In May of 2016 unionist political parties won more than half of the seats in the then Stormont election, as they had done five years before. Their vote share lead over the two main nationalist parties widened from around 5% in 2011, to almost 10%.
A Conservative and Unionist government had been in power on its own for a year, and for five years before that in coalition.
I wrote an article about what I called the ‘Rory McIlroy’ generation. People of a Catholic background who, like the Holywood golfer (then aged 26), seemed open to a Northern Irish or British identity as much as an Irish one.
Unionism seemed confident politically and culturally (the latter being important because it might be apolitical people who feel culturally comfortable in a British environment who decide a border poll).
What went wrong? How has unionism suddenly become so insecure, and almost desperate?
A number of things have happened, not all of them irreversible.
• The first is that the May 2016 election victory cemented a unionist complacency (apparent, for example, in my own musings about a Rory generation and the possibly fading allure of a united Ireland).
• Another thing that happened is the RHI scandal, which damaged any sense of unionists as being competent in government.
• A third thing that happened was demographic change.
Such change is exaggerated by a type of Irish republican who simultaneously rails against sectarianism and then gleefully reminds Protestants of the growing Catholic population.
But while demographic change in Northern Ireland has been translating into political change at a slow pace over the last half century, it is nonetheless a reality. The 2021 census will give updated data on the numbers of Catholics, Protestants and Neithers.
• A fourth factor that has gone against unionism in the last six years is the culture wars, and the lurch towards liberal social values in the Judeo-Christian world (not so much the Islamic world).
This liberalism on matters such as same-sex relations has swept once traditional places from Argentina to Arkansas, and Northern Ireland too.
In 2014 I reported on our front page a speech by a member of the UK Supreme Court, Lord Wilson, predicting that gay marriage would come to Northern Ireland soon. A sharp older friend of mine, a person who normally has good political instincts, dismissed the idea that NI would embrace such a thing. But Lord Wilson was right.
This liberalism has damaged unionism more than nationalism because the old Catholic Ireland has abandoned church-going conservative values much more suddenly than Protestants have done.
In 1968, before the Troubles, weekly church attendance in NI was already under 50% of Anglicans and Presbyterians, but well over 90% among Catholics.
Ulster Protestants — who have at times been caricatured as Bible bashers — were earlier to secular values than were Ulster Catholics.
But now both the SDLP and Sinn Fein have embraced social liberalism, including on abortion, more readily than have unionist parties. Thus many young people associate unionism with reactionary politics.
I think this ‘woke’ politics has become so extreme on issues such as trans rights, and the dismissal of concerns such as that of elderly women to be in female only hospital wards, that a conservative backlash will one day benefit parties that take a more traditional line on such matters. But for now such liberal thinking helps explain why the unionist vote has fallen more noticeably in recent years while the nationalist vote has been static.
• The fifth factor is Brexit.
Many unionists point out, rightly, that Brexit has not led to a significant rise in support for an all Ireland. I am relieved that is so, because in June 2016, just before the referendum, I wrote an article saying Brexit could blow the UK apart (see link below).
However, while the change in support for a united Ireland is small, Brexit has damaged unionism by helping turn the political centre ground utterly against unionist politicians. A tier of people who were content in the UK are now only prepared to be so if we maintain links to the EU, such as that provided by the NI Protocol.
This has become starkly evident in the last week. There is a hostility in business and media and other circles towards the DUP refusal to nominate a Stormont speaker and deputy first minister that was wholly absent when Sinn Fein was allowed to collapse devolution ostensibly over the Cash for Ash scandal, then keep it down until its cherished tribal goal of an Irish language act was agreed — as of course it was.
Remember how ‘both sides’ were blamed for that suspension of local rule, even though only one side was demanding a non negotiable political advance?
• A final, sixth factor to mention in the turn against unionism is the near unanimity at Stormont in favour of lavish funding for public spending on often heart-warming but sometimes dubious projects, and growing support for expensive schemes such as a Universal Basic Income.
Fiscal conservatism is now almost dead in Northern Ireland, only occasionally to be found in sections of unionism — another factor in why unionist politicians have become caricatured as mean spirited.
Much, if not all, of the above will change with time. Ultra liberal generations are typically followed by more conservative ones, and it see-saws back and forth.
The problem for unionism is that we do not have time for failed experiments.
It is not as if nationalist Ireland would contemplate allowing a border poll vote for an all Ireland to be overturned 10 or 20 years later.
The old line attributed to unionists, ‘what we have we hold’, in fact applies to nationalism.
All of the above is why I keep saying we need help from London. We might now be getting it from a Tory party that seems increasingly troubled by the Irish Sea border.
But note also the tweet left (in the print edition version of this article, but also embedded into this web version of it) by the Labour MP Hilary Benn. Yesterday I was on Irish radio alongside that Europhile politician, after whom the 2019 Benn Act, or ‘Surrender Act’, was named (which this government says boxed them in and caused them to have to agree the protocol). I was surprised by the extent to which Mr Benn is urging the EU to be flexible over the difficulties caused by the Irish Sea border.
Unionism is in bad place just now but events remain unpredictable and the tide might yet turn in its favour.
• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter editor. Other columns by him below
• Ben Lowry in June 2016 pre EU referendum: Despite what supporters of Brexit say, it might just blow the UK apart
• Ben Lowry May 9: The TUV vote surge should have been one of the main stories of the election
• Ben Lowry May 7: Unionism now faces a considerable challenge in how to go forward
• Ben Lowry May 7: Unionist overall vote stays ahead of nationalist total, albeit narrowly
• Other commentary:
• Henry McDonald May 14: Will Boris Johnson deliver beyond his rhetoric?
• Editorial May 14: Crowds of all ages flock to Balmoral to savour a normal show
• Nigel Dodds May 13: Reg Empey is attacking other unionists when voters want a united approach
• Samuel Morrison May 13: The TUV got 8% of the vote in Northern Ireland and can no longer be ignored
• Editorial May 13: The NIO has been right to send a minister to US amid American pressure on UK
• Lord Empey May 12: The DUP have no-one to blame but themselves for disastrous election
• Editorial May 12: Any elaborate legacy system is likely to turn against the state
• Peter Robinson May 11: Ignore those who are urging DUP to just go back into Stormont
• John Cushnahan May 11: SF hypocrisy to attack DUP leader over MP seat while boycotting Westminster