Alex Kane: Mainstream unionism isn’t listening to many other unionist voices

“I’m sick to death of being told mainstream unionism needs to listen more to the needs of loyalism. Maybe so – because many in that community clearly believe they have been marginalised. But let’s be honest, mainstream unionism doesn’t listen to us, either.”

Monday, 19th July 2021, 1:00 pm

The person speaking was a businessman from a pro-Union background. He had asked me to facilitate a Zoom meeting between himself and about 20 others with similar constitutional views, and all of whom were involved in owning/running businesses of one kind or another. They were, to put it mildly, miffed. Nobody within mainstream unionism was, they claimed, making much of an effort to seek out their views, let alone represent them.

A couple, who had voted Remain, couldn’t understand how the DUP had made such a dog’s dinner when they had been in a position of influence at the heart of a UK government for over two years. Others, some Remain and some Leave, accused the DUP of ‘continuing to say no to both May and Johnson, but without any hard and fast alternatives’. And another Remainer, who switched from the UUP to Alliance in 2019, thought the UUP leadership had made a huge mistake by backing the DUP after 2016, rather than working with other pro-Remain parties in Northern Ireland.

All of them agreed on one thing, though: “There is no one in mainstream unionism (by which they generally meant the UUP and DUP) who speaks for any of us. I’m not sure if there’s anyone in mainstream unionism who has the confidence of anything that might be described as most businesspeople. They claim to be representing our concerns and interests yet make one bollocks after another on an almost daily basis. Maybe we should have had an armed wing!”

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Loyalism – and other less heralded strands of unionism – feel their voices and views are being ignored

At an event last weekend, I listened to a young man wondering why mainstream unionism – “which seems obsessed with the Loyalist Communities Council and other factions of loyalism” – doesn’t make an attractive pitch to people like himself. It’s a good point and one I hear more and more from people like him.

People who come from supposedly unionist backgrounds, yet increasingly describe themselves as civic, small-u or pro-Union, rather than unionist. People who feel more comfortable voting for Alliance rather than a unionist party. People who aren’t afraid to wonder whether a united Ireland might be a better fit for their world view than a United Kingdom in which a regenerated English nationalism seems to be setting the political agenda.

Here was his key point: “If the demographics between party-political unionism/loyalism and party-political nationalism/republicanism are continuing to narrow then unionism needs to be reaching out to those of us who might be sympathetic to a pro-UK argument, but who aren’t hearing it because we are not being reached out to.” Some of them have already gone to Alliance. Some have just stopped voting. Some are taking an interest in new lobby organisations promoting an NI identity over a specifically British/UK identity. Some have just opted out of even thinking about politics.

But here’s the thing: if unionism is to maximise the overall pro-Union vote and close the pro-Union versus non-Union gap in the Assembly (which presently stands at 40-50) then it needs to win those tens of thousands who don’t think unionism has any interest in them. As a well-known London-based political commentator put it to me a few weeks ago: “Come on, Alex, if unionists can’t even attract the voters it should be reasonably easy for them to attract, how the hell do they expect to save the Union? They have no friends here, either.”

The Alliance ‘surge’ – and really, could some unionists and loyalists stop attacking Alliance for winning voters from them – has been built on a growing sense that Naomi Long is listening to them and representing them better than the parties they used to vote for, particularly the UUP. I live in east Belfast and I understand why the vote has grown. I understand why the constituency may soon need a permanent unionist electoral pact to retain the Westminster seat. It’s because mainstream unionism isn’t listening and isn’t resonating with the concerns of a larger, younger vote.

I’m not sure mainstream unionism is listening to the concerns of loyalism, either. Let me reframe that: it is listening to voices that seem more interested in promoting and self-promoting their own agendas and interests rather than focusing on the societal/economic/housing/employment/educational/interface/standard-of-living challenges facing broader loyalism and working-class unionism. It is doing very little to address endemic drug and criminality problems. And it is allowing the political agenda to be set by people with their own vested interests.

If mainstream unionism is replying on a core vote which is shrinking, while distancing itself from loyalist/working class (and they’re not quite the same thing, by the way) voters, as well as from middle-class, professional, small-u voters, then it will have increasing problems even if there isn’t a border poll anytime soon.

I agree with Jim Allister about there not being a button of difference in the roles of first and deputy first minister: but an Assembly without a unionist first minister (maybe a SF justice minister, too) and without a unionist party as the biggest party will have an enormous psychological impact on unionism. The sort of impact which will further distance the mainstream from the assorted fringes.

And once it reaches that point you can bet your bottom dollar unity/merger (presently talked about more than I’ve heard since the mid-1970s) will top the unionist agenda.