Owen Polley: Unionism is said to have a siege mentality but this time it really is under siege, which is why a degree of electoral unionist unity is required

‘Unionist unity’ is a rallying cry often alleged to come from the least constructive, least forward-thinking corners of unionism.

Thursday, 14th November 2019, 1:47 pm
John Finucane, seen above on Remembrance Day 2019, is more plausible than Sinn Féin's old guard, but if elected will use his position to attack the state on legacy and assail British sovereignty. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

According to that theory, calls for unity are intended to shut down debate, silence dissent and appeal to tribal instincts rather than launch a positive case for membership of a modern United Kingdom.

Many of these criticisms are valid.

While some parts of unionism tried to plug Northern Ireland into mainstream British politics, the elements whose outlook was shaped by a ‘little Ulster’ were most commonly advocates of ‘unity’.

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The St Andrews Agreement deliberately put a sectarian contest between unionists and nationalists permanently at the heart of our devolved system of government.

It’s understandable that many commentators are now scathing about deals that entrench the DUP and Sinn Féin while freezing out the ‘middle ground’.

Yet, in Northern Ireland, just like elsewhere in the UK, Brexit has changed everything.

The Ulster Unionists have been criticised for reneging on Steve Aiken’s promise to contest all 18 Westminster seats. How can the incoming leader persuade voters that his party offers a more constructive vision than the DUP if he’s prepared to support that party in North Belfast?

It’s a dilemma, but it’s one for which Aiken is not responsible. Quite simply, the Ulster Unionist party exists to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. Its participation in the election in North Belfast would mean probable defeat for the DUP, but it would mean much more than that too.

Nigel Dodds’ opponent is more plausible than some of Sinn Féin’s ex-terrorist old guard, but he’s steeped in the assumptions and the lore of republicanism. This is a man for whom the Shankill bomber, Sean Kelly, has been seen canvassing.

He stands for a party which in 2015 was assessed as being perceived by republicans to be taking its direction from the IRA army council. The PSNI said last week that their paramilitary assessment had not changed.

If elected, he will use his position relentlessly to attack the state on legacy, assail every building block of British sovereignty and decry every vestige of British culture.

The extraordinary aspect of Northern Ireland politics is that any non republican could be so amoral to back a party such as Sinn Fein just to block Brexit.

Steve Aiken might lament that situation, but he didn’t create it and, while his handling of the UUP’s withdrawal in North Belfast was lamentable, he shouldn’t feel guilty about eventually responding appropriately.

The difference in this election, as opposed to others, is that there really is a current threat to the Union, in the form of Brexit, Boris’s deal and ongoing attempts to prioritise Northern Ireland’s EU membership over its UK membership.

In the Irish Times, Newton Emerson argues that a series of non-pacts and withdrawals shows the emergence of a three-party system, where the middle-ground is represented only by Alliance.

Sadly, if that analysis is correct, the middle-ground is hostile to Northern Ireland playing a full part in the politics, economy and society of the UK.

For three years, that party has implied that a border in the Irish Sea is preferable to any new infrastructure on the border in Ireland. It has consistently prioritised our links with the Republic of Ireland above our connections to mainland Britain.

In this project, it has been effectively allied with the Dublin government, Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Green Party.

Its most vicious attacks have always been reserved for the British government and unionists.

Across unionism, there are as many different views on society and the economy as there are across the rest of the UK. Some unionists hope we don’t leave the EU at all, while many favour a soft Brexit and others advocate a ‘no deal’ outcome. None of them, if they take their unionism seriously, think we ought to sacrifice our place in the UK internal market in order to align more closely with the Irish republic.

Let’s take things back to first principles.

Almost every unionist agrees that voters in Northern Ireland should be included fully in a national decision-making process like the EU referendum. Almost every unionist acknowledges that we should not be treated differently as the outcome of such a process is implemented. And almost every unionist accepts that, if we are treated substantially differently, then the political rights that accompany are British status are being undermined.

We are effectively second class British citizens.

It’s frequently claimed that unionism in Ulster has a siege mentality, but this time it really is under siege. Every non-unionist party prefers to dilute our place in the UK if the alternative is to create new barriers, no matter how discrete, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Steve Aiken says the Ulster Unionists now advocate ‘remain’. That is a defensible position, even though it’s difficult to envisage Brexit being dropped entirely, either through revoking article 50 or through a new referendum. But if the UUP is to be taken seriously as a unionist party, it has to challenge robustly the extraordinary campaign that thinks it’s perfectly ok to strengthen our links with the Republic at the expense of our place in the UK, just because the British people voted to leave the EU.

It cannot ally itself with these people, even if it shares their distaste for Brexit.

Dropping out in North Belfast, to prevent the most repugnant advocates of that campaign from winning, is an entirely rational, defensible strategy.