Ben Lowry: Northern Ireland’s place in UK is under relentless pressure so a big unionist vote in this election is essential

In the years after I joined the News Letter in 2007, there was much talk about unionist unity.

By Ben Lowry
Saturday, 30th April 2022, 3:32 am
Updated Monday, 2nd May 2022, 12:52 am
The former Brexit minister Lord Frost’s speech this week to Policy Exchange, above, seemed to reflect newly robust thinking on the Northern Ireland Protocol. Such thinking needs to be seen to have support in NI
The former Brexit minister Lord Frost’s speech this week to Policy Exchange, above, seemed to reflect newly robust thinking on the Northern Ireland Protocol. Such thinking needs to be seen to have support in NI

The reason for this was that the DUP and Ulster Unionists seemed often to be attacking each other, and yet most people who voted unionist could see decreasing difference between the two parties.

By then the DUP had not only accepted mandatory coalition, but power sharing with Sinn Fein.

Meanwhile, the republican vote was growing, as was the political centre ground (albeit slowly then).

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For a while I too wondered if a single unionist party might be the way to go.

Unionism inevitably has a limited talent pool — Northern Ireland is a small place with a population the size of Kent, of under two million. Finding good politicians in such a society is all the harder when there is a stigma to divulging your views, and when there are multiple political parties.

So unionism, while it did (and does) have talented politicians seemed to me not to have the bandwidth to respond to the many challenges it faced when it was splintered.

But the clamour for unionist unity is much less strong than it once was. There is a growing belief that a single unionist party would in fact alienate some potential unionist voters.

And the biggest group of potential unionist voters is tens of thousands of people in the east of Northern Ireland who would probably vote to stay in the UK in a border poll, but who either do not vote in normal elections, or are uncertain whether to vote for a unionist candidate or a non aligned centrist one.

This election therefore has become an important political experiment.

Will the unionist vote continue to decline, as it has done in recent elections — albeit gradually (and not in a linear way, instead sometimes falling, then jumping back a bit in a subsequent election, then dipping again)?

Or will the unionist vote in fact rally, given the large range of unionist options?

There is a traditional unionist option in the TUV, led by Jim Allister.

There is a mainstream unionist option, in the DUP, led by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.

And there is a liberal unionist option, in the Ulster Unionists, led by Doug Beattie.

This is in fact the first time there has been such a liberal option. The UUP under Mike Nesbitt edged towards a presenting itself as a liberal party, but not as overtly as it has done under Mr Beattie.

The pre-election polling numbers are throwing up varying predictions about what will happen this coming Thursday, when voters elect 90 MLAs to Stormont.

But one thing they are all showing is an overall unionist vote that is lowish by historic standards, in the low 40s per cent share of the vote, or perhaps even the high 30s.

They are all showing the overall nationalist vote to be even lower than that of unionism, so it is not just unionists who are squeezed when the ‘neither’ parties in the centre ground are approaching 20% of the vote.

But while the position of unionism relative to nationalism might not have changed very much in the last 20 years (in that unionism has stayed narrowly but decisively ahead over that period), I still think it has never been more important that there is a large vote for unionist candidates.

The Northern Ireland Protocol is the most obvious reason for this.

London has fluctuated in whether or not it is going to take significant unilateral action to amend the Irish Sea border. It seemed as though it was going to do so until last November, then not in recent months, and now does so again.

The former Brexit minister Lord Frost gave a speech to the think tank Policy Exchange this week, in which he (in effect) said the following things:

that the protocol had been agreed in 2019 under duress when there might otherwise have been no Brexit;

that the detail of the protocol is not working, and the EU is being inflexible about renegotiation;

that while the EU understandably is pursuing its interests, the UK has to defend its own ones too, relating to its own territory, Northern Ireland;

that everything changed with the EU threat to trigger Article 16 in January 2021 to control vaccines movements to Northern Ireland.

that the Belfast Agreement was on “life support” due to the protocol;

While Lord Frost is not in the government, he seems at present to be a conduit for government thinking.

It is encouraging to hear such talk.

But any resolve in London would hardly be strengthened by a low unionist vote on Thursday.

Then there are the other respects in which unionism is under threat.

I have listed several of them many times, including the moral collapse on legacy, which has turned against a UK state that prevented a civil war in the early 1970s, and then patiently saw off fanatical terrorism, which fizzled out over the next two decades.

But one of the biggest threats to Northern Ireland now is multiple low-level assaults on sovereignty.

The idea of Stormont having a say on the protocol, while plainly better than it not having a say, does raise the prospect of the sub-dividing of consent, so that over time different aspects of sovereignty might be diluted or even removed with ‘consent’.

A substantial unionist vote is now needed, with heavy use of transfers between candidates, to stop people who want to dismantle NI saying they have a mandate to do so, issue by issue.

But something else is going to be needed too, in the medium term. UK governments are going to have to counter the harm that separatists can do in devolved parliaments, using UK powers to shred the UK.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter editor