Ian Clarke wrote a good article on Slugger O’Toole entitled “Come Together, Right Now” published on 9th February 2024 regarding where unionism is now that Stormont has been restored, akin to his many previous articles on unionism. Realignment within unionism is talked about but does anyone know what it means? My own understanding is that it would be two new unionist parties – presumably a moderate one that is pro-devolution and a hardline one that is Stormont-sceptical (they may not theoretically oppose devolution but they are certainly sceptical of its real-world practice).
We then get into questions concerning what it means to be moderate and hardline – for example, can you be moderate but be Stormont-sceptical and could you be hardline but pro-devolution? Is being moderate or hardline determined by one’s liberal or conservative social views? Or, is it rather a question of style of how one comes across in political debate and campaigning? And this is before we get into economics – is unionism pragmatic on economics? Or could there be divisions here in future?
Branding then comes to mind: what should these two new unionist parties be called to appeal to the electorate they seek to represent? Or could a merger happen between two existing unionist parties leaving the other to represent the remainder? Who would lead these parties? How would they be organised, structured and funded? How does one then determine which unionist elected representatives should go where? Who gets to be the candidate at elections and how will they be selected? There will undeniably be personality clashes and electoral rivalry at play as is sadly the nature of politics.
Realignment within Unionism Might Already Be Happening
As you can see, trying to plan some sort of a realignment within unionism is very difficult in practice and not easily agreed. Arguably, this realignment is already happening naturally: the DUP has returned to Stormont. It is now on the ground that the UUP tried to use to make itself distinct from the DUP.
One would expect the UUP to enter Opposition to make itself distinct from the DUP as it did under Mike Nesbitt with the SDLP however it has instead chosen to go into government against the preference of current UUP Leader Doug Beattie. The rationale behind this is that being in government at least guarantees a degree of influence and delivery. However, as historically shown, there will come a time when there will be disagreement within the Executive. The UUP and possibly Alliance will complain about how they are being treated. They will inevitably be asked why they then agreed to be in the Executive which requires collective responsibility for it to work.
Where unionism goes from here is anyone’s guess. I suspect the upcoming LucidTalk poll will tell us more. However, as a unionist, I feel unionism is now in a better place than previously. I have been inspired by the recent speeches of DUP Leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly. I identify as a moderate, secular, gay unionist that proudly attends Belfast Pride – representative of the demographic unionism needs to win the support of. I can’t help but wonder if there are others like me who were also inspired. Is unionism broadening its support?
Devolution: Northern Ireland’s Long-Term Future
There is of course opposition against the restoration of Stormont, however, I say to them: instability is the greatest threat to the union. If Northern Ireland does not work, undecided voters might consider other constitutional alternatives. Devolution is the only agreed way forward for both unionism and nationalism. Direct rule would only create a democratic deficit. Unionism needs Stormont as its base to not only make Northern Ireland work but also to secure Northern Ireland’s place in the union for the long term. We will never achieve perfection but we can achieve excellence.
Michael Palmer holds a degree in Politics from Ulster University and is interested in political ideology, the politics of popular culture and wrote a dissertation on unionism/loyalism.