In his latest News Letter column Alex Kane describes ‘unionist unity’ as the ‘idée fixe’ of unionism in Northern Ireland. He says that unionism lacks ‘coherence and narrative drive’ and he points out that attempts to agree a ‘common set of democratic principles’ among unionists have delivered ‘diddly squat’. It’s hard to disagree with any of that.
When this blog started out, in 2007, I wrote three posts which tried to ‘define unionism’. They were a bit rough and ready, and far too wordy, but I stick by many of my ideas. In essence, I argued that it was a sorry type of unionism that showed little or no interest in the rest of the UK and was focused, mainly, on protecting certain aspects of Ulster Protestant culture.
I’ve not changed that view, but, nine years later, I acknowledge it was arrogant to suggest that ‘civic unionists’, as they were described, were the real thing, while ‘cultural unionists’ were merely ‘Ulster nationalists’. In 2016, with the SNP dominating politics in Scotland, and Brexit reopening debate about the UK constitution, anyone who supports the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, whatever their motivation, is important to unionism.
When unionists appeal for ‘unionist unity’ they generally have a single political party or an electoral pact in mind. That’s nearly always a bad idea, because it alienates part of the pro-Union electorate and encourages the notion that unionism is about the interests of only one part of the community in Northern Ireland.
High-minded objections to pacts look less convincing though, viewed from somewhere like Fermanagh and South Tyrone, which now has an MP who takes his seat at Westminster, after unionists from the UUP and DUP campaigned for Tom Elliott, who beat Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew.
There are now fewer clear distinctions between the two main unionist parties. The UUP no longer has its electoral link with the Conservative Party and the DUP is led by a moderate politician, who started out in the Ulster Unionists. The parties attack each other habitually but, while there are subtle differences between their policies, broadly their principles are similar.
Under Mike Nesbitt’s leadership, the UUP has enjoyed some tactical successes, partly because it is prepared to cooperate with the DUP. However, the party hasn’t articulated a unique ‘big idea’ to capture voters’ attention and distance it from its unionist rival.
The UUP's decision to form an opposition, after the Assembly election, gives it an opportunity to carve out a distinct role, but working harmoniously with the SDLP might prove difficult while Colum Eastwood cranks up the nationalist rhetoric. Ulster Unionists stayed mainly silent, while their opposition partners used the Brexit result to challenge the British government’s authority in Northern Ireland.
The referendum illustrated again how both main unionist parties struggle to balance broader loyalties to the United Kingdom with their regional mandate to represent Northern Ireland’s interests. Conservative activists locally regularly attack both the UUP and the DUP on this basis, often with justification, alleging that they do not engage properly with national politics.
Electorally, that argument hasn’t won much support, neither has it proved persuasive across the Tory party in Great Britain and it ignores tensions that are inevitable where power is devolved to regional institutions. In Scotland, for instance, Labour and the Conservatives have struggled to compete against the SNP, which presents itself as a champion of Scottish interests, with no competing allegiances.
Both parties looked seriously at ways of distancing their wings in Scotland from the national leaderships and the Conservatives revived their fortunes only by finding a charismatic young leader and emphasising a distinctly Scottish brand of unionism.
Against that backdrop, the liberal unionist MLAs, John McCallister and Basil McCrea, chose to form a new party, NI21, rather than join the Northern Ireland Tories. That was a short-lived project, torn apart by internal rivalries, but it still outperformed the NI Conservatives at the polls.
There’s not much prospect of a new unionist party, or one of the existing pro-Union options, challenging the DUP and the UUP any time soon. Neither can a single unionist party reach all parts of the unionist electorate or win over voters from backgrounds that aren’t traditionally associated with unionist parties.
Alex’s column mentions Peter Robinson’s support for a ‘council for the union’, which would span the various strands of pro-Union opinion. There was understandable scepticism about the then DUP leader’s intentions, but perhaps the best chance of revitalising unionism in Northern Ireland is with this type of broad discussion about its underlying principles. Then some of the best ideas, which haven’t yet been reflected adequately by mainstream parties, can start to influence unionist thinking more widely. If the conversation is serious and restricted to finding the best way to promote the union, it needn’t entail any important compromises.
That would mean examining carefully the merits of the modern United Kingdom, the challenges it faces and the way that devolved regions, like Northern Ireland, fit into national politics. What does it now mean to be British and how do culture and identity shape political allegiance? Where do Irishness and other identities fit into a modern definition of Britishness? How do unionists balance more successfully loyalties to their regions and loyalties to their nation state? Will unionism have to change the way it looks at the constitution when the UK leaves the EU?
The discipline of answering these difficult questions mightn’t result in a single party or an electoral pact, but it could sharpen the way unionists think about politics and help them assemble a more persuasive and durable story around their ideas.