IN April 1912 the Conservative Party leader Andrew Bonar Law, addressing yet another rally in Belfast, commented: “It is not your numbers – great and imposing though they are – which seem to me so impressive. If ever the demeanour of men could be taken as an index of their inner spirit then what I have seen today convinces me . . . that you are animated by a unity of purpose and a fixity of resolution which nothing can shake, and which must prove irresistible.”
A century later and that still strikes me as a fairly good assessment of the purpose of unionist unity.
But then, as now, unionist unity wasn’t just about any one organisation. It was (again, as it is now) an umbrella concept: back in 1912 bringing together the Protestant churches and sects, the Orange Order, the Ulster Unionist Council, a variety of unionist clubs and societies and very strong bonds with the Conservative Party. It was pan-UK unionism.
Yet it was wider and deeper than that. The unionist unity of 1912 – in ‘Ulster’ at least – united the bin man with the banker, the company director with the shop assistant, men with women, colonels with privates and public representatives with people who didn’t even have a vote.
In other words, if you believed in the Union and in the struggle against Home Rule then you were good enough to be accepted as a member of the unionist family and trusted enough to be given a role to play. They were, collectively, the ecclesia, quite literally ‘the gathering together’.
Unionist unity has been an idée fixe of unionism since the first Home Rule Crisis of the mid-1880s: and it certainly played a key part leading to the creation of Northern Ireland and the establishment of two Home Rule parliaments in Ireland rather than just the one.
Yet also fixed in the minds of many non-unionists was the idea that unionism was a threatening, insular, excluding, self-obsessed political philosophy. A creed that didn’t seem to go much further than the mantras of ‘not an inch’ and ‘united we stand’.
Indeed, the unity which sustained the Unionist Government from 1921 to the mid-1960s was built around the common belief that all Catholics were obviously republicans and probably supporters of the IRA.
So deeply engrained was this view that successive Unionist governments did nothing to reach out to Roman Catholics and did precious little, either, to do anything which might have resulted in agreement on socio/economic issues between the classes within each community.
But once that unionist unity came under sustained pressure in the 1960s from Roman Catholics and nationalists and civil rights organisations (rather than the IRA) it buckled quickly and began to fracture into Alliance, Vanguard, DUP, UPNI et al, a process of division which continues now. So I suspect that it’s searching for a response to that ongoing division (which is costing unionism seats at Assembly and council level) that has concentrated Peter Robinson’s mind on the umbrella concept of his recently announced Council for the Union.
Unionist unity has been attempted a number of times since the fall of the Stormont Parliament in 1972. The DUP/Vanguard/Loyal Orders/UDA and bulk of the UUP combined in 1973 to bring down the Sunningdale Agreement: yet went their own ways again (with another couple of new fractures) having failed to deliver an alternative.
They tried something similar in response to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, but that, too, led to new offshoots and no alternatives. As the UUP fell apart at the time of the Belfast Agreement the DUP/UKUP and elements of the Loyal Orders tried to build a new unionist unity front, yet all that did was ensure that the DUP became the dominant voice of unionism, albeit in an Assembly deadlock with Sinn Fein.
The real difference between the unionist unity of 1912, 1973 and 1985 is that Robinson is trying to gear it towards a wider pro-Union strategy which is open to all creeds and cultures. Some cynics – and John McCallister would be one of them – suspect that it’s simply a DUP electoral ruse to further marginalise the UUP and close down the TUV. These cynics believe that Robinson doesn’t really care about attracting Roman Catholics and unionist non-voters if he can continue to pick off UUP and TUV votes and keep the DUP firmly ahead of Sinn Fein. The cynics would also argue that unionist unity candidates do much more long-term damage to the UUP than they do to the DUP.
Anyway, what is the likelihood that unionist unity would, in fact, maximise the total pro-Union turnout as opposed to increasing the DUP’s grip on power at the expense of the smaller parties?
Well, it seems to me that if people are choosing not to vote for the DUP, UUP, TUV, Conservative, UCUNF etc, that it’s probably a fair bet that they wouldn’t necessarily vote for some unionist unity vehicle either.
So instead, perhaps some thought needs to be given to new political/electoral vehicles, vehicles which are built around the needs and demands of a post-conflict Northern Ireland?
Yet that view clearly worries elements in both the DUP and UUP, who fear that any new pro-Union parties (reaching out specifically to non voters and the growing post-1998 voting generation) will cost them votes and seats, as well as maybe allowing Sinn Fein to sneak into the First Minister’s job.
If all of that is part of Robinson’s calculation (and he remains the best long-term strategist in unionism) then it probably makes sense that he plays both sides of the field: building an umbrella organisation to tie in as much of unionism as he can, while reaching out to growing numbers of anti-United Ireland voters within both Roman Catholicism and the increasing numbers of immigrants coming here to work and live.
It’s certainly a strategy which will keep the DUP in top dog position for some time to come; but whether it ever results in a unionist vehicle which is truly inclusive, secular and pluralist is another matter entirely!
l Follow Alex on Twitter: @AlexKane221b