Philip Smith: New research shows that for ‘neithers’, the problem with the Union is unionists

Much has been written about the critical 20% of the Northern Ireland electorate that comprise the swing voters, the persuadables, in any future border poll. Research by new pro-Union campaign Uniting UK provides some good news for the Union but bad news for political unionism.

Monday, 25th January 2021, 7:01 am
Updated Monday, 25th January 2021, 10:03 am
Unionists are turning people off the Union, writes Philip Smith - and that needs to be changed. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty

Uniting UK has been conducting focus groups with women and young people about their attitudes to politics, the Union and Northern Ireland’s future direction. Mainly females from a unionist background, middle-aged and middle-class plus groups of students and young professionals, they all preferred to be called ‘Neithers’ as opposed to unionist or nationalist. One panellist captured the change taking place across Northern Ireland: “As a generation we’re shedding a lot of labels.”

The research provided three main outputs that unionists must reflect upon. Firstly, there was a universal dislike of political unionism. Unionist parties, especially the DUP, actively repel and put this audience off supporting the Union. As one young woman bluntly put it: “Unionism is an old idea for old men.”

Unionism is seen as backward looking, afraid of change, a thing of the past and embarrassing. There were no potential positives to be built upon or on which to create outreach.

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Based on these perceptions about unionism you would be forgiven for thinking that the Union’s days are definitely numbered. However, there was a negative attitude to politics in general with unhappiness at leadership at both Westminster and Stormont. The only two UK politicians that received positive comments were Robin Swann and Nicola Sturgeon, with the standout performer internationally being New Zealand premier Jacinda Ardern.

Secondly, any debate on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future will be a ‘head over heart’ affair. Our panellists had no emotional attachment to being British. Indeed, some younger participants equated Britishness with the sins of Empire making it distasteful.

All were comfortable with their Irishness which is perceived to have a positive brand internationally and seen to be friendly, welcoming, and positive.

Despite this comfort with Irishness there was no stampede towards Irish unity. Panellists wanted to see the facts and figures, to compare and contrast, and look at the pros and cons for both options. Individuals wanted to undertake a cost benefit analysis on what Irish unity or remaining part of the UK means for them and their families.

Finally, and most positively, there was a genuine pride in Northern Ireland. Most surprisingly for me that warmth was strongest in the youngest panellists with a near universal desire to bring up their families in Northern Ireland. Our health service, education system, arts and culinary scenes along with our natural heritage were all cited as reasons to be proud of our region.

So, all is to play for in any future border poll. But for a pro-Union message to be taken seriously and to engage the key middle ground then unionist political parties cannot be the vehicle.

Something new is needed without baggage and which does not reinforce these negative perceptions. A new campaign that must be able to provide the facts and figures which show Northern Ireland has a better future economically, socially and politically as part of the United Kingdom. It needs to be able to reinforce the existing positives in people’s minds and mitigate the negatives. It needs to show the benefits of our place in the United Kingdom.

What do our panellists want to see in politics and what issues will motivate them to participate? They want to break out of the past and our historical divisions. The younger participants see themselves to be the first generation that can genuinely shed old baggage. They want to see greater diversity in politics and political representation with more women, minorities, and young people in positions of influence. They want a focus on issues that matter to them like social justice, climate change, education and improving mental health. There is a desire to be involved in politics, but our existing structures are failing to engage.

Brexit, the DUP’s attitude to social issues, Stormont’s perceived incompetence and a lack of empathy with traditional unionism all suggest that the Union is unpopular with the important political centre ground. Yet none of this means that they are ripe for voting yes to Irish unity in any future border poll. A pro-Union message can still be heard but it must be communicated in a way that resonates and is credible.

Uniting UK has been formed for just that purpose; to research and present the positive case for the Union and to reach out to those who are open to building a successful, diverse, and united Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.

l Philip Smith is an Ulster Unionist councillor in Comber and a former MLA for Strangford who has set up a new pro-Union campaign group called Uniting UK (www.unitinguk.com) to focus on the 20% of the electorate who may be persuadable in any future border poll.

l Morning View, page 16