I have seen unionism (by which I mean most of the strands and subsets which comprise the ‘unionist family’) thoroughly spooked on five occasions during my lifetime.
The first was the last week of March, 1972, when direct rule was announced and their beloved Stormont Parliament prorogued. For the first time since 1921 they were no longer running Northern Ireland; security policy was no longer directed from Belfast; the governing party, the UUP, was fracturing and factionalising on an almost daily basis; and new vehicles of loyalist paramilitarism, along with new and fringe parties, were emerging in response to the crisis.
I don’t think unionism has fully recovered from that crushing blow; in the sense that it is still trying to establish a confident post-Stormont role and vision.
The second occasion was January 1, 1974, when the new power-sharing government – the Sunningdale Executive – took office. Although Brian Faulkner’s political instincts were absolutely correct, he allowed himself to be flattered by the hopeless Edward Heath and then rushed into a deal for which unionism generally and his own party in particular were not psychologically prepared.
In the elections to the 1973 Assembly he was already in a minority (24 seats and 211,362 votes for his pro-power-sharing Official Unionists, against 26 seats and 235,773 anti-power-sharing unionists), so giving the nod to a deal which included a Council of Ireland was political suicide. He was ousted from the leadership of the party on January 4 and the Assembly was destroyed by the UWC strike – a strike which was mandated and endorsed by a thumping majority within unionism. It took 25 years to establish another power-sharing Assembly – which is, as I’m writing, hanging on by a thread.
The third occasion was November 15, 1985: the Anglo-Irish Agreement. This shook unionism to its very roots, because it seemed to it that London and Dublin were conspiring to shut down unionism as a political/electoral/cultural/constitutional force in Northern Ireland. Indeed, many senior unionists actually believed that the Union itself was “on a ledge,” with no escape route.
It was also the closest Northern Ireland came to tipping into a potential civil war: unionists didn’t trust Westminster; they feared that the IRA was being ‘accommodated’; they suspected that Dublin was being lined up for a joint sovereignty arrangement; and they believed there was no one to trust but themselves. Independence was discussed. Ulster-Scots culture and identity was rediscovered and heavily promoted.
The fourth occasion was December 2, 1999, the day Martin McGuinness was appointed minister of education. I remember the looks on the faces of every unionist in the Assembly that day – even those in the UUP. I remember the reaction in newspapers and radio phone-ins. I remember the anger from people in shops and pubs; and, more instructively perhaps, from many friends who would normally have considered themselves ‘moderates’. It was the moment when all of unionism finally accepted that, as a veteran, retired unionist politician put it to me: “Sinn Fein is here to stay, Alex. All of the unionist parties and electorate now need to work out how they will respond. This is end game territory.”
How right he was. Which brings me to the fifth occasion, March 2, 2017. That was the day when unionism, for the first time in the history of Northern Ireland, found itself the minority in a local Parliament/Assembly. It now has 40 of 90 seats. I predicted this result in a piece for the News Letter 10 days before the election and warned of the huge damage this would do to the unionist psyche.
What was also interesting at that election was the fact that parties/candidates with ‘unionist’ in their description (in other words, unambiguously pro-Union) won 358,818 votes, while those who didn’t use ‘unionist’ (so can’t be banked as pro-Union) won 392,920. In the first Assembly election, in 1998, those figures were 408,307 and 386,476. And it’s worth reminding ourselves of the general election figures too. In 2001 it was 421,344 unionists and 380,117 non-unionists. Yet in 2017 this had shifted to 398,921 unionists to 411,848 unionists.
It would be a big, big mistake – a mistake which some republicans/nationalists are making already – to assume that these figures would translate into victory for Irish unity if there were a border poll. That said, the fallout from Brexit has changed the political dynamics here and it can no longer be assumed – which some unionists are doing – that ‘soft’ unionists and nationalists would continue to support the constitutional status quo when the UK has exited the European Union.
So unionists have some very serious thinking to do. They’re not a majority in the Assembly. They’re not a majority in five of the 11 local councils. They don’t represent an overall electoral majority. They’re very close to losing the first minister position to Sinn Fein. And in Belfast, while they may have three of the four Parliamentary seats, they have just six of the 20 Assembly seats and are a minority on the council.
All of this is happening when Northern Ireland is just four years away from its centenary. The challenges facing unionism and unionists are, I think, deeper and broader than they have ever been and I’m not persuaded that the collective leadership of unionism is fully aware of those challenges.