Ben Lowry: The DUP now ought to ponder whether it cares most about itself, or about unionism

Eoghan Harris, right, with the late Lord Laird, left, and then UUP leader Sir Reg Empey, centre, read a 270th anniversary News Letter at the Reform Club in 2007, the night Mr Harris called on the UUP to form a single party with the DUP
Eoghan Harris, right, with the late Lord Laird, left, and then UUP leader Sir Reg Empey, centre, read a 270th anniversary News Letter at the Reform Club in 2007, the night Mr Harris called on the UUP to form a single party with the DUP

In September of 2007, an Irish commentator and former left-wing activist addressed an Ulster Unionist Party association’s annual dinner.

The event was held at the Reform Club, in the very heart of Belfast, and the speaker was Eoghan Harris.

In his talk to the gathering of the Castlereagh Central branch of the UUP, Senator Harris warned his audience that he was about to drop a verbal bombshell.

“What I am going to suggest will, I am sure, outrage many of you,” he said. “It’s the unionist equivalent, in 2007, to the consternation I evoked in 1989 when I told the Workers Party that it had to embrace liberal capitalism and the market economy or die.”

Senator Harris, who is a friend of unionism and has long been a bitter critic of the IRA in his weekly column in the Sunday Independent, one of the most read newspapers in the Republic, continued: “For what I am suggesting is that there no longer is a real foundation for the continued existence of two unionist parties and that, from a position of relative strength, you should approach the DUP about the creation of a new united unionist party.”

Senator Harris was acquainted with unionism, having advised the former first minister David Trimble. He said in his talk that while the UUP deserved “the lion’s share of the credit for the peace and prosperity which the people of Northern Ireland now enjoy”, it was the DUP being lauded internationally. Politics, he said, was a “cruel trade”.

“Paisley and Robinson have moved onto your territory and effectively claimed it ... if you decide to soldier on, I think the future is pretty plain.”

It was doubtful the UUP would retrieve its former glories but in a merger with the DUP it could “flourish”. He urged the party to take the initiative when it was still in “a relatively strong position”

He also warned the DUP that they were “not invincible” and would suffer so long as there were two competing unionist parties.

I was at that talk back in 2007, which took place months after I had joined the News Letter. It was at the time of our 270th anniversary.

As the 10th anniversary of Mr Harris’s speech approached, in the autumn of 2017, I planned to write on this page about the speech, and to speculate whether unionism was any closer to his vision. But I never did write about it. I made soundings of Ulster Unionists, which only confirmed what I already knew: of a widespread dislike of the DUP.

A book published this year by Professor Jon Tonge and others found that most Ulster Unionists were opposed to a merger and that there was what Prof Tonge described as a “loathing” of the DUP.

This is not so surprising when you think that the people who have stayed in the UUP, or unwaveringly still vote for it, are often hardcore supporters, who have stuck by the party while a relentless stream of former supporters move to the DUP. This makes it all the more unlikely that the remaining Ulster Unionists will jump ship.

I also detect a particular resentment among UUP members at DUP politicians who crow about the latter’s triumphs, but are themselves often former Ulster Unionists.

But Mr Harris was not suggesting the Ulster Unionists join the DUP, he was suggesting that the two parties dissolve and reform as one.

The logic behind his suggestion is stronger than it has ever been. The DUP has in early council results confirmed its lead over the UUP but unionism is not in good shape.

It has found itself utterly at odds with dominant thinking on social issues, such as same-sex relations and abortion. It made a huge mistake using a petition of concern to block things such as gay marriage.

This is not to suggest that mainstream DUP drop their opposition to such matters, but to say that they have lost those battles.

As it happens, I suspect that society will one day return to the notion that a married mother and father are best to raise children, but I doubt it will return to the view that homosexuality is wrong. I also suspect that societies where easy abortion has been legal for decades such as GB (where it is effectively on demand up to 24 weeks) will move away from free-for-all horror.

But for now the unstoppable trend in Northern Ireland on those two issues is liberalisation.

The success of the lesbian Alison Bennington and indeed of Tom Smith, the independent ousted as a DUP council candidate after he broke with colleagues over lighting a council facility in rainbow colours, shatters any idea that unionist voters care about sexuality.

But they care about the state of unionism: the subtle but relentless cultural war, a key part of which is distorting history to justify the IRA, the damage to the Union posed by UK weakness in the face of Dublin’s response to Brexit, the demographic change that leads to Irish unity (or so republicans keep telling us).

We are struggling to combat these threats. The Stormont House Agreement and its hugely problematic legacy proposals illustrated the problem of unionists working separately against a republicanism that has a hinterland in the worlds of academia and commentary.

It is indeed possible that a youthful sense that the Republic is more progressive than Britain will tip us into the madness of departure from a state of almost 70 million people to join a state of around five million.

There are now few UUP-DUP ideological differences but there is a big cultural difference. When Mr Harris made his speech, the then UUP leader Sir Reg Empey referred to that gulf: “The UUP has always brought people to talk to us who challenge us rather than people who tell us what we want to hear. That has always been one of the distinctions between us and the DUP.”

Chris McGimpsey once wrote in the News Letter that one unionist party would merely gift 50,000 votes to Alliance. But some of those votes are already heading that way.

The question about whether or not to support unionist unity is often asked of the UUP, but it is in fact more one for the DUP.

Is the party a sectional one, that cut deals to stay in power and spread its patronage, or is it above all concerned about NI’s position in the UK?

Arlene Foster said at the time of the tie-up with the Tories that the Union was its “guiding star”. Is it a star before which the party might sacrifice itself so that Ulster Unionists can do the same and join a new, single entity?