Yes, it’s a mess, but unionism has everything to play for and everything to gain

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

When the largest party of unionism makes an absolute dog’s dinner of negotiations then it’s a bad day for all of unionism.

When the DUP seemed to be preparing to shift from its anti-Irish language act (ILA) stance and bounce its base into accepting one – in exchange for an unwanted, unnecessary Ulster-Scots act – it became a particularly bad day for the DUP.

Perception is everything in politics: and the perception of the past week is that the DUP leadership and negotiating teams – normally very cautious, calculating and canny when it comes to these things – utterly misread the mood of their own grassroots and unionism generally; while seeming to have learned nothing from the sort of mistakes that the UUP used to make in negotiations. And look at the price the UUP and David Trimble paid for those mistakes.

In a piece over the weekend Brian Rowan – one of the shrewdest of all political observers – quoted a senior DUP source: “They (the negotiators) weren’t listening. They got trapped in the process and lost the wider view.”

On a number of occasions in this column in the past year I have indicated the scale of the opposition to an Irish language act across the ‘broadest swathe of unionism’. Not because unionists are anti-Irish, or even opposed to built-in protections for the language and culture, but because they believe an ILA has become a very specific political/electoral tool for Sinn Fein.

My advice to the DUP – as well as to the smaller unionist parties – was to examine and deconstruct Sinn Fein’s arguments. Set out very clearly why they opposed the sort of ILA that Sinn Fein (and some lobby groups) seemed to favour; do the costings; outline the consequences; speak to potential providers of ILA services and, most important, set out their own strategy for promoting and protecting the language and culture.

Instead, the DUP stuck with the mantra that an ILA wasn’t on the cards at all. Insisted there were no deals or potential deals on the table which embraced an ILA. Then, under huge pressure across unionism, found themselves forced to end the talks process: then trying to explain, day after day, why the mess – or perception of mess – had nothing to do with them.

Three years away from Northern Ireland’s centenary and unionism is under pressure like never before. It’s a mixture of Brexit, demographics, psychology, perception and seemingly unstoppable change. The loss of their Assembly majority in last March’s election (a loss I indicated as possible in a pre-election analysis for this paper) was a hammer blow. For the first time ever a unionist leader in a local Assembly/Parliament was not the voice of the majority in that institution.

And what was a hammer blow for unionism was a psychological coup for republicanism. For the first time they could say to their supporters, including people who hadn’t thought it was worth voting for them: “Look how close we are to upending the unionist majority. Look how close we are to A Nation Once Again. Look how close we are to reuniting our country.”

I have argued for years that unionism needed to identify future challenges and provide coherent, attractive responses to them. I have never been scared by the IRA, or demographic shifts, or Gerry Adams, or Gerry Kelly, or Sinn Fein. But I have been concerned by the apparent reluctance of unionism to play the long, long game. Yes, it is actually easier to sell the Irish unity vision than it is to sell the unionist status quo. People respond to emotional appeals and mythology: and certainly respond to them better than the ‘what we have we hold’ mantras of unionism.

But the fact remains that the survival of the Union depends on two things: a majority of people in Northern Ireland voting for it; and a pro-Union vision and message that attracts and holds that majority.

Which means that unionism needs to regard anyone and everyone as either an existing supporter or potential convert. Get it in to their heads then that a unionist can be gay, atheist, pro-choice, pro-same-sex marriage, Catholic and from any ethnic background or race. Get it into their heads that it’s not too late to champion and reinvent unionism.

Look at SF a decade ago, when very few believed that unity was anything more than a pipedream. Brexit changed their dynamics and they recalibrated their unity project accordingly. Get it into their heads that Sinn Fein sometimes make progress because unionists make it easy for them, by demonising rather than deconstructing. They make it easy by not using new media cleverly and constructively. They make it easier with pointless, destructive intra-unionist arguments; focused more on defeating a party on their own side than in maximising/expanding the pro-Union base. They make it easier by personal attacks on SF, rather than picking apart their policies and speeches.

I’m not in favour of a single unionist party: but I am in favour of a unionism which is much clearer and easier to comprehend. I am in favour of a unionism which sets out and promotes the values which underpin their beliefs. I am in favour of a pan-UK unionism and equality of citizenship. I am in favour of pooling resources and energies to build the pro-Union base. I am in favour of attracting rather than unsettling potential voters. I am in favour of proving that unionism can and will share Northern Ireland. Unionism has everything to play for: and everything to gain.