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United Unionist Party? The case for…

As promised, below is a post making the case for united unionism. For Burke’s Corner, the present state of flux within Unionism represents a major opportunity – now is the time for realignment…

Unionism in crisis”. Saturday’s Belfast Telegraph headline said it all. Thursday was a bad day for unionism. Ed Curran’s column today (no link available) gave the global picture:

“The DUP and UUP had nearly 400,000 supporters at the ballot box in 2001. Last week they had only 270,000. The two main unionist parties have lost more than 100,000 votes in nine years”.

In East Belfast for the DUP, South Antrim for the UUP and North Antrim for the TUV, each unionist party suffered painful blows. In stark contrast, the non-unionist parties – SDLP, Sinn Fein and Alliance – had good results, symbolised by South Down, Fermanagh & South Tyrone, and East Belfast. As Alex Kane bluntly states (no link available):

“only eight of Northern Ireland’s 18 MPs have ‘unionist’ in their description”.

All three unionist parties also lost in the battle of ideas. The failure of the Conservative and Unionist project to widen the UUP’s support base was a staggering blow for those of us philosophically and emotionally committed to that project. The TUV’s opposition to the devolved institutions – seemingly so potent in June 2009 – is now nothing more than an insignificant rump of pro-Union opinion. While the DUP retained 8 of its 9 seats, the loss of East Belfast to a non-unionist and the failure to energise pro-union voters in South Belfast with an incipient unity campaign both demonstrate the strategic weakness of unionism’s winning party.

Unionism lost voters and seats. Unionism is – almost certainly – about to lose three party leaders. Unionism is losing the battle of ideas, unable to articulate a vision that motivates pro-union voters to turn out and vote for pro-union candidates. This is the sobering reality of General Election 2010 for unionism.

Harsh electoral realities and ideological weakness must now lead to an urgent examination of the potential for realignment within unionism. The two pro-Union parties, for all their cultural and historical differences, share a commitment to devolution, power-sharing and the Union. Outside of the rivalries expressed by party activists, there is little – if anything – to differentiate the broad swathe of UUP voters from the broad swathe of DUP voters. Despite the tactical differences provoked by the general election campaign, both parties recognise the significance of ensuring pro-Union influence in Westminster. And, again despite recent rhetoric, both unionist parties and their supporters are comfortable with unionism’s historical centre-right convictions and a relationship with the Conservatives.

Against this background, another electoral cycle of negative intra-unionist politics will only deliver more of the same – more lost votes, potentially more lost seats, and a dangerous lack of vision. That lack of vision is what fails to compel pro-union voters to turn out and support pro-Union candidates. Even when a vision has merit – as I believe the Conservative and Unionist project to have had – it is interpreted by pro-union voters through the prism of intra-unionist rivalry. Thus interpreted, it lacks the power to compel support.

‘Realignment’ is, of course, code. Let me be frank. It means merger, in a manner akin to the merger in Canada of the centre-right Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives. As in that merger, realignment within unionism would seek to honour the best traditions and the greatest strengths of both parties. It would recognise that unionism’s energies need to be focussed not on intra-unionist competition, but on articulating a compelling vision of the Union and Northern Ireland’s place within it, and on maximising unionism’s electoral strength at Stormont and Westminster.

There will, of course, be dangers, anger and hurt in a process of realignment. The danger is that realignment is interpreted in terms of a pan-Protestant, Orange front, incapable of building support for the Union beyond a decreasing Orange constituency and unable to speak meaningfully to the rest of the United Kingdom. The anger and hurt will be internal to both parties and largely of insignificance to the pro-union electorate. At the risk of oversimplification, the anger will be in DUP ranks, tempted by the prospect of ‘finishing off’ the UUP at the next Assembly election – ignoring the fact that a significant proportion of pro-union voters in 2005, 2007 and 2010 have been unpersuaded by the DUP. The pain will be in UUP ranks, wounded by electoral defeats and decades of DUP criticism. To allow this pain, however, to detract from the wider vision of building and promoting the Union would be to deny core Ulster Unionist values.

If both parties are seriously committed to building and promoting the Union, the anger and pain must be set aside.

Unionist realignment holds out the potential to re-enthuse the unionist body politic. For the first time in over a decade, electoral victories would be within reach for unionism. Next year’s Stormont elections would not be framed in terms of a Sinn Fein FM. The next Westminster elections could allow Unionism to regain South Belfast from the SDLP, East Belfast from Alliance and work towards retaking North Down for mainstream Unionism. Above all, Unionism’s intellectual energies would not be wasted in fratricidal debate – we would, instead, be freed to promote a compelling vision of the Union for a 21st century Northern Ireland.

A challenge would remain for such a realigned Unionism. Northern Ireland, from a unionist perspective, cannot be cut off from the mainstream of British politics. Historically, this conviction found expression in Unionism’s relationship at Westminster with the Conservatives. Hatfield demonstrated that this understanding continues to shape unionist attitudes and aspirations. It is an agenda that realigned Unionism must address if we are to fulfill the Covenant’s vision of “our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom”.

While the difficulties and obstacles associated with realignment should not be underestimated, the electoral and ideological potential for a realigned unionism, sharing modern centre-right values, is too great to squander.

It is time for realignment.


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35 Responses

  1. slug says:

    Burke’s Corner, this to be a liberal cross-ccommunity party that is part of the Conservative party?

  2. slug says:

    You didn’t mention the great success of united unionism in FST.

  3. This is a perfect example of how UCUNF was doomed from the start. The Old Tory, anti-Enlightenment Conservative Party of Burke’s Corner is a completely different beast from the liberal, Whiggish Conservative Party of (say) Jeff Peel. One is quite comfortable with the medieval reactionaries of the DUP, while the other finds them anathema. And both claim to be the true Conservatives. What works as an intra-party coalition in England does not necessarily translate well to NI.

  4. st etienne says:

    An interesting point Andrew.

  5. slug says:

    The whole Orange Homophobe ethos of the DUP would have to be decommissioned.

  6. slug says:

    I see that – on the first day of the week after being elected – the DUP have U-turned ou their double jobbing pledge.


    Merge with a party dishonest like that? You’ve got to be joking.

    Its back to the old unabashed DUP. The DUP are an embarrassment to NI and its about time that the UUP acquired a leader that took them on in the way the SLDP are at last taking on SF.

    Politics is all about opposition and the UUP is needed to point out abuses and dishonesty such as in this U-turn on double jobbing. I just cannot believe it.

  7. slug says:

    Under the AV system, UCUNF would have done better. The Tories are offering AV referendum.

  8. slug says:

    This AV system kills any benefit of unity pacts – and with it one of the arguments for a united party.

  9. thedissenter says:

    A more interesting question is why they have BOTH lost 130,000 voters between them? Unless they start addressing that issue then bringing to parties together for a tactical electoral alignment will be fated to fail one way or another.

  10. thedissenter says:

    Maybe that should have been …’ALL lost 130,000 among them?’

  11. dilettante11 says:

    Perhaps unionists should join mainland parties? Hermon could have won North Down for Labour, rather than her independent-unionist-but-still-Labour line.

  12. It is interesting that the Labour party is now (post Clegg/Long endorsement) the mainland GB party which is least involved in NI politics, when they are the ones who would be most likely to pick up seats if they stood in their own right.

  13. […] ‘case for‘ & the ‘case against‘ unionist […]

  14. Tomagaddy says:

    Oh dear Burke’s Corner needs to shake himself out of his depression. What he is talking about is allowing a DUP takeover of the UUP! Unionist unity might offer the short term prhryic victory of preventing Sinn Fein becoming Joint First Minister No. 1 rather than Joint First Minister No. 2 but in the long term it would reinforce the insularity of unionism, continue to depress turnout and lead to a situation in which nationalists gain a majority in the Assembly by default

  15. Tomagaddy says:

    One huge error. The idea that a Mergered Uber Prod party could ‘regain’ North Down for mainstream unionism. How? Surely ‘she’ would have to be invited to your inward facing party?
    Another strategic oversight is assuming that the DUP will want to merge. In reality it will talk endlessly about unionist unity and perhaps throw crumbs to members of the UUP who fall for the false god of ‘unionist unity’
    Truth is Conservatives and Unionists represents the best way forward for the UUP as in offers a clear and distinct agenda from the DUP and will enable the UUP and Conservatives to strengthen the Union in the longer term

  16. deirdre says:

    Speaking as a secular and reasonably liberal unionist I’ve got to ask- where does this leave people like me who tried to articulate a progressive, forward-thinking, secular vision of unionism within the largest Unionist party? I was soundly walloped by the backwoodsmen who don’t want a fenian about the place on more than one occasion and ultimately became discouraged to the point of quitting. Unioist unity plays to the lowest common demoniator, leaves the OO excessively influential within unionism and says to people like trevor Ringland, Mike Nesbitt et al “don’t bother boys, we’d rahter get elected on a smaller share of the vote than do something radical like encourage civic, secular unionism”.
    I believe this is an overly pessimistic piece – and as I’ve said over the weekend, the UUP didn’t lose its share of the vote. Do the sums, take out FST and ND and UCUNF actually held to 2005 levels. The DUP dropped about 4% of its vote- mainly to TUV; they also had fewer MPs elected on a smaller share of the vote. If fewer unionists ar ebothering to vote, oculd it be they just don’t like what’s on offer- religiously based, sectarian bickering?
    Phil Larkin’s piece for Chekov is an excellent analysis of where unionism needs to start moving towards and we need to have the courage to be very radical. Anyway- look where unionist unity went in FST- straight down the pan. Northern Ireland is changing and I reckon that unionism needs to change also and take advantage of societal changes. Reckon Tomagaddy has a couple of fair points above btw

  17. oneill says:

    “Outside of the rivalries expressed by party activists, there is little – if anything – to differentiate the broad swathe of UUP voters from the broad swathe of DUP voters”

    I don’t know about voters, has any reseach been done into why people vote for either party?

    However, I’d rephrase the above to read:

    “Outside of the rivalries expressed by certain party activists, there is little – if anything – to differentiate the views and beliefs of a large number UUP elected representatives and constituency members from their DUP rivals”

    That fact is why, looking back with the benefit of hindsight, the UCUNF project was doomed from the start; we were never going to attract a substantial proportion of the electorate to a UK, civic, secular Unionism, if a large proportion of the UUP, perhaps even a majority of the party, doesn’t genuinely believe in it. And that fact is why, unfortunately, Burke’s Corner’s suggestion makes complete logical sense to me – there is a wafer-thin of idealogical difference between the mainstream of the DUP and a large proportion of the UUP, why on earth should they then fight elections as separate party?

    There will be no place in such a party for the views of foot-soldiers like myself and a still reasonable number of members and elected representatives who wish to push on with the alternative vision promised originally by Cameron and Empey. But that’s our, not Burke’s Corner’s, the UUP’s or DUP’s, problem to solve.

    “Re-alignment” of Unionism is being assumed to mean a sole party with a single opinion on the Union, social, economic etc issues. That single opinion will inevitably lean more towards the DUP world view which just may give the rest of us a potential space outside the monolith to build up something closer to our ideal than would ever been possible with the communalist likes of McNarry breathing down our necks. The technicalities how that can be done (and after that, the small matter of attracting support at the ballot box) I’ve no idea. I’m just saying that the creation of what BC is suggesting may be exactly what civic Unionism requires in the long run.

  18. Perhaps then we should look at “Unionist Unity” not as a single event in itself, but as one part of a process of repartition within Unionism – which could ultimately lead to a cleaner ideological distinction between “Whigs” and “Tories”? Back to the 19th Century anyone?

  19. Turgon says:

    All make good points. However, the impression I get from many grass roots people is that the unionist in the street wants unity or at least cooperation. I know FST was lost but remember a unity candidate was demanded. I have explained my ideas as to what went wrong but we lost relatively few votes: less than other places lost.

    I know the theoretical arguments against unity but I think the CU brigade of which most of the commentors so far have been (no insult intended folks) tend to be interested high political theory. We all need to reconnect with the on the ground unionist voter. My impression is that they are the ones who demanded a unity candidate in FST and we came within 4 votes of winning and arguably even closer depending on one’s views of the discrepancies over postal voting etc.

    As such if the people want unity or at least closer cooperation then it is high time we listened to our electorate. I know I am a tribal unionist and am relatively economically left of centre whilst socially right: a dreadful tribal bigot in essence but I do think the CU project has been a disaster for the UUP and now the unionist population want something new. The TUV failed to offer it; the UUP failed and the DUP are damaged. Now may be the time to try to move together. I know everyone has reason to mistrust the others but it is high time the intraunionist political hatchetts were buried.

    • thedissenter says:

      But I return to my point that this won’t inspire the Unionist electorate and the ‘unity’ would only shuffle things a bit, muddy the water, address a symptom not the cause. ‘Unity’ is a fix, not a way forward.

  20. slug says:

    Turgon the TUV man calls for unionist unity?

  21. Elvis Parker says:

    If the UUP chose to snub the Prime Ministrer and go for ‘unionist unity’ then those who believe in secular and civic unionism will have to join the Conservatives – in which case there wont technically be unionist unity!

    • slug says:

      Agree 100% Unionist unity is impossibly constraining for secular civic unionists – a large portion of uninoism.

  22. Food For Thought says:

    As one would expect, both Burke’s Corner and Bobballs have each offered eloquent and compelling arguments for and against the prospect of a DUP-UUP merger – and plenty of food for thought.

    Two particular points of dispute with the above:

    “both unionist parties and their supporters are comfortable with unionism’s historical centre-right convictions and a relationship with the Conservatives.”

    Hmmmm…. very strongly disagree – especially with the “big-C”. This quote sums up the fundamental fallacy which led to the failure of the UCUNF project at the polls. While many pro-Union votes are small-c social conversatives, they are certainly not big-c Tory Conservatives, as the voters’ verdict at this election makes clear.

    Put 100 representative pro-Union voters in a room and yes indeed, the median voter in the middle of those 100 will probably hold moderate social conservative views – though far more akin to the inclusive social conservatism of middle England than to the fundamentalist views still held by some (many?) in the DUP.

    However that median pro-Union voter’s views on economic issues will be significantly to the left of the Tory party – not least because he/she will probably be employed in the public sector (or if not will certainly have a close family member in the public sector). Turkeys won’t vote for an early Christmas (no matter how professional or well-funded the campaign is).

    And that’s just the median pro-Union voter – Mr No. 50 in the hypothetical room of 100. But the debate is about the viability of a single Unionist party which could appeal to all pro-Union voters. And Unionism’s a very broad church – in that room of 100 you’ll also find a great many who feel closer to Labour or the Liberals (or to no UK-wide party) than to the Tories.

    (Northern Ireland’s pro-Union voters are just like their fellow-British voters in the rest of the UK – they have a broad mix of views.) It’s just as “British” to oppose the Tories as it is to support the Tories – the DUP campaign recognised this political diversity, the UCUNF campaign did not.

    The above quote about a “relationship with the Conservatives” seems close to inviting the DUP to partake of the same poisoned chalice and go down the same failed route of a Tory link which has just been so soundly rejected by pro-Union voters. The DUP would have to be absolutely bonkers to do so – unionism is not synonymous with Toryism, as this election has shown.

    There are other reasons to think a ‘United Unionist’ party might not be in Unionism’s long-term interest – but certainly a formal Tory link would guarantee that it was doomed from the get-go with a large chunk of the pro-Union electorate.

    Any possible “united Unionist” party could only be built on the basis of a big tent for pro-Union voters from left, right and centre – anything less would, by definition, not be a party which could appeal to the broad family of pro-Union voters.


    “and work towards retaking North Down for mainstream Unionism”

    Lady Hermon won 63.3% of the vote in a 95% Unionist constituency. She achieved more votes on her own as an independent without any party support than UCUNF did in 7 or 8 constituencies put together. She has now more than earned the right to be regarded as somebody representing a significant strand of “mainstream Unionism”.

    Also is it not interesting that the two most overwhelmingly Unionist constituencies in the Province have each elected strong, moderate female MPs with liberal/post-sectarian views, a reputation of strong constituency work and significant support from loyalist working-class voters?

    I doubt that their support will be much dented by attacks on Naomi for being non-unionist (her loyalist voters clearly knew that already) or on Sylvia for being ‘non-mainstream’ (she clearly speaks for many moderate unionist voters, especially non-Tory unionists)

    Lots more going on there than a couple of mavericks achieving a freak result. Given Sylvia and Naomi’s success, and the collapse of the TUV, Dawn Purvis is probably on to something when she says pro-Union voters are well ahead of the politicians. Again, DUPs seem to be on to this more than UCUNF was.
    Robinson sounded more far appealing to moderate centre-ground voters than Reg did in both the Policing & Justice debate and in the election debates – not least in how he was comfortable talking about a ‘Shared Future’ as part of a reassuring pro-Union narrative.

    Finally, now that they’re liberated from the TUV threat, what’s to stop the DUP disregarding the whole messy business of an institutional merger and simply moving to take over the moderate non-sectarian pro-Union vote off their own bat?

    (if the new UUP leader is clearly from the progressive wing, if he or she can break the failed Tory link asap, and robustly redefine the UUP as offering a more inclusive, anti-sectarian form of Unionism than the DUP then that would be a start – but even then there’d be a very tough political fight ahead)

    Food for thought indeed!

    • st etienne says:

      FFT (and Turgon). The Tories got 100k votes in NI. As most of the candidates were pretty much unknown in politics, I interpret this as support for the ideology.

      Ok not a majority, this time, but in the face of a scurrilous media campaign, a failure to shift the image of UUP inactivity on the ground (and the usual poor local leadership), I hardly think attacks on Tory ideology in terms of relevance to NI is a strong argument at all.

    • slug says:

      This seems more of an argument to have a Labour as well as a Conservative option, rather than two non aligned parties.

  23. thedissenter says:

    Why don’t those who call themselves ‘liberal unionists’ who support UCUNF just join the Conservatives, and those of a more delicate nature join Alliance – ‘fraid there is nowhere for Fred Cobain and the McGimpseys, but then maybe that is what the UUP is for: those who are Unionists without an ideological home; the broad church.

    The DUP learned that to gain power it needed to soften its message, and piece by piece embrace elements of the unionist family that it would once have choked upon – and policy too. No unionist movement will succeed without such a process.

    There is a general tenor from ‘liberal unionists’ hovering around UCUNF that they really don’t like their own Party (UUP) that much, and have a rather rude disregard and illiberal contempt for the majority of its membership – the UUP seems the vehicle of choice while at the same time part of the problem; how does that work? The language used is terminology that alienates a large proportion of those who might otherwise agree with the central proposition, and probably serves to drive it elsewhere. More fundamentally, there are many who give the distinct impression that by admonishing others they are defining themselves as in some way more civilised (perhaps, or morally superior, or something like that): yet is simply sounds self-righteous, self-serving and uncivil. Perfectly pure is perfectly unelectable.

    It would be better to focus on what it is that defines unionism , what can be delivered to give practical effect to unionism, and the mechanism(s)/structure(s)/pathway(s) on which unionism has contemporary relevance. Most of all, who is the champion, or where is the leadership that will see this unionism (if it is in fact a singularity) thrive?

    Questions and not answers, but something to think about.

  24. Biffo says:

    As a nationalist, from what some on this blog would consider a foreign country, I find the naivete expressed here touching. Unionism has done remarkably well to survive this long. A protestant only parliament took Ireland into the Union 200 years ago. The catholic/nationalist majority was ignored from the time catholics got the vote in 1829 until 1922.

    First mention of partition? 1911 after the House of Lords veto was removed. In other words unionists were happy with a united Ireland as long as they were in control. Once that control was lost, unionists wanted to split the country.

    When partition actually happened only 4 of the 9 Ulster counties had a Unionist majority (see the 1918 election results), but unionists managed to secure 6 counties for their new state including two majority nationalist counties.

    That new state was gerrymandered, as was housing and jobs policy to reduce nationalist political influence. Unionism has had a good 200 years.

    It all blew up (no pun intended) in 1969. Control passed from unionists and has not returned. Unionists have now accepted that in order to have power they have to share it with nationalists and others.

    Right now, the electoral tide is clear. Unionism keeps declaring an end to the nationalist advance, but it still keeps coming. 50% of the vote, 50% of the seats and declining. The “Garden Centre prod” vote hasn’t materialised. The catholic unionists are nowhere to be seen. The slowdown in the nationalist vote hasn’t occurred. I don’t know if there will be a united Ireland, but I do know its fate does not lie in the hands of unionists any more.

    • slug says:

      I don’t think there will be a UI and that’s the reason why we don’t need for a united unionist party.

  25. Garza says:

    If the people proposing unionist unity think Im going to vote for a guy like Rev Willie McCrea or Gregory Campell just because they have a union jack draped over them… It’s an insult, total insult of my vote.

  26. Food For Thought says:

    Very true.

    Yet this election has shown that most pro-Union voters hold at least the same contempt for the right-wing, public sector-slashing, Tories as they do for the likes of Willie McCrea.

    The lesson of this election is that the broad swathe of moderate pro-Union voters do not identify with either the Tories (with their policy of slashing the public sector which is the cornerstone of the NI economy) or the DUP (with their ultra social-conservative views which are so far outside the UK mainstream).

    These election results are stark and clear – to paraphrase Garza: many, many non-Tory former UUP voters in this election thought “if they think I’m going to vote for a guy who supports Tory right-wingers just because they have an integrationist flag draped over them … It’s an insult, total insult of my vote.”

    (and in thinking that they were in tune with most UK voters – over 60% in England, 75% in Wales, 85% in Northern Ireland and Scotland voted non-Tory)

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