Ben Lowry: If unionism works the Irish Sea border then it sends out a signal it is just about managing long-term defeat

In the 1980s, the then Ulster Unionist leader James Molyneaux was interviewed in my school magazine.

Saturday, 1st May 2021, 12:24 pm
Updated Saturday, 1st May 2021, 1:22 pm
Edwin Poots and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson have seemed pragmatic about the Irish Sea border, as much as Arlene Foster has done — and the Ulster Unionist Party too

It was the time of ‘unionist unity’ after the Anglo Irish Agreement and he was asked his thoughts on a single unionist party.

Mr (later Lord) Molyneaux said that the problem with a big tent party was that liberals would leave, as would hardliners, and you would end up with three parties, not one.

Some years ago, I was musing on events with an experienced politician who is not in the DUP, and I wondered if the best response to the huge challenges facing unionism was a single party. He replied: “There already is one — the DUP.”

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The point of course was that it had so eclipsed its rivals that it was now the unionist conglomerate.

And that success is at the heart of the difficulties now experienced by the DUP — and indeed Sinn Fein.

Either party can only become very large by appealing to a far larger group of people than its activists, and risks straying from that core.

This is part of SF’s problem in the NW. By winning the once secure SDLP seat of Foyle it was attracting voters who are not emphatic republicans, and whose support could be lost — and was lost in 2019.

Something similar happened to the DUP in South Belfast in 2019, when its campaign, including a loyalist hustings, saw it not only lose the seat but shed 1,500 votes while the SDLP won by a 15,000 majority.

The challenges for the DUP can also be illustrated in the Lagan Valley constituency base of the two likely leadership contenders, Jeffrey Donaldson and Edwin Poots.

In 2017, Sir Jeffrey thrashed rivals for the seat with his 26,762 votes (Alliance and UUP combined got only 12,329). His 2019 vote plunged to 19,586, while Alliance soared and UUP rose to a joint 21,693.

The threat to the DUP from younger voters who are liberal on social matters and less focused on the constitutional question was clear in those two constituencies, and others such as North Down.

Yet the combined unionist vote in Northern Ireland is still far bigger than the Alliance vote.

Even when the latter is riding high (in the three big 2019 elections it averaged 16%), the combined unionist is 2.5 times bigger (in the 2019 polls the unionist total averaged 43%).

So the unionist parties cannot move too far towards placating voters who defect to Alliance without alienating the bulk of unionists.

All the more so now.

Unionism faces multiple problems, even disasters, the biggest of which by a distance is the Irish Sea border. Yet the response to it has been one of pragmatism, not only from Arlene Foster but also from Edwin Poots and Jeffrey Donaldson — and the Ulster Unionist Party.

Which raises the question: if unionism is going to send out a signal that it is so flexible that it will accept the loss of sovereignty of Northern Ireland’s trade framework falling under another jurisdiction, then what on earth is unionism about? Is it just about managing long-term defeat?

I thought an Irish Sea border a disaster from the first iteration of Theresa May’s backstop, and thereafter warned repeatedly on these pages that pro unionist assurances from first Mrs May and then Boris Johnson might turn to dust.

Even so, it was only this year that the scale of the barrier became clear to me. I did not, for example, envisage that medicines would fall under the EU orbit, a horrifying prospect that will put a coach and horses through the operation our NHS, a key benefit of being in UK.

Far from Mr Poots or Sir Jeffrey needing to show how moderate they are, I believe they must lead the way in showing that north-south relations will not be normal after such damage to east-west.

Unionism still has the leverage that Mr Johnson does not want to be the prime minister who lost the UK. Instead of chumming around with him, his betrayal of unionism should be repeatedly underlined.

Jim Molyneaux’s defence of two unionist parties still resonates. Perhaps half the DUP should team up with the UUP, the other with TUV.

One party would be liberal in general outlook, one conservative.

But both would be unbending on the Union — and on scrapping the appalling protocol.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

Other articles by Ben Lowry below, and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter:

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