Unionism won't survive on just an Assembly headcount

Every year, lonely hearts from around the world descend on the village of Lisdoonvarna, in county Clare,

for the annual matchmaking festival. A mixture of the forlorn, desperate, gagging-for-it and unashamedly romantic, they come in the hope of a matching that will see them paired off in everlasting bliss. Our own Sir Kenneth Bloomfield turned up last week---albeit too early for the main event---with his own little loving proposals for a coming together of both parts of Ireland.

"..I do not find the idea of some form of Irish unity or closer association…in any way unthinkable in principle. Let catholic and protestant, unionist and republican, learn in the first instance to work harmoniously together in the North for the public good rather than for ulterior motives. Let North and South co-operate over a widening range of issues, proceeding always on a basis of mutual consent. As I grow older, I care less which flag is flown and which anthem is played where I live."

Actually, this line of thinking isn't new for Sir Kenneth. In December 1971, in a conversation with Howard Smith (the British government's representative in Northern Ireland) he suggested that the government should bypass the Stormont administration and impose a settlement which would meet the demands of Catholics and win the approval of the Irish government: "Bloomfield said that if we consulted people here about such a proposal we would meet with strong opposition. But he thought they would accept it if it was imposed upon them, especially if they thought the alternative would be less agreeable to them…"

Bloomfield's, "the alternative would be less agreeable…" approach to a settlement thirty-six years ago, was conveyed in much the same form of words used by Ian Paisley to justify his own decision to enter into coalition with Sinn Fein a few months ago. In an interview with Stephen Nolan, he clearly implied that, had he not done the deal at that stage, the Union would have been jeopardised. Over the past few months his supporters have been issuing daily text messages to the News Letter, underlining their belief that the present arrangement with Sinn Fein is preferable to an "imposed Plan B."

Peter Robinson confirmed this view in a recent article: "Had the DUP not secured devolved government, the Direct Rule administration would have proceeded with an all-Ireland agenda and also imposed an Irish Language Act. Many people were concerned with Plan B and a greater role for Dublin in the affairs of Northern Ireland and undoubtedly over time that would have insidiously grown. Those who want to go back to the conflict and instability of the past and who offer no attainable alternative route to stability must be faced down and not placated."

Mind you, it doesn't seem that long ago that the DUP was taking exception to the UUP's view that "the Belfast Agreement is preferable to an exclusively Anglo-Irish deal which would leave unionism utterly isolated." Indeed, I remember writing that the DUP didn't have a viable, available or alternative solution to what was on offer---a form of words very like Mr Robinson's "no attainable alternative route" jibe directed at the new generation of anti-Agreement unionists. And, unless I am very much mistaken, it was Ian Paisley Jnr who claimed, in December 1999, that "unionists shouldn't be frogmarched into the morally unacceptable because of the fear of some mythical Plan B."

Meanwhile, Jim Allister seems to think that there may even be a Plan C, something which doesn't include power-sharing with Sinn Fein, or involve more north-southery. He claims that "neither the DUP nor the UUP were in a position to articulate the views of the many grassroots unionists who do not believe Sinn Fein is yet fit for power." Unfortunately he hasn't got around to telling us what Plan C may be, let alone how it can operate if Sinn Fein, the majority voice of nationalism, has been placed in quarantine until he decides otherwise!

Union First, the UKUP and the DUP itself all failed to deliver a credible alternative to the Belfast Agreement. Jim Allister won't deliver it, either, for the very simple reason that it doesn't exist. Oh yes, there are alternatives to the Belfast Agreement and the kilted additions which were stitched on at St Andrews, but none of them would do any favours for the Union or unionism.

Again, for all the grandiose statements from Dr Paisley and Peter Robinson about how confident and strong unionism is today, the fact remains that we cannot rely on veto and stalemate to shore up our beliefs and electoral position in the long term. And nor can we delude ourselves that there is a cohesive and contented pro-Union Roman Catholic minority who will bale us out in a future Border poll. Sinn Fein will continue with its unity agenda and Unionist Outreach project and there will be self-styled small-u unionists, like Sir Kenneth Bloomfield for example, who will not be averse to exploring and endorsing the arguments for unification.

Unionism won't survive on just an Assembly headcount: let's face it, with only 55 out of 108 seats and around 50% of the total vote, the statistics don't provide much in the way of feather-bedding. I don't regard the Alliance party as a unionist party, let alone an unambiguously pro-Union party, so there isn't much in the way of electoral comfort from them. And since the so-called Garden Centre Prod doesn't really bother to vote at all, I wouldn't assume that he could be relied upon to turn out for a Border poll.

All of which means that the two main unionist parties have to get their acts together and make a much more electorally appealing effort to build-up and maximise the overall pro-Union turnout. For the DUP it isn't just enough to concentrate upon finishing off the UUP. And for the UUP it has to be about something more than winning back votes from the DUP. The two of them have to spread their nets much wider and offer something more substantial than old mantras, tit-for-tat point scoring and banal policies. The case for the Union is overwhelming; so isn't it about time that we argued for it with greater conviction, consistency and passion?