Unionism should worry less about Gerry Adams and more about its lack of vision

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

In the News Letter’s election supplement (February 23) I wrote: “So, March 2 has the potential to be the most important election ever in Northern Ireland. My gut instinct is that unionism will, just about, squeeze a majority – but it can’t be taken for granted. If it does lose that majority, though, the political dynamics here will change and change dramatically. More crucially, though and putting it bluntly: if unionists can no longer deliver an overall majority in a Northern Ireland Assembly (and we’re just four years away from NI’s centenary), then they have big, big problems, further down the line.”

In a piece for the Belfast Telegraph a few days later, Arlene Foster noted: “I don’t agree with everything Alex Kane has to say, but I did agree with his comment last week … not having an overall majority would, I believe, have a huge psychological impact across unionism.”

Then, late on the night after the election – as it became clear that there would be no majority (yep, it was even worse than my gloomy prediction!) – I said, in a BBC interview: “All of unionism is spooked now. Prepare for the wagons to be circled and for a rebooting of the on-again-off-again unionist unity project.”

Foster, a number of DUP MPs and the UUP’s Danny Kennedy and Tom Elliott have already been talking about it. David Campbell – a former UUP chairman and chief-of-staff to David Trimble – wrote in this newspaper on Thursday: “It is my intention, along with some other like-minded colleagues, to commence a process of private consultation amongst senior members of the main unionist and loyalist parties with a view to producing a sensible set of co-operative proposals that can be put to the parties. Our prize is the continued security of the Union and wiping the triumphal grin off Gerry Adams.”

Really: Gerry Adams again! Foster made him the focal point of her campaign and, to all intents and purposes, gave him a renewed personal mandate here. I’m also pretty sure she’s responsible for Sinn Fein’s bounce into second place in this weekend’s polls in the Republic. And now Campbell wants to make him the focal point of his campaign.

What is this obsession with Adams: and why do unionists insist on keeping him front-and-centre?

On Saturday, former UUP MP David Burnside argued, again in this newspaper, in favour of resurrecting the United Ulster Unionist Council. It was all I could do to stop my head banging off the wall. The UUUC was created in January 1974 to kill off the Sunningdale Agreement and undermine Brian Faulkner. It collapsed under internal strain – including the break-up of Vanguard – and disagreement over a second strike in 1977. At no time was the Union under threat.

Skip forward 40 years to the last attempt at unity – the 2013 Unionist Forum, to get the flag protestors under control; it, too, imploded within months and led to more intra-unionist acrimony and division.

The reason unionist unity hasn’t worked is that it’s built on the false premise that all unionists think the same way and have the same underpinning beliefs and worldview.

They don’t. They never had. Between 1921 and the mid-1960s the UUP had, thanks to the power and patronage they exercised permanently in the old Parliament, the mechanisms and clout to squash and control dissenting voices. That began to fracture with the rise of Paisley in 1962 and collapsed altogether 45 years ago, when Stormont was prorogued and one-party rule ended.

On June 19, 2000, the News Letter’s front-page headline was: Ballot Box Alert. It was based on research I had done. This is a snippet: ‘the old political order is changing. Given the continuing decline of the unionist vote it is not impossible that unionist members will be in a minority in a future Assembly – sooner than they think.

Unless we get that very substantial tranche of unionists who have stopped voting in the past 10-15 years, we are going to lose Assembly seats, parliamentary seats and become a minority at local council level. Unionism as an electoral force is in very grave difficulty and it is a problem which affects every unionist party. There is a deeper and more worrying reason why unionists are reluctant to vote and we need to discover and address it.’

That headline was from 17 years ago. We are still trying to discover the reasons underlying voter reluctance – let alone begin addressing it. But one thing I do know for certain – election pacts, transfer deals and intra-party ‘understandings’ are not enough.

Yes, they will appeal to those who like the idea of unionist unity and who already vote down the line; but there is scant evidence to suggest that non-voters would be encouraged. There is also evidence, going back to 1974, that significant cores across all the unionist parties do not like and will not vote for unionist unity vehicles.

What is missing – and has been since the collapse of Stormont – is an overarching vision of what unionism generally and Ulster unionism, in particular, is all about.

Other than a belief in the United Kingdom, what actually binds us together? How do we view ourselves? What vision and agenda do we have for Northern Ireland? How do you reconcile unionists who can accept same-sex marriage and abortion reform with those who can’t? What is our counter-narrative to Irish unity? What underpins our separate and collective identities as unionists?

I have known people like David Campbell, David Burnside, Jeffrey Donaldson and Arlene Foster for years; and we have many beliefs in common. But I would urge them to exercise great caution with the unionist unity ideal.

There’s a huge debate required and it mustn’t be sidelined in the rush to ‘wipe the triumphal grin’ off Gerry Adams’s face.

He’s not the real problem.