The state of unionism: an ideology at a crossroads
As Northern Ireland celebrates its 100th birthday Political Correspondent John Manley gives the ideology on which it was founded a timely health check
IN recent months there’s been almost endless speculation about Arlene Foster’s leadership of the DUP. The fact that no-one has stepped forward to publicly challenge her speaks volumes about unionism’s confused state, as does the recent failure of the Ulster Unionists to exploit its larger rival’s countless Brexit missteps, internal dissent and persistent whiff of scandal.
As Northern Ireland begins its centenary year, the ideology on which it was founded is waning. Unionism has lost its Stormont majority, there’s a border in the Irish Sea and the constitutional conversation is louder than ever. Outside forces are also undermining it – increased secularisation and liberalisation in the pro-EU south, coupled with a growth in both English and Scottish nationalism. Unionists in Northern Ireland feel increasingly isolated, while the social policies adopted by the big unionist parties appear anachronistic and out of step with Britain.
Professor Jon Tonge of the University of Liverpool says it wasn’t so long ago that the DUP enjoyed its “best election result ever” in 2017, giving the party the balance of power at Westminster. That, however, may have been a high water mark.
“The demographics are against unionism and these days fewer and fewer people are opting for the label unionist,” he says.
“At the time of the Good Friday Agreement around 40 per cent of people in Northern Ireland described themselves as unionist, whereas the corresponding figure today is closer to 28 per cent.”
But when examining unionism’s current fortunes it’s necessary to distinguish between political unionism and civic – or what some term ‘referendum’ – unionism, because it’s wrong to assume not voting for a capital ‘U’ unionist party automatically makes you a nationalist.
As illustrated above, political unionism has had a difficult few years but ask any small or large U unionist if Northern Ireland’s place within the UK is under threat and they’ll tell you it isn’t. But you’ll get differing responses when exploring where unionism will be in a generation and what it needs to do in order to secure a future within the United Kingdom.
East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson, earmarked to be a future DUP leader, in many ways typifies political unionism’s attitude. He argues that it’s “difficult and sometimes foolish to take a snapshot” and assume it’s a true reflection of unionism’s health. The former Belfast lord mayor concedes there have been recent “challenges” for his party – he cites Stormont’s three-year hiatus – but in the north’s centenary year an opportunity exists to “solidify the union”.
He acknowledges there’s a “demographic reality” in which more people support the union than vote for unionist parties.
“There is definitely an ever-increasing centre ground, which recognises Northern Ireland’s place in the union and is comfortable with that – it’s probably because of that comfort that they don’t routinely focus on aspects of a constitutional nature but they want to see this place work,” he says.
“I don’t see that as an intrinsic threat to political unionism rather I think it’s good that people have that level of comfort and are happy with Northern Ireland’s place in the union.”
Rather than diluting unionism’s core values in an effort to attract centre ground voters, Mr Robinson sees “making Northern Ireland work” as the key to securing the north’s place within the UK.
Former Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt arguably made the greatest effort of any unionist leader of the past 50 years to rebrand unionism as more liberal and progressive. He encountered resistance from within his own party, while rivals often characterised his efforts as a ‘sell out’. He quotes his then DUP counterpart Peter Robinson, who also spoke of the need for unionism to extend its reach: “We are too quick to look for Lundys rather than converts”. It’s an observation that crops up regularly when you talk to unionists. Gavin Robinson likens it to the trait within Protestantism that challenges orthodoxy.
Mr Nesbitt cites the St Andrews Agreement and the DUP’s insistence that the first minister be drawn from the largest party rather than the largest designation as key in fostering deeper political entrenchment.
“You could argue it was very clever electorally because it enabled the DUP to campaign on the basis that Sinn Féin would take the first minister’s place – that would have a very serious psychological impact for unionists, even though it’s only symbolic,” he says.
“It’s typical of the DUP’s short-term approach rather than being strategic – typified by Brexit, which I regard as unionism’s biggest own goal.”
The former UUP leader believes “the constitutional question was off the table” until the 2016 EU referendum and that the conversation about Irish unity has intensified since.
He doesn’t think unionism would lose a border poll “in the immediate future” but believes Brexit has turned the demographic he calls “notional nationalists” into more ardent supporters of a united Ireland. Interestingly, Mr Nesbitt argues that that one of the potential saviours of the union could be partitionists in the Republic, who would be reluctant to take on board “what Sinn Féin calls as a failed state”.
Lawyer and commentator Sara Creighton describes herself as “liberal, left-wing and culturally British”. She believes political unionism has “driven a lot of people away” but does not equate this with a “vote against the union”. Spurning many elements of traditional identity unionism, she bases her loyalty to the union on “the subvention, the NHS and the benefits system – even though they’ve been undermined by the Tories”.
“I’ve never felt represented by political unionism and I suspect that’s how a lot of people feel, which is why they’re voting for different parties,” she says.
“I think there’s people within unionism who have progressive beliefs but they’re not very good at advancing them and therefore it’s the ‘we’re not Irish and we’re not Sinn Féin’ message that wins out.”
Ms Creighton is involved in a new civic unionism group that aims to "celebrate Northern Ireland" and counter the campaign for Irish unity.
We Make NI, which is expected to be launching later this month, is seeking to "debate our shared future in an inclusive, imaginative and a positive way”. Notably, the group will seek to promote the "Northern Ireland brand" rather than terming itself unionist – recognition that the label ‘unionist’ is synonymous, particularly among the under-30s, with conservatism and Protestantism.
There’s never been a shortage of liberal unionists but few in the UUP and even fewer, if any, in the DUP. According to former DUP special adviser Tim Cairns, unionist leaders have always been outflanked to the right.
“The ghost of Lundy still casts a shadow,” he says. “They are always more comfortable lurching to the right, because that’s where the notion of pure unionism lies.”
Mr Cairns, like many unionists you talk to, laments the failure of NI21, a short-lived project that floundered due to internal politics and personalities rather than what it stood for.
“It’s not too late for a liberal unionist voice to emerge but the last four-to-five years have allowed Alliance to make inroads into the unionist vote, especially in greater Belfast, so it’s going to be difficult for someone to arrest that decline,” he says.
The former spad regards “some form of coalescence or cooperation” between the two big unionist parties as necessary and inevitable. He also argues that political unionism “needs to be more careful with the language it uses” to describe middle ground parties and voters or risk alienating them.
“Unionism needs to be more imaginative and move beyond the sabre-rattling and ‘Sinn Féin’s going to be first minister’ stuff – that’s been the DUP’s message for the past 20 years and people are no longer buying it,” Mr Cairns says.
Sophie Long, a former Progressive Unionist Party activist, believes too that political unionism defines itself largely in its opposition to Sinn Féin. She says civic unionism holds “great political promise” as it has a broader offering.
“A few people have articulated the idea of a civic unionism being the only way unionism can survive, and I think that’s correct,” she says.
“If there are to be referenda in different regions about membership of the union, the only way to persuade people to remain part of the union is to focus on the needs of citizens and how they’ll be accommodated, and that they’ll be treated as welcome equals rather than an enemy within.”
At the opposite end of the unionist scale is the TUV. Sammy Morrison is PA to Jim Allister and the party’s press officer. He argues that unionism’s weakness stems from efforts to make nationalists “feel comfortable inside Northern Ireland”, a process exemplified by the Good Friday Agreement.
“This process has made unionist culture almost synonymous with bigotry – for example, you have a situation where there are plans to legislate and protect the Irish language but on the flipside unionist culture and traditions are regulated and policed,” he says.
Mr Morrison concedes that securalisation hasn’t helped unionist identity and cohesion, which was for so long “explicitly bound-up with Protestant history and Biblical history”. This presents new challenges for unionism, such as stressing the economic benefits of UK ties – which he says is made more difficult by the imposition of the protocol.
While political unionism has thus far refused to publicly countenance a conversation about a border poll or constitutional change, there does appear to be a growing realisation that unionism cannot continue bury its head in the sand. A second referendum in Scotland and what is expected to be a vote for independence is likely to amplify calls for constitutional change in Ireland.
Mr Morrison believes that while unionists should be “proactive in making the case for the United Kingdom”, he rejects the idea that “we should be automatically working on the assumption that we’re going to have a border poll – I don’t see that in the short-to-medium term”.
Tim Cairns echoes Peter Robinson’s call for unionism to prepare for a referendum, likening it, as the former DUP leader did, to having a house insurance policy even though you don’t expect your home to be destroyed. Mike Nesbitt notes that some unionists will shy away from the debate on a border poll on the basis that “the more you talk about the more likely it is to happen”.
“I fear we’re like the frog in the water that’s being slowly heated up – because the environment around us is changing pretty rapidly,” he says.
In what is seemingly a departure from DUP representatives’ previous stance, Gavin Robinson has said his predecessor and one-time party leader is “absolutely right” to warn that a looming vote on the north’s constitutional future cannot be ignored.
“Peter is absolutely right not only about how we should think about these things; how we should engage in wider discussions within unionism; about how we strategise for ourselves; how we position ourselves, and how fundamentally we advance the cause of the union through thought and argument – so he is absolutely right,” the East Belfast MP said.
He says it is “incumbent on unionists not to take the status quo for granted” but to find ways to “augment, enhance and solidify” the union.
After a century of numerical dominance unionism must now sell itself on merit. Has it left it too late?