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Do unionist parties do the Union more harm than good?

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.

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Filed under: Conservatives, unionist unity?

6 Responses

  1. thedissenter says:

    The lack of threat to the Union has left unionism in flux, but so too has the system of government which is an affront to democracy. So there is muddle of the practical and theoretical, which has led to a lot of muddled thinking. Even accepting local devolution, so we accept the ‘huckster’s shop’ as the way forward, and if not how would we go about changing it.

    The greatest challenge is that while the constitutional position means unionists fight to maintain the status quo, they are apparently powerless to move forward on the structural change that would be necessary for effective democratic government.

    The Assembly is increasingly behaving as a glorified local council (NI type) passing motions that feed specific constituencies but have little impact on actual policy or government. Legislation is sparse, but that might be only benefit from these arrangements to which we can point. All the parties believed in change at the Westminster election, but not one suggested how this might come about.

    Ironically, the constitutional status quo suits Sinn Fein as it secures them a seat at the table. We know from parades dialogue that SF only operates on a win basis, where they win. Negotiation is futile, accommodation elusive as this requires a win:win, so it is likely that any new arrangements might frustrate even the SDLP. The SDLP’s inability to move without Sinn Fein demonstrates its complete incapacity to lead. Since Hume dumped them with the GFA they seem to have been unable to make much of their 1998 electoral performance. Sadly, the leadership of Ritchie is already suggesting that we are going to see more of the same, or worse.

    So, agreed that there is too much emphasis on the constitutional question, and too little thinking on how to achieve good government which we most certainly will need in the years ahead. Clear thinking is required.

  2. Framer says:

    What is needed now and before it becomes a ‘sectarian’ controversy in the middle of an election is the establishment of an ad hoc standing group of members from the unionist parties to deal with issues around elections with significant powers.

    No need for unified parties or the Orange Order’s involvement. Not too sure if the PUP should be invited and they might well refuse.

  3. st etienne says:

    That is a very well put article, and I suspect only half in the mode of Devil’s Advocat.

    Unfortunately we seem to be watching trainwreck unionism circle the wagons once again, this time around some piss poor electoral pact type compromise that maintains the worst bits of both the UUP and DUP.

    Should this gerrymandering of choice succeed, the result of which is a near certainty: A decrease in the number of unionist voters at the next election.

    If and when that happens, I think I’ll be referring back to this point on OU and quoting the frail, weak leadership characterised by people such as McNarry and Saulters. If these persona are going to succeed in plotting Northern Irish unionism’s future, then unionism has no future, as simple as that.

  4. This is interesting. But I think the most useful comparator for this analysis is not with the UK mainstream parties (Tory, Labour, LibDem) as with the regional parties: SNP most obviously. It is the regional nature of Northern Ireland that provides the raison d’etre for the various unionist parties, and yet – unlike the SNP or Plaid Cymru – the logic of their values and aspirations should be for Northern Ireland to be no different from Finchley: including its politics.

    But unionism is also strongly defined by what it is not – Irish, nationalist, republican (obviously) because of the existence of a nationalist minority in NI – whereas the same can not be said of Labour and the Conservatives. The latter shape a political debate by and between the British people, rather than conduct an implicit debate with another people who disavow their Britishness and avow a different ‘nationality’ entirely.

    All of which is to say that unionism is caught between a rock and a hard place: on the one hand it can become one with the mainstream/mainland political parties demonstrating the permanency of the union. But this will leave the field open to nationalist parties to agitate for the end to the union (a united Ireland or repartition) against now only mainstream parties who have way too many other things to worry about and are unlikely to resist persistent demands for dissolution of the union.

    On the other hand, if unionism continues its separate existence then doing so is a constant reminder to the mainland that Northern Ireland is ‘other’: and should be treated as such – definitely not Finchley.

    I don’t have any obvious or pat solutions to the above dilemma (and I appreciate that unionists may not see any such dilemma since I am not a unionist myself), but I do think the exploration of the issues initiated by this blog is to be welcome – uncomfortable and all as that might be for some.

  5. Orangeman says:

    Can’t help noticing that only 19 days ago Mr Polley was making a rather different argument. Then he wanted the UUP and the Tories to fight together, now he suggests the UUP should disband. Liberal unionists are like butterflies, floating from position to position: a good reason for the UUP to be wary of them.

  6. Dilettante says:

    Well, in the former statement he was arguing for pragmatic policy, in this he is musing upon hypothetical further developments based on the same principle. Neither flighty nor inconsistent.

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