Unionism needs plurality not unity; strategy not the reactionary…

Callum Jones is a Senior Parliamentary Assistant to a Conservative MP, based in Westminster, but originally from North Down.

The overwhelming unionist takeaway from the local elections has been that it is in dire straits: eclipsed by republicans, demoralised and split in three separate directions. Discussion over the cold slab of unionism’s post mortem has drawn one common conclusion: unionism needs a ‘rethink’. It is more stark than that: unionism needs nothing short of a reformation.

The DUP has sought to portray its result of retaining all the seats it entered Thursday with as a ‘consolidation’ or a ‘recognition’ of its Protocol/Framework position. That may be so of the voters who could actually muster the enthusiasm to visit the polling booth. The sliding ground under unionism’s feet came as many voters – with nothing in the unionist offering they thought worth voting for – stayed at home.

In comparison with the nationalist vote which surged – no doubt galvanised by Sinn Fein’s ‘respect/equality/DUP arrogance’ pitch which has revived the party’s fortunes beyond their wildest dreams over the last few election cycles. Such messaging has been extremely electorally lucrative for Sinn Fein in recent years when its star appeared to be waning. The Protocol derangement syndrome that has infected unionism has handed just such a gift into their lap.

Unionism therefore needs to wake up to the fact its stance of weaponising Stormont (in order to hold out on the UK Government in vain hope it delivers changes to the Windsor Framework that satisfy concerns over the NI-GB link) has backfired spectacularly.

What has been gained by refusing to enter power-sharing if Sinn Fein has been able to turn the narrative to its own advantage so successfully? The DUP boycott of the institutions has instead only allowed republicans to: become the largest party in both local government and the assembly; crush the moderate constitutional nationalists of the SDLP; seen nationalists outpoll unionists for the first time; turbocharge demands for a border poll; thus upset the constitutional balance even more and demoralise (an increasingly belligerent and cantankerous) unionism yet further.

This damning charge sheet thus only increases the urgency for the aforementioned ‘reformation’ unionism needs. The unionist political spectrum has become lopsided and incoherent. Its dominant position of abstentionism (embodied by DUP and TUV) over the Protocol has proved strategically inept, handing huge advantage to republicanism as the result of unionism’s retreat into its ideological comfort zone of throwing its toys out the pram.

Therefore unionism needs to draw a new dividing line; between the strategic pragmatists on the one hand – jaded by unionism’s ‘backs against the wall, protestant siege’ mentality – and the paisleyite reactionaries burying their heads in the sand on the other. Few can surely believe Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is content with his party’s position, designed as it is to keep his fractious party together even when the damage to unionism more widely is plain to see; the pragmatic, deal-making Donaldson is held hostage by his grassroots party executive who don’t feel so amenable towards abandoning the boycott.

The unionist electorate needs a genuine choice at the ballot box, something it does not currently enjoy. Unionist unity is a fig leaf that will only see unionism continue to limp on whilst the flood waters lap at its knees (and rising fast).

Instead, unionism can only hope critical mass can be reached enabling it to break out and new phoenix parties rise from the ashes. If the rot is not stopped, the whole house may fall in. I’m not holding my breath…

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