This week was an extremely tumultuous one for Unionism as a whole which unexpectedly resulted in an agreement between the UK government and the DUP that paves the way for the restoration of Stormont. As someone who has been calling for pragmatic Unionism over the years, I welcome the moves by Jeffrey Donaldson and his team that have brokered an agreement that affords Northern Ireland the opportunity to be a success. It was a moment when Unionism decided to act for the right reasons, in the interests of Northern Ireland with an eye firmly on the big picture even though it will inevitably result in some turbulence in the short-term. Much will be made of the pros and cons of the deal over the coming weeks and months and Unionism, especially the DUP will be thoroughly analysed with much to say on both these topics. However, for this article, I wanted to take a different approach and look at the most significant part of Unionism, the unelected Unionists and their contributions to Unionism as a whole. It is difficult to ignore the exposure many unelected Unionists receive and the influence they wield with varying degrees of success. In most circumstances, there is no scrutiny and often very few questions are asked.
The News Letter
At the time of writing this, Ben Lowry editor of “The News Letter” was on Radio Ulster musing over whether his newspaper would back the deal. The days when “The News Letter” was a huge influence within Unionism are a distant memory, whilst social media has accelerated its decline, it’s also noteworthy that the daily content of the newspaper is at times patchy and uninformative. Having a pro-Union newspaper still has value, however, “The News Letter” has too often platformed the fringes of Unionism with an ever-increasing output of circular and repetitive columns and opinion pieces. The loss of people such as Sam McBride and Alex Kane has undoubtedly hurt the newspaper as too has some of its overly sensationalist columns and at times dreadful social media output. The paper lacks a clear, coherent direction that embodies a broad spectrum of Unionist views and opinions that are both thought-provoking and informative. Periodically a good piece will appear but these are increasingly become few and far between. If one could excuse the inaccuracies and sensationalist headlines that too often and erroneously contain the words “Unionist fury”, it’s less forgivable when the newspaper leads with the following nonsense.
Jamie Bryson lays down debating challenge to Sir Jeffrey Donaldson as Northern Ireland awaits publication of DUP-Tory deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol:https://t.co/LuJFMQoaCx
— Belfast News Letter (@News_Letter) January 31, 2024
For a serious pro-Union newspaper to run with a throwaway tweet from an unelected blogger demanding a debate with the leader of Unionism is farcical and does not serve Unionism well and this is a reason many no longer buy “The Newsletter”.
Jamie Bryson has been one of the most problematic elements within Unionism ever since coming to prominence during the Union flag protests. An individual who is never far from controversy and seems to revel is stoking up tensions and divisions. Bryson’s actions in recent days including the leaking of information concerning the DUP which culminated in him live tweeting the proceedings from a private DUP meeting have attracted the ire of many Unionists and not specifically those attached to the DUP. There was a sense that the leaking was done for personal gratification and to humiliate rather than provide a valuable service to wider Unionism and it left many Unionists feeling unhappy and embarrassed. Ironically, the actions possibly resulted in increased support for Jeffrey Donaldson from DUP members angry at attempts to humiliate the DUP leader. The division that Bryson causes within Unionism cannot be understated, frequent attacks on Unionist politicians, often far beyond what is fair and reasonable with Doug Beattie and in recent days Jeffrey Donalson (both of whom Bryson claims are friends) on the receiving end. The outpouring of sensationalist tweets often tinged in triumphalism, negativity, or sometimes just downright nastiness reflects unfavourably on Unionism. It should be noted that on social media, few Unionists actually engage with him and those that do are frequently challenging his tweets. Unionists have in general been dismayed but a little muted concerning the heavy platforming of Jamie Bryson across various media outlets giving him a mandate and level of influence that many elected representatives don’t enjoy. Whilst I don’t seek the deplatforming of Jamie Bryson, I am concerned with the wholly unhelpful impact that he has on Unionism and the over-platforming of his views that are generally not mainstream Unionist views.
Unionist commentators have come in for increasing criticism in recent times in terms of not articulating positive pro-Union views. Ian Clarke has penned several very good pieces for Slugger in recent months and the following comment from a recent article stood out and it is something that I am undoubtedly guilty of.
“Unionist commentators clearly see their role as to criticise unionist politics”.
There is a certain truth to this, some Unionist commentators can appear reluctant to be classified as a Unionist and may prefer the term “Unionist background”. In general, the self-criticisms and lack of a positive pro-Union case are in stark contrast to many Nationalist commentators such as Brian Feeney, Chris Donnelly, Andrée Murphy, Patrica Mac Bride, and Kevin Meagher, who stick to a strict script are rigidly self-forgiving, pro-Unity and heavily critical of Unionism and the British government. For Unionism there is no equivalent, however, I am not sure that there needs to be, self-criticism that is valid is extremely healthy and should be encouraged. The issue is when Unionism is being criticised by all sides on various platforms whilst no attempt is made at articulating a pro-Union case, this can feel demoralising and off-putting, leaving many Unionists feeling isolated and disillusioned. There are many very good Unionist commentators in addition to Ian including Sarah Creighton and Alex Kane who all bring something different to the conversation but expanding this pool with people articulating pro-Union ideas and values would be very beneficial to Unionism.
From the outset, I am a member of this group and it concerns me about how the Orange Institution interjects itself into politics. The organisation has a political dimension, and at times making a considered, thoughtful and articulate statement on politics that is reflective of its members should not cause any issues. However, elements of the hierarchy tend to wade in with statements that are often personal but get reported on as statements from the organisation. The media in general has pinned the institution as being opposed to the deal and that Jeffrey Donaldson would have issues with the loyal orders. The truth is that no internal vote has taken place, Jeffrey Donaldson would have a lot of support within the orders and many of those prominently backing the deal are Orangemen whilst the most high-profile opponents are by and large not members. It also appears that Orange Halls are being used for opposition rallies chaired by non-members, again the Orange Institution needs to be very careful regarding this. It continually and awkwardly intervenes in politics in a way that doesn’t reflect the views of members and further damages the Orange Institution’s reputation.
A group that is noticeably missing from Unionism, this group can provide vital insights for politicians, attract new talent, and help generate conversations that drive policy. There is no shortage of “New Ireland” groups, and there is no denying their influence and ambition. Unionism must be able to generate its conversations and ideas rather than just reacting to these groups. There has been much talk about forming groups around strengthening the Union, this should be a priority rather than waiting around until such times when a border poll may be looming.
Influential Party Members
Some of the biggest players in Unionist politics are also the most invisible. This week brought into focus one of the most powerful Unionists currently operating in politics, namely DUP Chief Executive, Timothy Johnston. It was a rare foray into the limelight that the Unionist powerhouse would not have appreciated. With several leaks coming from the DUP culminating in a private DUP meeting being broadcast live to Jamie Bryson, many eyes have been on Timothy Johnson who along with DUP Director of Communications John Robinson will be responsible for sourcing and addressing the leaks. But does it matter who is in the backroom of the various Unionist parties? The answer is yes. Whilst the leaks from within the DUP were embarrassing for the party and aimed at undermining Jeffrey Donaldson, this in turn undermined and humiliated Unionism as a whole and also had the potential of scuppering the entire deal affecting everyone in Northern Ireland. Wider Unionism regardless of whether they support the DUP or not will expect as a minimum that those powerful behind-the-scenes figures who make some of the big decisions are competent and operating in a manner that benefits Unionism and is ultimately good for Northern Ireland.
Loyalist Communities Council (LCC)
On the subject of influential party members, David Campbell a former chairman of the UUP is now a chair of the LCC and in doing so plays a prominent role within Unionism. The LCC itself is an extremely controversial group that represents three Loyalist paramilitary organisations. David Campbell is not a member of any paramilitary group, however, his role as chair of the LCC should in effect be about bringing an end to these groups but too often it spills over into voicing views on Unionist politics under the LCC umbrella. I won’t pretend to be naïve about the difficulty in ending paramilitaries and the need for our politicians to engage with them in bringing about their cessation, however, the issue is that they are too often consulted and treated as a legitimate political entity. The overwhelming majority within Unionism will oppose Loyalist paramilitaries but there is almost a blasé response about the LCC, we don’t like them and we’ll ignore them. Nevertheless, it is difficult to ignore the damage that paramilitaries cause in Northern Ireland. Unionists should be asking more questions of the LCC, why does it exist, what does it do and when will paramilitaries be exiting the scene?
The Unionist Electorate
This is the most problematic part of Unionism as it doesn’t know what it wants. Many want “Unionist unity” but many of the same people spend the majority of their time attacking other Unionists. Many will complain that not enough new faces are getting involved with Unionism and then they denounce new faces who appear or turn a blind eye when others are denouncing them. Unionists complain about the Unionist vote shrinking but don’t vote themselves. There will be resistance and rejection of deals with no offer of workable alternatives. People will be called to protest with no thoughts on the consequences. Unionists will call for change but resist those politicians who offer it. Unionists will complain about politicians showing no direction yet rejecting any direction a politician takes. Unionists will bemoan how well-organised Nationalists are, yet they actively disrupt aspects of Unionism. Mainly Unionists complain about disunity whilst cheering on or ignoring the most divisive individuals involved with Unionism. Unionists have to better decide what they want because a generation and more has been spent shouting about what we don’t want and it’s almost always materialised.
Before looking at many of the problems within Unionism, we should start by looking at ourselves. Most of the problems can be attributed to our complacency, inaction, and downright stubbornness. Since 2007 when the TUV was formed they have been resoundingly rejected at every election, however, TUV members, particularly Jim Allister (who is elected) are platformed across all mainstream media outlets at a rate that is overwhelmingly disproportionate to the TUV’s mandate. Jamie Bryson who is not elected gets significantly more media exposure than all other Unionist politicians with the possible exception of Jeffrey Donaldson. Despite all of this misrepresentation, division, and at times damage caused by their actions, Unionists by and large remain silent. It is this silence and complacency that is causing many of the issues within Unionism and it’s time for the silent majority to make its voice heard and be better reflected in politics. History is about to be made with Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill due to be appointed first minister and this will understandably attract much publicity, but for Unionists, what better way of demonstrating that Northern Ireland works for all than by showing that a Republican can reach the highest office in Northern Ireland. With Stormont back, a new deal is agreed and what appears to be a rebooted Jeffrey Donaldson emerging as the leader of Unionism. Unionism overall now also has a chance to reboot. It can choose to be positive, pragmatic, and solution-focused, concentrating on topics that impact everyone such as health and education, and make Northern Ireland a success. Or it can choose anger, protest, outrage, negativity, and all of the old tactics from the past that didn’t work then and won’t work now. Unionism can offer so much more and it now has the chance, destiny is in its own hands.
Choyaa is a Fermanagh Orangeman