Alex Kane: Another dreadful day for unionism. Another lesson to be learned

Has unionism the sense or wherewithal to recognise the scale of its dilemma and do something about it?

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is an Irish News columnist and political commentator and a former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party.

Jim Allister defeated Ian Paisley in the North Antrim election race
TUV leader Jim Allister unseated the DUP's Ian Paisley Jnr in the North Antrim constituency (Niall Carson/PA)

I still think the Northern Ireland end of the general election campaign was, for the most part, fairly dull. All of the parties – expecting it to take place in October/November – were caught off guard: constituencies without candidates, manifestoes unprepared, election material not ready for the printers and party political broadcasts not shot.

And yet the results themselves turned out to be quite unexpectedly extraordinary.

The DUP, discovering that troubles come ‘not as single spies, but in battalions’, lost a seat each to Alliance, the UUP and TUV; and almost lost East Derry to Sinn Féin. Two of its five remaining seats are now marginal and the other three could be best described as probably safe rather than bankable.

The TUV was well short of the almost 8% it reached in the 2022 assembly election, but most people won’t have noticed because Jim Allister, with the glee spread all across his face, managed to topple the Paisley dynasty in North Antrim, albeit with a wafer-thin majority of just 450. Meanwhile, the UUP saw Robin Swann elected as its first MP since 2015, although it underperformed in its other target seats (including North Down) and was rolled over by Sinn Féin in Fermanagh/South Tyrone.

Robin Swann shakes hands with outgoing South Antrim MP Paul Girvan following his victory at the Meadowbank Sports Arena, Magherafelt. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire (Niall Carson/Niall Carson/PA Wire)

All in all, it wasn’t a good day for unionism. Yet barely had the dust settled before the recriminations had begun, with accusations of vote-splitting, seat-losing and selfishness. Give it a few days, though, and the internal conversations will switch to pacts, unity, mergers and greater cooperation. It’s what unionism always does when it has a dreadful day and an even worse election.

Doug Beattie returned to his usual theme needing to ‘reach out’ to and attract back people who aren’t voting unionist. Hmm. That’s maybe a bit of a late and a lame way to win back the unionists who have already shifted to Alliance over the last few years and who seem reasonably happy there. And look what happened to Col Tim Collins in North Down: much of his pitch was aimed at Stephen Farry voters and yet all he succeeded in doing was paving the way for Alex Easton.

The DUP, of course, won’t be able to reach the Alliance wing of unionism (and such a demographic clearly exists) and the TUV wouldn’t even want to try. So how and to whom do those parties reach out? More important, what exactly would they even be offering to people who they would regard as pro-union, yet who either don’t vote for unionist parties or choose to stay at home? Why don’t they vote? What puts them off? What is it about party-political/electoral unionism which serves as such a deterrence to potential voters?

The UUP, DUP and TUV don’t know the answer to those questions. If they sat down and thought about it they might come up with some answers; but knowing unionism, the answers from each party would be different, competing and contradictory. Which means they would be chasing different demographics for different reasons and, as sure as night follows day, would end up either fielding their own candidates or talking about electoral arrangements. Back to square one, in other words.

The dilemma for unionism is that it is neither a whole, let alone the sum of its parts. It is fractious and confused – as these results indicate. Has it the sense or wherewithal to recognise the scale of its dilemma and do something about it?

Unionism is fractious and confused. Has it the sense or wherewithal to recognise the scale of its dilemma and do something about it?