Philip Smith: ​Unionists should not be defeatist and accept the myth of an inevitable united Ireland

​There is no such thing as historical inevitability in politics. ​Look at the experiences of Quebec in Canada and especially Scotland in recent weeks.
Parti Quebecois supporters at a rally in Montreal. French speaking separatists almost won independence from Canada in a 1995 referendum, which might have made it seem that such a split was near, but now support for separation from the rest of the country is low (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Graham Hughes)Parti Quebecois supporters at a rally in Montreal. French speaking separatists almost won independence from Canada in a 1995 referendum, which might have made it seem that such a split was near, but now support for separation from the rest of the country is low (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Graham Hughes)
Parti Quebecois supporters at a rally in Montreal. French speaking separatists almost won independence from Canada in a 1995 referendum, which might have made it seem that such a split was near, but now support for separation from the rest of the country is low (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Graham Hughes)

Quebec has had two independence referenda, the first in 1980 and a second in 1995. In the most recent, the anti-independence movement won with only 50.58% of the vote on an enormous 93.5% turnout. Many would have been forgiven in thinking that ‘one more heave’ and independence will be secured. Today polls show two thirds in favour of remaining as part of Canada and this is reinforced by younger voters and the large and growing migrant community.

In Scotland, despite losing the independence referendum 55 to 45, the SNP continued to lead Holyrood, return over 75% of Scottish MPs and were pushing for an Indyref 2. In just a few weeks we’ve seen Nicola Sturgeon’s surprise resignation, a bitter leadership election, a resurgent Labour Party and the media spotlight on a poor SNP government record. No wonder polls now show a strengthening of pro-Union support.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In Northern Ireland polls also show a comfortable majority for maintaining our place within the Union. As shown above, events can change the direction of public opinion in just a few weeks, but the situations in Quebec, Scotland and indeed here shows how historical inevitability is just a myth. The myth here is that it is inevitable that Northern Ireland will be subsumed into the Republic of Ireland. That it is just a matter of time before demographics and good sense delivers a ‘united Ireland’. During his recent conference I believe TUV leader Jim Allister gave comfort to this mythology.

Philip Smith, Co-founder of Uniting UK, Ulster Unionist councillor on Ards & North Down Council and ex MLA for Strangford. He says: "Factions in unionism can continue to fight over their share of the core vote only for the penny to drop too late that they have lost the majority"Philip Smith, Co-founder of Uniting UK, Ulster Unionist councillor on Ards & North Down Council and ex MLA for Strangford. He says: "Factions in unionism can continue to fight over their share of the core vote only for the penny to drop too late that they have lost the majority"
Philip Smith, Co-founder of Uniting UK, Ulster Unionist councillor on Ards & North Down Council and ex MLA for Strangford. He says: "Factions in unionism can continue to fight over their share of the core vote only for the penny to drop too late that they have lost the majority"

Obviously, Jim Allister looks at this from a different perspective than those who want Irish unity, but I was surprised at the defeatism in his leader’s address to his party conference. Accepting the Windsor Framework could put Northern Ireland on a trajectory to Irish unity and stating that “never again will NI be a full part of the United Kingdom” is language that will only encourage those who wish to see the end of the Union.

His conclusion that we are “better without Stormont” than to have a Sinn Féin first minister not only fails the people of Northern Ireland by removing local government, it is also in ‘cut off your nose to spite your face’ territory by removing the main bulwark against greater Irish government involvement in the running of Northern Ireland. His more recent comments in a News Letter article (April 26) that unionist supporters of the Belfast Agreement were hoodwinked by those have the long term goal of Irish unity is not only incorrect but it reduces potential support for the wide pro-Union coalition that can secure our place in the UK for the long term.

The DUP continues to dither in making a decision on whether to re-enter Stormont yet a recent University of Liverpool poll shows that 75% of their voters proudly believe that the unionist campaign against the protocol led to a better outcome from the Windsor Framework. If Sinn Féin was in a similar situation does anyone think that they wouldn’t be all over the airwaves claiming a political victory? The Windsor Framework hasn’t resolved all the issues from the NI Protocol but it has made practical improvements to restoring trade with our biggest partner and provides a foundation on which to negotiate more.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Jim Allister, along with other commentators who share his opinion, fail to take the strategic perspective that will secure our place within the Union in the long term. They take the glass half empty approach that sucks confidence from the pro-Union community and repels that centre ground of politics which will ultimately decide the constitutional issue. According to the same recent Liverpool poll unionist parties receive 41.3% support, nationalist parties get 39.7% and Alliance/Greens 18.6%. Unionism needs to persuade a large chunk of that 20% plus of centre ground and soft nationalist voters that they are better off with the status quo and Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. To do that we need to reach out, engage and, most of all, show that Northern Ireland works. That means making Stormont work and work better, growing our economy, trading more easily with our biggest market, investing more in our public services and transforming our creaking health service. But there is the potential for unionism to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by indulging in hard-line rhetoric that drives away support, not only from centrists, but also from moderate unionists too. Factions in unionism can continue to fight over their share of the core vote only for the penny to drop too late that they have lost the majority. That would be unforgivable.

Both the Windsor Framework and a return to the Stormont institutions will not resolve all of our problems but they provide a platform on which to build and seek further improvement. The alternative is defeatism and Northern Ireland and unionism deserves better.

Philip Smith, Co-founder of Uniting UK, Ulster Unionist councillor on Ards & North Down Council and ex MLA for Strangford