In the wake of the general election, Open Unionism has hosted a vigorous debate about the future of Ulster unionism. So far, it has hinged on the ‘unity’ issue. Should so-called unionist parties in Northern Ireland combine their forces in a single group, or at least coordinate their efforts come election time, in order to consolidate the ‘pro-Union’ vote?
A number of problems with this project have been raised, on Open Unionism and elsewhere. In a Belfast Telegraph article, I take the argument further, and float the rather provocative notion that unionist parties in Northern Ireland might do unionism, and the Union, more harm than good.
I pose the question, “what exactly is the purpose of unionist politics”?
I suppose I’m asking whether Northern Irish unionism, in any of it current guises, actually has a long-term strategy or if it exists only to perpetuate itself. Do purportedly unionist political parties in Ulster really have the best interests of the United Kingdom at heart?
They frequently claim to be defenders of the Union, but the stark truth is, since the Belfast Agreement delegated any change in Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to periodic border referenda, parties defined solely by ’unionism’ serve only to highlight differences between the province and the rest of the UK.
There is a strong argument that they could best defend the Union by disbanding and persuading members to align with the main British parties, either officially, or at first, unofficially.
I argue that unionists, whose membership of the UK gives them the whip hand, have ceded an advantage to nationalism, by allowing it to dictate the political agenda.
Northern Ireland is part of the UK and will remain so until a majority of people here decide otherwise. That principle in enshrined in international law. Yet our politics are still based squarely around Irish nationalism’s premise that the British link is impermanent, rather than unionism’s contention that it will endure.
Unionist politicians have for far too long fixated on nationalist aspirations, to the detriment of strengthening a political relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom which is already in place. They are like a nursery school class full of unruly toddlers who scream and scream for playtime but are too preoccupied with their tantrum to notice that it has arrived.
Unionism doesn’t need to become one party, nor does it need the UUP to repudiate British Conservatism. Instead, other Northern Irish unionists, with different political allegiances, should focus on their own links with like-minded national groups. Sylvia Hermon, who already has a warm relationship with the Labour party in place, could set the trend.
The alternative for unionism is to remain myopically focussed on the constitutional issue. If it does, it will always struggle to appeal beyond its base and demographics could eventually deliver a united Ireland.
If unionist parties are not careful, their very existence will contribute to the Union‘s demise.