stance not being deemed “strong” enough, the fallout from this was Richard needing to be rehoused and a year on Richard is still living with the consequences of this threat. Unionists receiving death threats from other Unionists/Loyalists for having the “wrong opinion” is nothing new and it is an issue that has plagued Unionism. Loyalist feuding has been ongoing for years with many innocent people, primarily Unionists caught up in the fallout, Unionists are again split on how to deal with it from those who want to be rid of active paramilitaries to those who want to turn a blind eye to them.

The issue of a functioning Executive at Stormont is one of the latest issues to divide Unionism with an increasing number of Unionists preferring instead for Stormont to be permanently closed down, however, few Unionists can agree on a viable alternative. There has been criticism from Unionists of Unionist commentators appearing on local media platforms, one of the key complaints is that they give an overly critical and unreflective perspective on Unionism. The issue here is that there are so many varying brands of Unionism floating around that it would be impossible to represent them all.

Having spoken to former and current Unionist commentators along with those who would like to do such commentary work in the future, one theme is apparent – the criticism they receive or fear they would receive from fellow Unionists makes the job unenviable, several such commentators have retired, and potential commentators won’t embark on the journey due to this. The search for Lundies within Unionism is never ending; one recent example is a renegade group calling itself “Restore UK” who have targeted several Unionists via live podcasts and other mediums, making unfounded allegations and seeking to “pay them a visit”, DUP and UUP members along with civic Unionists and private citizens were all deemed fair game. Against such a backdrop one might question who would volunteer to be a vocal Unionist.

This week with President Biden’s visit to Northern Ireland, the problems of Unionist division were apparent for all to see. It was unclear in advance if Unionism and in particular the DUP would attend the President’s speech and during the void many Unionists both elected and otherwise voiced their unhappiness at some of President Biden’s previous comments. When both the DUP and UUP attended the speech and spoke courteously about the President’s remarks, some in the wider Unionist community accused the DUP of being overly aggressive against Biden whilst at the same time accusing the UUP of failing to represent Unionist concerns and being “overly soppy” in response the President’s speech.

Following the speech, both DUP and UUP politicians took to various media platforms to continue bashing Biden. This is an impossible position for both Doug Beattie and Jeffrey Donaldson to be plunged into and the results were further damage to an already battered Unionist brand. Doug Beattie and Jeffrey Donaldson should have better prepared their base for the President’s visit and ensured that party members toed the line but both men have an impossible position at present. There is an ongoing issue within Unionism of both the base not being prepared and then elected Unionism retrospectively responding usually trying to limit the damage. There has to be some leadership offered and with that the leadership has to sell their visions and proposals.

Divisions within Unionism will inevitably be exploited by those on the fringes who will seek to push their narrative and create further division, Unionism has had a plethora of such figures down through the years. Ian Paisley, Bob McCartney, Jim Allister, and Jamie Bryson all spring to mind – the latter two wield a considerable amount of power over Unionism in 2023. The issue with allowing fringe figures to control the narrative of a very big and diverse bloc is that it begins to misrepresent the movement and stifles it from taking the decisions necessary to move forward and instead leaves Unionism wandering at the crossroads that O’Neill warned about in 1968.

Further issues arise from many on the fringes and beyond lambasting any Unionist as a “Lundy” or “Collaborator” who doesn’t conform to their very specific requirements. Not one leader of either the DUP or UUP since 1969 has not been attacked ferociously and denounced as a Lundy. Ian Paisley famously denounced several UUP leaders before being on the receiving end of such denunciations when he entered the power-sharing Executive. As well as causing strategic issues for Unionism along with image problems, these fringe voices also dissuade many people from getting involved with Unionism, and worse, verbal attacks from the fringes are being used by some as justification for issuing threats.

The UUP and DUP both have a plethora of internal problems. The UUP is a party of parties and political interest groups, unclear in which direction it is going, trying to please everyone but ultimately pleasing nobody. The DUP is battling between its more pragmatic side and the old-school Paisley elements, additionally, it is under pressure from external bodies such as the LCC (Loyalist Community Council). Even the TUV which self-styles itself on providing a moral compass has had a spate of internal issues and improprieties which have resulted in resignations and defections, only recently a former TUV Councillor was proposing the setting up of a new Unionist party having left the TUV under a cloud. The TUV is also cited as one of the more hostile wings of Unionism, a party that spends a disproportionate amount of its time attacking other Unionists and its electoral presence has usually been to the advancement of non-Unionist parties. Calls for greater Unionist unity in this context seem hopeless, there is too much bad blood between the UUP, TUV and the DUP that even when one side stands down in an election there is little unity on display.

Unionist infighting has helped to develop a growing electorate that is either not voting or who are moving outside of Unionism due to the corrosive nature of Unionist politics. If Unionism continues to shrink electorally, there will be greater calls for a single Unionist party along with all of the problems that bring including internal friction and a potential surge in support for Alliance. With Doug Beattie and Jeffrey Donaldson at the helm who are both popular in their own right, this should be a dream ticket for Unionism, however, there has been little obvious cooperation between both men. Both men have inherited a poisoned chalice in leading a bloc that seeks leadership but doesn’t want to be led and has a history of beheading its leaders. There is also a strong perception that due to internal party politics and the wider Unionist electorate, neither leader can really assert their authority and vision.

It is worth mentioning how thran in nature some of us Unionists can be. It is correct that Unionism is diverse and it encourages free thinking, however, there is also amongst some a deliberate awkwardness just for the sake of it and this has fed its way into wider Unionism – thran may sound like a quaint Ulster-Scots word but it’s also an extremely damaging and annoying trait when continually in play.

Even the fundamentals are problematic within Unionism with so many having a different interpretation of what a Unionist is leading to the term “real Unionist” being bandied about, but what exactly is a real Unionist? Is it enough that someone votes to remain as part of the UK on referendum day, or should there be a core set of values that Unionists subscribe to? Many people within the “Other” bloc don’t want to be labelled a Unionist due to some of the connotations it conjures up, whilst others for the same reason prefer the term “Pro-Union”, this opens the possibility for a rebranding within Unionism along with some modernisation. There is much talk of Loyalists who make up a significant minority within the wider Unionist family, however, nobody can give a clear description of what a Loyalist is, I have asked so many Loyalists this question and no two people can give the same answer. These issues all feed into communication problems for Unionism when it cannot concisely articulate what it is, instead, we have multiple versions of ambiguity and this is before we begin to discuss what it wants to do.

Unionism is justified in some of its anger towards the UK government over the years, the government has not been a friend to Unionism and their Unionist credentials are usually only lip service at times when they require support. Not all of the blame can be directed at the government, a continually divided Unionism on the backfoot with no specific plan is easily ignored by the government that can play different factions off against each other whilst they push through whatever policy they want. If Unionism wants to tackle the issues it has had with successive governments, then it will need to coordinate discussions better to encompass a broad spectrum of Unionist opinions, there is also the need for a clear plan going into these discussions. A more united Unionist bloc with a cohesive plan will be much more difficult for any government to ignore.

With the Windsor Framework, it is obvious that the government will play the UUP and DUP off against each other and ultimately just ignore Unionism completely and Unionism makes it so easy for them to do so. This also leads to Unionism and Westminster elections, is there a need for multiple Unionist parties competing against each other? The end result is the need for one clear voice in negotiating with the government on issues about the Union and securing funding for Northern Ireland. There are constituencies in Northern Ireland such as North Down and North Belfast that Unionism has lost in recent years and they don’t look like they’ll return anytime soon as the various Unionist parties are divided and look to have given up. If there is to be a realignment within Unionism then an obvious starting point would be Westminster where a single team competes and represents Unionism underpinned by a core set of values that is overseen by the parties involved.

Unionist infighting has been damaging to Unionism and it has turned many people off. Creating a more harmonious environment within Unionism that allows for greater cooperation and introspection should be a critical objective for all Unionists. Unionism is diverse but it is not beyond the realms of possibility to form a collective agreement on the big picture items, it doesn’t need to tear itself apart on the minutia of every detail and it certainly doesn’t need to embark on endless unwinnable wars.

Currently, there are too many Unionist parties floating around and variations of Unionism that are easily ignored and whilst a single party is not the obvious answer there does have to be a more coordinated and singular message coming from Unionism. If Unionism cannot create a united vision of Northern Ireland within the UK that it can sell to its base, then there is zero chance that it will be able to sell a vision of Northern Ireland to the critical Other and “persuadable” demographics. Developing a coordinated approach within Unionism that can produce a plan to not only make Unionism an attractive option but the Union with Great Britain should be central to Unionist thinking. Ending the infighting (not the debates/introspection) and selling a vision of Unionism and Northern Ireland that is positive and attractive is a difficult ask, it’s much easier to remain at that crossroads dithering, squabbling and slowly dying.

Unionist Unity or Unionist harmony isn’t coming anytime soon but at some point, Unionism will have to realise that it is destroying itself and the Union. If a referendum on Irish Unity comes, Unionism will then have to work together and if that referendum is lost Unionism may then wonder was all the previous infighting worth it.

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.