In response to recent posts on the subject of unionist unity, WB Maginess suggests that such realignment is based on nothing more than the shadow of ethnic unionism and it will not achieve anything like the success its proponents are advocating. There is undeniable electoral proof, he says, that united unionism equals less than the sum of its parts – furthermore history teaches us that united Unionism is a myth…
By WB Maginess
Some argue that the failure of all three Unionist parties at this election to have a positive outcome (as well as the substantial drop in the unionist vote) is a powerful argument that Unionists have rejected the multi-party model. For some, what is needed to reinvigorate Unionism is a single monolithic party.
There are a number of reasons why this is simply wrong.
Unionism has spent the past six months engaging in a peripheral courtship dance in South Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone. The unity talks in Fermanagh came up with an agreed and agreeable candidate, who was by all accounts a candidate who ticked all the boxes required, including cross community credentials. Rodney Connor lost. Not only that, but two thousand fewer unionists voted for Rodney Connor than had voted for Foster and Elliott combined in 2005. The two unionist parties spent 6 months achieving for the Unionist people what they thought they wanted, and this resulted in greater apathy, and no change in the representation in Parliament of Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
The dance in South Belfast did not succeed, with the DUP claiming the moral high ground and talking up their ability to unite Unionism. The result was that both parties lost a combined 11% of vote share, their combined vote fell short of the SDLP, whose vote increased by more than the Sinn Fein vote, and the Alliance vote doubled. Unionist voters deserted the Unionist parties in South Belfast, and to think the cause of this was a lack of unity would be bunkum. The facts show that Unionists stayed at home, or switched to the Alliance and SDLP.
So here we have undeniable electoral proof that united unionism equals less than the sum of its parts. I would never vote for a monolithic Unionist entity, and clearly I am by no means alone. However, leaving contemporary arguments aside, history teaches us that united Unionism is a myth.
Basil Brooke was probably the best leader moderate Unionism ever had. Given common perception of the man, this seems an odd statement. While it is true that the early Brooke was an unashamed bigot, the later Brooke was a Prime Minister who knew his responsibilities under what we now call the shared future principle. He literally faced down Grand Lodge on more than one occasion to save progressive legislation, perhaps most famously over the proposal to have the Department for Education take responsibility for paying employer’s National Insurance payments for teachers in Catholic schools. He on occasions sacrificed liberal Ministers to Unionism’s right, but rarely if ever policy.
However Brooke was determined to preserve Unionist unity, and as a result he achieved a modest amount in his 20 year premiership. In order to keep Unionism united he moved more slowly than he might have, and worked to preserve his image as a Unionist leader with little liberal tendencies, despite being a leader that Dublin recognised as moderate.
Unionism split because O’Neill moved too fast for the right wing of the party and the movement. One really must wonder however if that was really such a bad thing. Would a Unionist Party holding together, containing Ian Paisley and William McCrea, have done the deal in 1998? Would Unionism have moved Northern Ireland forward to the extent that it has come today? Or did a two party system serve Unionism, and Northern Ireland well?
The UCU project failed, this time. It was compromised by a number of things including the UUP’s (with hindsight, poor) decision to oppose devolution of justice, compromising on the 18 candidates pledge, appalling decision making on the timing of candidate selection by UUP Officers and the Paxman interview. However none of these things need necessarily be fatal to the project. The path ahead will be tough, there is no doubt about that, but a knee-jerk reaction to Unionist unity should not be pursued as the path of least resistance. Sammy Wilson’s comments in today’s Belfast Telegraph are telling:
“I think there would be very good reasons for such a move and very good benefits but the question is whether now is an appropriate time. The Ulster Unionists must be feeling particularly vulnerable at the moment.”
It is a verifiable fact of Northern Ireland that there will be unionists to the left of William McCrea. I do not wish to ever be a part of a party which contains him, or those like him. It appears at this election that there has been a swing to the Alliance Party by those Unionists who felt the need to depose the DUP, or who were turned off either by pacts or the UUP’s decision on justice. Unionism is a more complicated beast than the Canadian right. It encompasses a range and breadth of opinion that is simply too wide to be contained within one vessel.
It is perhaps true that realignment is an inevitable consequence of the 2010 election. However any claim that this will involve meaningful and long lasting unity within Unionism is simply untrue. A coming together of Unionist parties would cause the UUP end of the pantomime horse to haemorrhage votes to the Alliance Party, Conservative Party or some other liberal Unionist vehicle. Those who suggest that this would be a UPNI venture simply forget that UPNI was the unsuccessful twin, born out of Unionist strife in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The other twin unfortunately fared rather better.