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United unionism is a myth…

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.


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10 Responses

  1. dilettante11 says:

    An attempt to impose ‘unionist unity’ would in effect be the DUP writ large. The unionist electorate is more subtle than that: for a start, a sizeable potential portion of it is Catholic. Unity would be the beginning of the end.

  2. slug says:

    Very good analysis.

  3. slug says:

    The Rodney Connor unity pact:

    ENERGISED the SF campaigners
    SECTARIANISED the election, reducing it to tribes.
    REDUCED the unionist vote.
    Increased the SF vote.

    That’s unionist unity for you.

    Horrible- bad for politics and bad for the quality of the union. Which is safe.

  4. FMTer says:

    “The Rodney Connor unity pact:

    ENERGISED the SF campaigners”

    Correct. They didn’t arrogantly stroll through the campaign knowing it was in the bag.

    “SECTARIANISED the election, reducing it to tribes.”

    SF sectarianised the campaign, demonising “Orange Roddy” etc knowing they needed the nationalist vote to unite. Connor concentrated on representation and didn’t lower himself to their level.

    Ofcourse only for Connor’s intervention I assume you believe everyone would have been voting for candidates based on left-right issues!!

    “REDUCED the unionist vote.”

    Very little was down to the unity candidate. It was down to laziness and apathy seen across NI. Foster and Elliott’s combined vote would have been down also, moreso in fact as the unionist voters knew they’d be no chance of success.

    “Increased the SF vote.”


    “Horrible- bad for politics and bad for the quality of the union. Which is safe.”

    I hope these pacts are finished. Restricting choice is not ideal. Hopefully electoral reform will make pacts unnecessary and pointless. But the unionists of FST wanted this pact and wanted representation at Westminster and not to be represented by a terrorist cheerleader. It fell short, but by a tiny amount.

    • slug says:

      “Correct. They didn’t arrogantly stroll through the campaign knowing it was in the bag.”

      It wasn’t just that they had to work harder. My point really was that they suddenly could bring out all the old tribal divisions in their rhetoric. That is their strong point. An election focussed on the economic issues doesn’t suit them, an election based on tribalism does. Unionists handed SF an advantage.

      • st etienne says:

        I don’t necessarily agree with the assertion it handed SF an advantage. SF roaring sectarian against a proven worker like Connor was another open goal opportunity for contrasting real sectarianism, real bigotry, that was never quite set upon.

        Maybe it’s just me but when a man like Connor refuses to engage this, it comes across as a sign of defensiveness.

        A Shinner crying bigot should be the wet dream of a constitutional politician in any scenario.

  5. Food For Thought says:

    “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.”

    Very good point – but isn’t it also a verifiable fact of this election that there are also clearly plenty of unionists to the left of David Cameron (let alone the likes of Iain Duncan-Smith, Liam Fox, Daniel Hannan, Norman Tebbit etc etc) ?

    Many moderate non-sectarian pro-Union voters, who would otherwise be naturally in the broad UUP home, are just as put off by right-wing Tories as you (and I) are put off by Willie McCrea.

    Not only did the Tory link put off at least as many voters as it attracted (the UUP vote dropped from 17.7% to 15.2% since 2005) – but even many of those who did end up voting for UCUNF (perhaps out of residual UUP loyalty) weren’t convinced – the Belfast Telegraph poll said only 55% of UUP voters wanted Cameron, the other 45% didn’t.

    The UUP doesn’t need the electoral albatross of the Tory link in order to build a progressive and independent future for itself.

  6. st etienne says:

    First off I wouldn’t take anything as fact coming from the Belfast Telegraph – for a paper with an alleged moderate unionist editorial stance they rained nothing more than cheap anti-Tory propaganda from the moment the CU pact was announced.

    Secondly the DUP vote was down 70k while the UUP down 30k. Robinson effect notwithstanding, the DUP by all accounts ran a range of well known personalities and incumbents. The CU candidates were generally unheard of prior to the election. Indeed you could argue the toss over whether the Tory link up helped their profile in this regard.

  7. Tomagaddy says:

    ‘The UUP doesn’t need the electoral albatross of the Tory link in order to build a progressive and independent future for itself.’

    As what? The loink with the Conservatives provides a link to national politics and differnatates real unionists from ulster nats

  8. Food For Thought says:

    “As what”, you ask? As returning to it’s traditional, decades-old role as a big-tent forward-thinking home for Northern Ireland’s pro-Union community. (a more moderate, progressive and inclusive home than the DUP with it’s Willie McCrea’s etc can ever offer)

    As for who are the “real unionists” – well around 85% of Scottish and Northern Ireland people voted non-Tory, along with 75% of Welsh voters and over 60% of English voters (even England was Tory 39, Labour 28, Lib 24).

    And this was with the Tories at the height of their political cycle – just wait and see what the Tory poll ratings will look like when they bring in their massive public sector cuts. (like the rest of NI, probably two-thirds of UUP voters are employed through the public sector)

    This whole profoundly insulting, divisive and debilitating idea that in order to be a “real” or “true” Unionist one needs to be a Tory, absolutely must be rejected if the UUP is to have a future.

    The results are in – As a non-Tory Unionist I am in tune with over 60% of English voters, 75% of Welsh voters, and 85% of Scottish and Northern Ireland voters.

    So in terms of “real unionists”, moderate pro-Union voters (the grassroots heart of the UUP) acted just as their fellow-British voters across the whole of the UK – a great many rejected the Tories, and even clearly very many people who did end up voting UUP rejected the Tories.

    The wisest course for the UUP is to politely but firmly break the link with the Tories (regardless if Cameron shows up on Saturday to try and ‘wow’ the UUP Executive in the same way he obviously massively failed to wow the Ulster electorate a week ago).

    The UUP should break the link, do its best to bring back all the talented non-Tory people it lost over the failed Tory link (like Sylvia 63.3% Hermon), and redefine itself as a big tent moderate/progressive unionist party open to all and not just a minority of true-blue Tories.

    Last but not least the UUP needs a new leader who really truly believes in his or her heart of hearts that the UUP really does have a future as a moderate, big-tent inclusive alternative to the DUP – UUP members should settle for nobody less.

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