Ben Lowry: A new liberal unionist party might not be such a good idea after all

Conservative Party leader David Cameron arrives to speak at a Ulster Conservatives and Unionists New Force (Ucunf) press conference  along with, right, Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey and Owen Paterson, in Belfast in May 2010. The UUP had the chance to develop a new unionism in tandem with the Tories, but abandoned the idea after that election
Conservative Party leader David Cameron arrives to speak at a Ulster Conservatives and Unionists New Force (Ucunf) press conference along with, right, Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey and Owen Paterson, in Belfast in May 2010. The UUP had the chance to develop a new unionism in tandem with the Tories, but abandoned the idea after that election
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An interesting thing has happened since the MEP elections last week, which were poor for both unionists and nationalists and excellent for the political centre ground.

Within unionism there has been little mention of unionist unity.

It has barely been on the radar in recent years, yet was much talked of even during the liberal years of Mike Nesbitt’s leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party (eg when a single unionist candidate, Nigel Lutton, was agreed in the 2013 Mid Ulster Westminster by election).

The lack of desire for such unity within the current UUP is not hard to explain, given that it is down to a core of supporters who were the least inclined of its traditional base to move to the DUP (or else they would already have done so).

But there seems also to be an increasing feeling against unity on what could be called the ‘right’ of unionism (for example, Richard Cairns of the TUV, as articulated in his letter to this paper last week).

One DUP member put it to me at the Magherafelt MEP count on Monday as follows: ‘When is the UUP going to become the liberal party that it needs to be?’

The thinking among such people is that a liberal unionist party increases the overall unionist vote, because liberal unionists will not vote for a single unionist party.

Chris McGimpsey, a long-standing liberal member of the UUP, once made the point in a different way, in an article for the News Letter. He said that a single unionist party would merely gift 50,000 votes to Alliance.

Yesterday Mr McGimpsey, who recently lost his Belfast council seat, was part of a BBC Talkback discussion on the matter, alongside me and Claire Sugden MLA.

She put forward a plausible argument for the opposite to a single party, rather a liberal unionist one, saying that she wanted to register both her support for Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom, while espousing liberal values such as same-sex marriage.

For many years I was an advocate of such a liberal unionist option. In 2015 I wrote an article about the utter failure of unionism to reflect the fact that many, perhaps most, unionist voters were irreligious. And even those voters who are practising Christians at least as likely to be moderately so as to be evangelical or fundamentalist.

It has taken a long time for this to be accepted by unionist leaders. It first became apparent to me at a referendum in Castlereagh in 1990 on whether to open leisure facilities in the borough on a Sunday.

I was aged 18, left leaning politically and strongly opposed to Sabbatarians imposing their will on wider society.

Given that Castlereagh was then a DUP dominated council, and had a large number of Free Presbyterian residents, it would not have been surprising for the matter to have been narrowly decided.

It wasn’t. It was a crushing defeat for the fundamentalists. I cannot find a web link to the exact result, but have a reasonably clear memory of it — something like 13,000 in favour of Sunday opening, and 2,600 opposed (if anyone has exact data on this, please email me).

At most, 1% of Ulster Protestants are Free Presbyterians (10,000 out of a million or so people).

The DUP, understandably, has been reluctant to alienate a church that was one of its founding pillars. But its vote is now so large, and so much wider than that original base, that this has long been unavoidable.

It is almost certain to continue to liberalise and it is no surprise that the high command accepted Alison Bennington, the recently elected gay councillor, as a DUP politician.

It is, perhaps, self serving for some of its members to advocate an unequivocally liberal Ulster Unionist party, because they can then hope to be by far the biggest party (far in front of a liberal UUP that is around the size of Alliance).

There is a risk that a liberal unionist party could descend quickly into confusion.

Note how NI21 changed its mind on whether or not to designate as unionist. Or how Tina McKenzie, once a leading light of that party, later advocated joint authority — a relinquishing of UK sovereignty that even moderate unionists should view with contempt.

In recent years massive threats to the Union have arisen, which liberal unionists have either endorsed or been mute about.

The literary and cultural academic Professor John Foster Wilson, drawing on his experience of living in bilingual Canada, recently wrote on these pages about how an Irish language act would be a long-term threat to the Union.

Meanwhile, the Brexit backstop, by in effect placing Northern Ireland on the Irish-EU side of the trade divide forever, will ultimately lead to a full border in the Irish Sea for goods and is a step towards limited joint authority.

And it is at least arguable that the mooted structures for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles will, while attempting to improve the shameful status quo (which is so concentrated on state forces rather than terrorists), nonetheless ultimately assist the IRA narrative on the past. Certainly Sinn Fein is so happy with the plan that it is demanding its implementation before it will allow Stormont to return.

If respected politicians such as Claire Sugden or Sylvia Hermon or John McCallister support all or some of those sorts of policies, then so be it. They can reasonably argue that such reforms ultimately secure the Union.

But it is hard to see how such a worldview diverges from that of the Alliance Party, except that it includes a specific endorsement on the Union (in any event I still think 80-90% of Alliance voters would vote to stay in UK in a border poll).

The Ulster Unionist Party did have a chance to develop a different sort of unionism in tandem with the Conservative Party a decade ago, but it abandoned that after 2010 (when the clumsily-named Ucunf pact with the Tories polled a respectable 102,000 votes, similar to the recent Alliance MEP tally).

If we were building parties for Northern Ireland from scratch, few people would choose the current set-up. But even a completely new party system would have similarities to the existing one. Given the division on the constitutional question, there would be at least one unionist party and one nationalist party. There would also be a non-aligned, cross community party.

Beyond that we would perhaps have a Green movement, a traditional Christian one and maybe a socialist or pro-business party.

But we are not starting from scratch, and I am no longer sure a liberal unionist party makes much sense, particularly if it means repudiating key planks of what it means to be part of the UK.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor