The Union may look safe for now, but unionism can take nothing for granted

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Addressing a unionist rally in Belfast in April 1912, Conservative Party leader, Andrew Bonar Law, noted: “It is not your numbers, great and imposing though they are, which seem to me so impressive. If ever the demeanour of men could be taken as an index of their inner spirit then what I have seen today convinces me ... that you are animated by a unity of purpose and a fixity of resolution which nothing can shake, and which must prove irresistible.” Or, to put it in the form that some unionist leaders still trot out today, “United we stand, divided we fall”.

Unionist unity has been the idée fixe of unionism since the Home Rule crisis of the mid-1880s; and played a key part in the creation of Northern Ireland and the establishment of two Home Rule parliaments rather than just one.

But unionist unity has never been about just one organisation. It was always an umbrella concept, bringing together the Protestant churches and sects, the Orange Order, the Ulster Unionist Council, a variety of unionist clubs and societies, very strong links with the Conservative Party and a continuously changing number of political offshoots and fringe groups. Between 1921-1972 it was the Ulster Unionist Council, rather than UUP governments, which set the overarching political/societal agenda.

That sort of unity united the bin man and banker, the company director and shop assistant, men with women, colonels with privates and public representatives with people who didn’t even have the vote. In other words, if you believed in the Union and the struggle against Irish Home Rule then you were good enough to be accepted as a member of the unionist family and trusted enough to be given a role. They were, collectively, the ecclesia, quite literally ‘the gathering together’.

The problem with that sort of unity was that it excluded anyone who didn’t agree. Not only excluded them, but didn’t bother to reach them and convert them; or, at the very least, regard them and govern them in such a way that they wouldn’t be attracted by parties promoting Irish unity. So for years it blithely and stupidly assumed that Catholics were obviously republican and probably supporters of the IRA. It also assumed that anyone – and there were some voices down the years – who believed that unionism should broaden its appeal was, by definition, a Lundy; or worse, a liberal!

For so long as unionists had the Stormont Parliament and Westminster was prepared to turn a blind eye to most things happening in NI, then for so long was the Ulster Unionist Council prepared to believe that unionist unity would always carry the day. That illusion was shattered in March 1972, when Stormont was prorogued; and unionism is still trying to pick up the pieces.

NI is five years away from its centenary in 2021. The odds remain heavily in favour of its remaining within the United Kingdom for the foreseeable future, but the UK’s decision to leave the EU and the possibility that Scotland could leave the UK has changed the dynamics. There is some evidence – although much of it seems anecdotal, guessed at and overegged – that some pro-Union Catholics and so-called ‘liberal unionists’ would prefer a united Ireland inside the EU, to a UK outside the EU.

Those numbers could only be gauged by a border poll, which still seems unlikely. That said, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that the British government could be persuaded to allow a poll if, after Article 50 is triggered (assuming it is, of course), a majority, or even a significant minority of the Assembly remained opposed to NI leaving the EU.

In September 2012, at a dinner commemorating the centenary of the Ulster Covenant, Peter Robinson advocated “a Council for the Union (which) could entwine all strands of unionism and people who are pro-Union and who agree on a common set of democratic principles. I see it as containing people of all backgrounds. From those who can trace their ancestry to before the Plantation, to those who have lately come to our shores and for whom English was not the language of their birth. The message and purpose would be to persuade and convince those with whom we share this space of the importance and values of the Union.”

Sadly, as is so often the case with unionism, this Council never saw the light of day; although a few months later Robinson and Nesbitt created a Unionist Forum which met, bickered, fell apart and delivered diddly squat.

That Council remains a good idea. Unionism lacks intellectual/philosophical/electoral coherence and narrative drive. Ulster unionism, in particular, faces new challenges. Robinson’s speech didn’t include the possibility of the UK out of the EU while the Republic remained in, even though the DUP supported a referendum. “Those who have lately come to our shores and for whom English was not the language of their birth,” may no longer be allowed to stay in NI. Catholic unionists may not want to be part of a ‘new’ UK dominated by a little-Englander mentality. And so on and so on.

Ulster unionism needs answers to some very difficult questions. Survival cannot be taken for granted. It needs to provide reassurances if it is to maximise the pro-Union vote. My own view is that the Union is safe: but not so safe that it wouldn’t benefit from some hard work, clear answers and attractive promotion.