Can unionist unity damage the Union?

THERE is something profoundly depressing about a united unionism that excludes people like Sheila Davidson and Peter McCann, the two Tory party hopefuls who are considering their position rather than enter a new pan-unionist front.

The idea of unionist unity may seem, on the surface, like the surest way of guaranteeing the Union, but it may have the opposite effect, bringing the Union with Britain into constant doubt at every election.

Traditionally in Northern Ireland that is the way votes have been rallied and managed. It was said by the Northern Ireland Labour Party, who tried unsuccessfully to break the tribal mould with a focus on bread and butter issues, that if you pinned a Union Jack to a donkey, people would have voted for it.

Of course, the same happened on the other side of the fence. For most of Northern Ireland's history, the main opposition party defined itself simply as "nationalist" and was closely allied to the Catholic Church.

So complete was the tribal and sectarian division that religion and politics were regarded as fixed at birth as hair colour. They were seen as two sides of the same coin. It used to be considered a mark of bad manners to mention religion or politics in "mixed company". Since views on these subjects were set in stone, raising them at all would only give rise to arguments or offence.

The main emphasis at elections was "getting the vote out"; it was a safe assumption that most people would voted the way their families did. There was no real political debate, only a constant restatement of established positions.

The natural extension of getting the vote out was personation in which the votes of the dead or those living abroad were cast in the interest of their tribal blocks by members who were still around. After that came ward rigging. It was a breeding ground for violence and discontent.

In the early days of many states a question hangs over the existence of the state's legitimacy and its borders. With political categories set at birth the fear of being "outbred" becomes a real political worry.

A state that sticks at that point is doomed. Northern Ireland will only really be secure when people stop debating its existence at every election. It is a strange sort of unionism that seeks to push that issue centre stage; you would think that was the job of nationalists.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, the status of Northern Ireland can only be decided by referendum. On all available projections, there is no chance of people born into Catholic/nationalist families outnumbering those born into Protestant/unionist families in any of our lifetimes.

The issue of the border is parked for at least a generation. Sinn Fein, the Irish government, the Catholic Church and every other organ of mainstream opinion now accept that the only way the border will go is by the will of the majority expressed in a referendum specifically on that issue. From the point of view of maintaining the union, it doesn't matter which individual party is the largest any more than it mattered who headed the poll in the European election.

The referendum provision, which copper fastens the union, is an opportunity to move the debate on. Most opinion polls tell us that around one in four Catholics have consistently said that they prefer to remain in the UK. In some cases this is an economic calculation, in others they may value the UK as a more pluralist society or they may have had some connection with the government service or the security forces. Yet most of them stop short of joining or voting for a unionist party because of all the tribal baggage associated with politics. They may vote SDLP or Alliance, many may not vote at all.

It is obvious that securing the Union in the long term will involve winning these people into more active support and making them feel welcome with joining pro-union parties.

It should be happening now. Sheila Davidson is the daughter of an RUC officer, and Peter McCann grew up in West Belfast. They are just the sort of able, energetic professionals who could have sent out the message that you don't have to be a Protestant to be a unionist.

In the old days, miners used to carry canaries in cages in front of them to test for dangerous gases. If the canaries became agitated or died, then they knew the whole mine was in danger. The departure of people like McCann and Davidson from the scene would send the same sort of message to unionism.