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.