Sam McBride: Reeling, unionism stands at a strategic crossroads

Unionist unity would almost certainly mean no opposition at Stormont. 
Picture By: Arthur Allison.

Unionist unity would almost certainly mean no opposition at Stormont. Picture By: Arthur Allison.

The most significant development within unionism in the seven days since last week’s landmark election result has not been the inevitable calls for unionist unity, but the debate about what form of unionism such an electoral vehicle should espouse.

In the wake of an electoral reverse as shocking as the loss of unionism’s Stormont majority, attempts at some form of unity are almost guaranteed.

What has been surprising has been the number of pro-unity unionists stating that a single unionist party would make matters worse.

And, within the DUP there has been an unusual level of public soul-searching. Founding member and veteran traditionalist Wallace Thompson said bluntly this week that DUP sloganising about ‘Sinn Fein/IRA’ had been counterproductive and there was now a need for the party to realise the scale of Sinn Fein’s vote and to “accept the implications of it”.

Significantly, for a man whose time in the DUP dates back to a point at which the late Ian Paisley spat the term “compromiser” at opponents who proposed sharing power with the SDLP, Mr Thompson went on to say: “Compromise is a dirty word in Ulster, but there is going to have to be compromise on all sides if we are to move forward.”

Similarly explicit comments have been made by Ian Paisley Jr, while other more cautious DUP figures (though not Arlene Foster, in public at least) have also shown realisation that the party’s strategy in this election has been disastrous.

Now unionism finds itself at a strategic crossroads.

To the left is the road of a radically re-aligned unionism, with the UUP and DUP (and perhaps a new party) offering competing visions, economically, socially and culturally rather than what are at present two small ‘c’ conservative, culturally Protestant entities.

To the right is the path of unionist unity. That could encompass anything from an agreement for unionists to be more polite to each other through to a full blown merger of every pro-Union party.

If unionism adopts the former route, there will be many short-term decisions about policies and personalities. But a fundamental longer-term question it will have to ponder is this: Why if so many Catholics now support the Union are they not drawn in any significant numbers to join the unionist parties?

If that question can be answered in a way which makes political unionism attractive to those who are now largely beyond its reach, Northern Ireland’s long-term future within the Union will become significantly more secure.

Demographic changes mean that on current trends at some unknown future date Protestants will be a minority. At that point (and assuming that every Protestant votes for the Union, which is unlikely), the constitutional future of Northern Ireland will lie in the hands of Catholics.

If unionism is seen as the sort of hostile entity which many Catholics have in this election perceived it to be, it would hardly be surprising if the sort of culturally nationalist voters – Catholics who love the GAA, cherish the Irish language and feel more affinity with Dublin than London – feel driven towards becoming constitutional nationalists.

If unionism follows the unionist unity route to its logical conclusion, it should on paper still be able to address all of those issues. But in practice, such a party would look to most outsiders – and even to some unionists – as essentially tribal.

Even a scenario such as that outlined in today’s News Letter by David Burnside whereby all pro-Union parties formed a firm pact could appear to outsiders as a de facto party, particularly if it involved (as it probably would have to) agreed policy positions and joint candidate selections.

If such a coalition could hold together it could free up time to focus on positive messages and policies, rather than intra-unionist warfare.

But could such an entity - even in the form of a pact - retain hardline unionist voices like Jim Allister and Gregory Campbell while retaining moderates such as Doug Beattie? If it could not, then unionism might not even hold its own ground, let alone reach out to expand unionism’s appeal.

Unionist canvassers consistently report that calls for unionist unity are one of the most frequent responses from pro-Union voters. Therefore, with the efficiencies that would come from even a pan-unionist agreement on candidates and transfers, in the short term unity might deliver the greatest electoral uplift.

The idea of a united unionism could have a powerful emotional appeal as Northern Ireland approaches its centenary in four years’ time.

But the growing Catholic population – and, as Ian Paisley Jr identifies in his interview with the New Statesman this week, the less tribal outlook of a significant section of the post-Troubles generation – mean that it would face huge challenges in growing support for the Union beyond those who already are in that camp.

It would also signal the end of opposition politics at Stormont, just a year after unionists succeeded in securing what they had for years identified as a key flaw in the Belfast Agreement. The long-term absence of a Stormont opposition could only harm the credibility of Stormont – and by extension Northern Ireland – through a lack of accountability in which scandals such as RHI are likely to abound.

And the great unknown, as seen in this election, is not just how unionists would react, but how nationalists would react. Would nationalists then unite still further around Sinn Fein?

Now, with the possibility of another Stormont election within weeks, major strategic decisions are facing one unionist leader who is electorally battered and one party which does not know who its leader will be a month from now.