I sometimes wonder if there is a self-destruct button at the very heart of unionism.
Indeed,given the number of varieties available at any one time, I also sometimes wonder if unionism was invented by a Mr Heinz.
I mean, just look at what Peter Robinson said at the DUP’s spring conference on Saturday: “The creation of the Unionist Forum has brought together probably the most representative group of unionists in the last half century.
“It offers the opportunity for unionists from all backgrounds to hear directly the perspectives from other parties and groupings and from the wider unionist family. Any unionist who is in touch with the unionist community will know the greatest frustrations among our people are the divisions within unionism itself.”
There you go: that’s a solid, positive, let’s-all-pull-in-the-one-direction message – the sort of thing we keep being told that unionists want to hear. Yet it sounds distinctly odd when contrasted with what he said earlier in his speech about the reaction to the Maze project: “The UUP and TUV joined forces in an attempt to panic the unionist community. There was no scaremongering gambit they did not try. Everyone can now see how they disgracefully sought to mislead the public. They never allow facts to get in the way of a good story or the truth to interfere with their political agendas.”
And, for good measure, he also put the boot into other members of the unionist family: “A small section of unionism opposes what we are doing, and what the electorate democratically voted for and they have been seeking to create issues to stir up and agitate voters and try to use touchstone issues to damage the process we are involved in.”
I noted a few months ago, in response to the creation of the Unionist Forum, that the immediate irony was that unity had led to yet another new party; namely, the vehicle being prepared by Basil McCrea and John McCallister (which needs to get on the road fairly soon, or they risk being forgotten). But pipping them to the post is the Protestant Coalition, a party which claims not to be all that interested in politics at all. It has indicated that it will dissolve within three years –which tends to assume that it doesn’t actually expect to win any seats in any of the four elections due in 2014/15. And, to be honest, that sounds like a pretty safe assumption, for the Coalition has all the drum major bombast and hand-me-down rhetoric of your typical vanity project.
As it stands now – unless Robinson can salvage some sort of coherent game-plan for a series of election pacts – it looks like eight (yes eight!) pro-Union parties could be fielding candidates at the next Assembly and local council elections: DUP, UUP, TUV, PUP, UKIP, Conservatives, Protestant Coalition and McCrea/McCallister.
And let’s not forget the probability of a handful of unionist independents, particularly at council level. On top of that there will almost certainly be another new party – the NI Progress Party – which seems more likely to poach from the pro-Union pool than from Sinn Fein: and, of course, Alliance, which poses a threat to UUP/DUP in south and east Belfast, as well as north Down.
In 2011 the total number of unionist MLAs was 56, giving them an overall majority of just two: so it wouldn’t take a massive shift to push them into minority status.
Admittedly, with veto, petitions of concern and requirement for cross-community approval on key issues (and bearing in mind that the DUP would probably still be the largest party overall), it wouldn’t make a huge difference to how the Assembly operates. But it would still be a huge psychological blow for unionism because, for the first time ever, it would not be the majority voice in a local Parliament or Assembly.
The difficulty for unionism (and the various parties) is that, apart from not wanting a united Ireland, it isn’t really very good at explaining what it does want.
In other words, unionist parties tend to compare and contrast with each other (which usually means accusing the others of being too weak or too hardline) rather than setting out a very specific agenda for Northern Ireland in terms of socio/economic policies and platform.
The Protestant Coalition, for example, seems more opposed to the DUP and UUP than it is to Sinn Fein and wider nationalism. The UUP/TUV/UKIP have joined forces this week to petition against what they describe as the DUP’s support for a ‘shrine to terror’.
The DUP and UUP are ding-donging over health, welfare reform and education. McCrea/McCallister complain that the DUP and UUP are closing the doors to non-unionists. The PUP says that mainstream unionism has left the working classes behind. Various ‘loyalist’ spokesmen say their community has received no benefits from the peace process.
The Loyal Orders are convinced that they are being deliberately undermined by the Parades Commission. The DUP thinks it is being ganged-up by the others for electoral reasons.
And on and on and on it goes. Unionists picking fights with each other while Sinn Fein gets away in the dust and ever increasing numbers of those from the pro-Union electorate decide to switch off and opt out.
The Unionist Forum has, as I predicted, become a boxing slapstick, with everyone putting the boot into everyone else while pretending that they are looking for consensus. They aren’t. They’re looking for personal advantage.
The Union is safe. Really! How often do I have to keep saying that? The irony – and it’s a pretty brutal irony, actually – is that the Union is safe despite, rather than because of, the antics and tactics of most unionist parties.