Unionism is running out of time to ask, and answer, difficult questions

Alex Kane
Alex Kane
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Last week I discussed unionism and Northern Ireland on BBC’s Talkback with Edwin Poots.

I had written a piece in which I’d argued that, in the run-up to the centenary of NI’s creation in 1921, unionism should not be afraid to ask itself difficult, awkward questions.

How did we run Northern Ireland from 1921-1972; how is unionism viewed by non-unionists; are there lessons to be learned from our history?

One of my conclusions was that NI had been run as a one-party state, with Catholics regarded as the Trojan Horse enemy and ‘liberal’ unionists regarded as destabilising troublemakers.

I agreed with two key points made by Edwin: “Catholics had had little influence on the government of Northern Ireland” during those first 50 years and working-class unionists endured “a slightly better level of poverty” than their Catholic neighbours.

I accepted his view that ‘Big House’ unionism – this was a time when the Unionist Party was run by captains, knights and minor aristocrats – had no interest in the working classes generally: although I would go further and say that the party hierarchy regarded the unionist working class in particular as mere voting fodder to be fuelled on fear and sectarianism.

The DUP’s original roots were in that disaffected unionist working class and Ian Paisley was often scathing in his condemnation of how “Big House” unionism had “abandoned its own community.”

Ironically, a new generation of working-class unionist now believes that the DUP has no interest in them, either and that ‘vote DUP or you’ll get a Sinn Fein First Minister’ is just Big House unionism wearing new clothes.

That’s a valid criticism. And it’s also worth noting that working-class unionists haven’t had a credible, genuine voice since the Northern Ireland Labour Party’s successes between the late 1950s and the mid-1960s.

The PUP would argue that they represent that voice, yet electoral evidence suggests that their link with loyalist paramilitarism has deterred a substantial chunk of the working-class vote. The failure of the Labour Party to field candidates here strikes me as a missed opportunity to attract tens of thousands of people who believe that no other political/electoral vehicle represents their views and values.

The more intriguing question – and it’s one I’ve been pondering since the late 1970s – is why unionism remains so prone to internal bickering and ongoing division? I know it’s an old joke, but it bears repeating: if you put the representatives of five unionist parties into a room on a Friday afternoon to discuss unity and cooperation, you would return on Sunday to seven parties, two off-shoots, a ginger group, a new maverick and 11 press statements.

I mean, just look at the Assembly since 1998. The UUP returned with 28 MLAs, six of whom didn’t support Trimble. Between then and January 2004 key figures defected to the DUP. In that same period the DUP went from “doing all that is required to wreck the Belfast Agreement,” to reaching their own deal with Sinn Fein. Jim Allister left the DUP and set up TUV. David McNarry went from the UUP to Ukip. McCrea and McCallister went from the UUP to NI21 and then imploded. Bob McCartney’s United Kingdom Unionist Party fell apart, with four of his MLAs forming the NI Unionist Party, one of whom subsequently switched to independent before trying to join the DUP. Three unionist independents formed the NI Assembly Party and then drifted to the DUP or to oblivion. The DUP and UUP had periods of cosying up, interspersed with naked hatred. The PUP lost its two Assembly seats and now has just four councillors out of 462. The Unionist Forum, launched with great fanfare in January 2013, fell apart within months. The UCUNF (UUP/Conservative) project came and went.

That tells you all you need to know about unionism. It bickers and breaks. Indeed, there are moments when you could be forgiven for believing that unionists sometimes despise each other more than they despise their supposed political/constitutional opponents. It sometimes looks like and feels like recreational implosion. But in between all of this they seem oblivious to the fact that they don’t represent an electoral majority at the moment.

Let’s look at the last four elections – the 2011 Assembly (45.4) the 2014 Euro (50.9)/local government (47.7) and the 2015 general (47.9). That’s an average of about 48 per cent: meaning that it’s mostly thanks to proportional representation and election pacts that unionism is keeping its head above water in terms of an overall lead in seats.

Yet set against that we need to acknowledge that a significant section of the potential pro-Union vote (particularly the working class and higher-middle/professional class) isn’t voting. So, how do you attract those votes without creating even more parties and potential division?

Which leads me back to a question which has puzzled me for years: what, precisely, is ‘Ulster’ unionism? What are its core values? Why does it continue to divide and sub-divide? Is it its own worst enemy in electoral/political/historical terms? Why has it proved incapable of reaching beyond its own narrow parameters? How prepared is it for internal and external challenge? How capable is it of moving from the permanently defensive to the progressively optimistic?

Yes, these are difficult, awkward questions. But those who claim to represent and champion unionism – however they think it should manifest itself – have a duty to both address and answer those questions. Now.