Choyaa: Something is fundamentally broken within Unionism…

With the general election just days away, the timing couldn’t be worse for Unionism. Yet, considering the ongoing turbulence and disarray that has long plagued Unionist factions, it’s hard to envisage a time that would be any better. Facing an array of daunting issues – ranging from internal divisions and a dearth of coherent policies to broken promises and widespread apathy—Unionism stands at a precarious crossroads and the upcoming election may well prove to be one of the most difficult in its history.

The stakes for Unionism have rarely been higher. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), as the dominant force, and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), its contender, are grappling with deep-rooted issues I’ve recently discussed for Slugger. These challenges have driven disaffected voters towards the Alliance Party, the garden centre and, to a lesser extent, the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), historically a protest faction within Unionism. This election, however, the TUV could significantly alter the landscape by further splintering the Unionist vote, potentially aiding the Alliance Party in various constituencies. The TUV, free from the burden of serious policy-making, thrives on opposition, with Jim Allister as its central figure. Without Allister, the party’s existence would be short-lived. I have always thought that Jim Allister’s talents were a missed opportunity for Unionism, his obvious ability could have been used more productively, instead he has become a byword for negativity and rejectionism and the entire TUV project is subject to endless ridicule.

The TUV’s relentless opposition on most topics always lack substantive alternative proposals and their opposition to the Protocol is no exception. Their association with the Reform Party, particularly after Nigel Farage endorsed rival DUP members, has been disastrous, causing their alliance to crumble faster than a Unionist Unity convention. The TUV’s challenges reflect broader issues within Unionism, the inability to make friends and ongoing contradictions. They struggle to garner transfers in PR elections and face internal contradictions, criticising others for affiliations with Sinn Fein while engaging with representatives of loyalist paramilitaries. Despite vehemently opposing the Protocol and contesting Westminster elections on this platform, their South Belfast candidate initially welcomed Boris Johnson’s deal that led to the Protocol and subsequently campaigned for it. Additionally, key Reform members, including Ben Habib who is closely with the TUV, voted for the Protocol.

Ironically, the TUV’s hardline Unionist stance often benefits non-Unionist parties at elections, especially the Alliance Party. This election could see the TUV inadvertently aiding Alliance even more, raising questions about whether they fully understand the implications of their actions. TUV deputy leader Ron McDowell didn’t seem to fully understand the potential consequences of his actions, suggesting his intervention in Strangford wouldn’t impact the DUP. However, forecasts indicate the constituency could be on a knife edge due to boundary changes and the intervention of the TUV vote.

underscoring the complex and contentious dynamics within Unionism and the party will face greater widespread criticism within Unionism if this happens.

it’s unclear how much of an impact the TUV will have; however, a party polling at 4% and openly admitting to a poor reception on the doors isn’t exactly encouraging. I do feel that Unionist patience with what the TUV has contributed to politics is coming to an end. If the party ends up costing Unionist seats, then this election could truly be their swansong.

The TUV’s intervention is not unexpected and is not entirely without support. There has long been dissatisfaction with mainstream Unionism, which lacks a compelling vision, is dysfunctional, divided, and has little to say on major issues such as health, immigration, and the economy. A growing vacuum exists within Unionism that the main parties are failing to fill. These issues have sparked increasing calls for realignment, and there are many merits to this proposal, as divided Unionism has alienated the electorate. Moreover, there are factions within both the DUP and UUP that share common ground. While such a proposal presents challenges – including potentially boosting support for the Alliance Party and exacerbating divisions within Unionism.

It must also be considered that the presence of numerous prominent Unionist figures in any negotiations will hinder its realisation as egos are likely to get in the way. However, for a declining demographic there are too many Unionist parties and none are effectively resonating with the public in terms of their offerings. While Unionist realignment may be some way off, there is a growing sentiment for greater cooperation within Unionism and a reduction in toxicity and internal conflict. Unionist unity is highly unlikely in the short term, but realignment could and should occur in the medium term. For now, there must be efforts to ease hostilities because, despite what might be seen on social media, internal infighting remains one of the biggest grievances of the Unionist electorate.

The main talking point at the election within Unionism has been North Down, and this illustrates the problems with Unionism. Both Unionist camps have done enough damage to each other to give Stephen Farry a fighting chance of squeezing through the middle. Alex Easton has been greatly undermined with question marks over his suitability for the role of MP, issues with his election agent, a feeling that he has been avoiding interviews where he would come under serious scrutiny and the overall campaign feels undisciplined and unprofessional. To counter this, Alex Easton’s supporters have highlighted how he is the local candidate with a track record of working hard within the constituency.

By comparison, Tim Collins’ campaign has been gaffe-prone, from his residency in England to policies that are more aligned with an independent candidate than a member of the UUP. However, what Tim Collins has managed to do is create excitement, and his approach has shaken things up in North Down. Collins is more suited to the role of an MP than Easton but remains hampered by the perception that days out from an election he remains the third runner and a vote for him would help Stephen Farry.

Unionists in North Down who want a Unionist MP will have a big decision to make: vote for the lead challenger Alex Easton, who has question marks over his suitability but is the local candidate and will be around after the election, or vote for Tim Collins, the much stronger candidate but also the third runner who may inadvertently help Stephen Farry by splintering the vote. Furthermore, if Mr. Collins loses, will the people of North Down see him again? North Down Unionists have a lot to think about, but these obvious problems should have been addressed by Unionism much sooner rather than thrashing them out in public at the eleventh hour in an often-unseemly manner, and then Unionist parties wonder why voters are opting out of this never-ending circus.

My own constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone usually delivers a thriller on election night, but the campaign to date has been anything but, with locals dubbing it the battle between the abstentionist and the absentee candidate. Unionism here is grappling with voter apathy, with Unionists debating whether to vote or abstain. This has been fuelled by a lackluster campaign from the UUP that risks alienating voters, many of whom are unaware of Diana Armstrong and what she stands for despite her being a councillor since 2016. The campaign is likely an attempt to fly below the radar, but it’s offering little to incentivise the electorate to vote. Non-Unionist voters, who are essential to winning the campaign, are unlikely to be motivated by an invisible campaign.

The threat of Sinn Féin winning the seat isn’t as potent as it once was, leaving many asking whether having a UUP MP would make any difference. The fact that the answer to this question is ambiguous is a real issue for Unionism in FST. Sinn Féin, by contrast, has chosen high-profile Pat Cullen, the former Chief Executive and General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, with many Unionists privately conceding that Sinn Féin has the much stronger candidate. The main talking point of the campaign came during a BBC Radio Ulster debate. Pat Cullen was specifically asked to condemn the IRA’s attacks on nurses during the Enniskillen and Omagh bombings, but she did not explicitly condemn these murders. It’s unclear if this will galvanise either side to come out to vote, but Cullen’s response certainly angered many Unionists in the area and I suspect some who weren’t going to vote will hold their noses on election day and opt for Armstrong.

Changing demographics have contributed to Unionism’s decline within the constituency, but Unionism has rarely helped itself. Too many of its elected representatives are anonymous from one election to the next, and there’s an obvious dearth of talent coming through. This, coupled with a disengaged electorate that feels Unionism continually fails to deliver, compounds the problems. There has been no sign of Unionism working together on the campaign trail, and some within the TUV have openly vowed not to vote for Armstrong. The infighting is endless. The horse trading that played out in the media by Unionists outside of the constituency when it came to determining a candidate was unedifying and showed that too many Unionists have forgotten about those of us in the west.

This point has been amplified by the lack of any big hitters deployed to the constituency during the election, with the exception of a cameo appearance from Doug Beattie in Moygashel. Lagan Valley, North Down, and South Antrim all trump Fermanagh and South Tyrone for Unionism in general, and that has not gone unnoticed by those of us in the west. It would be disingenuous to say that Unionism deserved to win this campaign. It’s done very little and has threatened to do less if successful. But if Unionism does manage to wrestle this seat from Sinn Féin, then I sincerely hope it uses this opportunity to truly benefit the constituency and its people. Perhaps then, Unionists outside of the constituency will take more interest.

Disengagement with Unionists in the west is a significant problem, but general disengagement on the ground is another, and the Alliance Party has been the benefactor. East Belfast, which used to be a DUP stronghold, is now a marginal seat, and the DUP has failed to effectively counter this issue. While Gavin Robinson is popular there, the party has no other big hitters within the area, and the two MLAs are relatively unknown. Clearly, something has gone wrong when the DUP is fighting for its political life there when the seat should, in theory, be relatively safe. Lack of engagement on the ground is a key problem; it’s not solely a Gavin Robinson issue but a problem with the wider DUP team that needs to better coordinate its operations. The DUP brand is another issue. As mentioned in my previous article, the DUP has become synonymous with incompetence and scandal, and this is something it has to address.

Something is fundamentally broken within Unionism. When it’s struggling in areas such as East Belfast, Lagan Valley, and North Down, then there are huge problems that need to be addressed after the election. Instead of focusing on transformative ideas that could engage the electorate, Unionism often finds itself embroiled in trivial disputes over matters like shampoo bottles and smoky bacon crisps. The toxicity, division, and disconnect, coupled with the lack of delivery, are accelerating the decline. Successive UK governments have ignored Unionism, and there is a consensus that Unionist parties are contributing more to the decline of the Union than any Republican campaign could hope to achieve.

The Unionist electorate will face a conundrum at this election: vote for Unionist parties and return more of the same, abstain from voting which will probably be ignored, spoil the ballot paper which will also be ignored, or register a protest vote with the Alliance Party which risks being misinterpreted. There is a feeling that a loss of seats would help focus minds; however, as has been proven umpteen times, with North Down being a case in point, lost seats are difficult to regain. The UUP and DUP both need to sort themselves out, whatever happens at this election, Unionism needs a full reset as it is currently not fit for purpose.

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