Northern Ireland

Peter Shirlow - Unionism needs to read the room

Significant majorities of unionists support the restoration of the assembly. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA
Significant majorities of unionists support the restoration of the assembly. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA

The rise in secularism and social liberalism has created detachment from traditional forms of unionism. Unionism knows it faces an electoral but not constitutional crisis and is aware that more Catholics are pro-union than Protestants are pro-unity, with polls indicating that Brexit was not the gamechanger predicted. The lead held by the share wishing to remain in the UK has declined but remains presently unsurmountable. 

This poll emphasises the importance of the phrase ‘until now’. Alarmingly, for unionism, when respondents were asked ‘if the assembly remains suspended that would encourage me to think that a united Ireland is a better option’ the mood shifts. Alliance voters, who state a constitutional preference, are near 2-1 in favour of remaining in the UK but, when asked if suspension would encourage them to consider unity, the majority, 54.5%, concurred. Even a statistically significant share of unionists agreed. It is not Brexit or arguments for unification that persuade but the behaviour of unionism. 

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Unionism needs to read the room. Significant majorities of unionists support the restoration of the assembly, that its return will challenge societal needs and that access to both the EU and UK markets is vital to the economy. They are enthusiastic for the DUP’s requests for a 'green lane' that would facilitate a better flow of goods and the establishment of a UK-centred East-West council. 

Over twice as many DUP voters agree ‘… that there are issues within the Windsor Framework … but these are not as important as restoring the assembly …’. Among DUP voters nearly 40% oppose the Windsor Framework, meaning the majority neither agree or disagree, do not know or disagree, hardly evidence of hard-line majority DUP thinking. 

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We are told that only the British government can provide what the DUP wants but the government is weak, probably not prepared to enter a trade war with the EU and incapacitated with its version of the last days of Rome. Unless the government prioritises the return of the assembly and finds solutions then we could predict no devolution before a new government that re-negotiates Brexit. 

So we will remain mired in a society run by civil servants unable to lead reform – or the DUP could go back. They should push for agreement that the assembly forms a committee dedicated solely to the impacts of the Windsor Framework, through evidence-led inquiry, and if the consequences are as unionist assume, then assembly can create a compelling voice to pressure the EU and UK into re-negotiation. 

If solutions are not forthcoming, people awaiting NHS support will sit in pain, feel isolated and wonder why ideology trumps care. Those with complex mental health needs will, due to inadequate support, dig further into their trauma. 

I have no doubts that Jeffrey Donaldson wants a secure form of devolution and stability but his desire to return devolution is set too high and is confronted by the keyboard warriors and minority ‘not an inch’ unionism. Those who place control and demand over consequences. The very people who care not for recklessness and its consequences. Their fear and anger refusing to accept the greater cause of societal need. 

If as we are told that unionism is motivated against the Windsor Framework then why has the unionist vote declined? If loyalism is so exercised then why, in May’s elections, did most Protestant working class people not vote in greater numbers? Despite such facts we are dominated by a counter-intuitive version of unionism that is factually hollow but no less influential. 

A minority, sometimes within their own community, whose intransigence is damaging their most precious union. A reminder that intransigence is the opposite of virtue when inflexibility undermines stability and societal reconstruction and all the more so when actions are encouraging pro-union people to consider Irish unity.

:: Prof Peter Shirlow is director of the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool.