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Unionist parties struggling to find a focus - The Irish News
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Columnists

Unionist parties struggling to find a focus

Patrick Murphy

The sham fight between the Ulster Unionist Party and the DUP is fuelled by more than mere electioneering. While all politics are essentially electoral, the current rivalry is about more than a battle for Assembly seats next May.

It reflects a deep-seated problem within unionism, which goes beyond the recent crisis over reports of republican paramilitarism. In the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement and in the context of an increasingly disunited United Kingdom, the two major unionist parties are (often unwittingly) attempting to redefine the nature and purpose of unionism for a new historical era.

The problem for both parties is that in flailing around in the hope of capturing the soul of unionism, neither has the slightest idea what that soul is, or should be. (They are not too clear on what unionism's physical appearance should be either.)

Beyond seeking to grab power with grubby hands, neither party appears to have the slightest idea of what to do in terms of developing a unionist response to new nationalism.

For the first time in Irish history, the union's legitimacy is now accepted by the vast majority of nationalists, as represented by Sinn Féin and the SDLP.

So unionists are faced with the question of what political unionism's focus should be, now that it has been rendered largely redundant by consensus-based legislation.

The current strategic confusion within both unionist parties reflects the view that if you do not know where you are going, any road will take you there. So where exactly is unionism going and how will it know when it gets there?

Political unionism's confusion stems largely from the fact that it has always been clearer on what it was against, rather than what it was for. While it proclaimed loyalty to the monarch (provided he/she was Protestant) it was always prepared to use force against the British government. Irish unionism has always come with conditions.

If the first half of the past century was defined by the `big-house' unionism of Craig and Brookeborough, the second half was determined by the anti-`big-house' unionism of Paisley. (All that happened was that the DUP got big houses too.)

Unionism has always been devoid of social and economic awareness. It opposed the civil rights demand of one man, one vote for those with no property. It is still largely divorced from the needs of working class Protestants, using them mainly as flag-waving fodder.

Instead, much of modern unionism has been shaped by Paisley's use of naked sectarianism to prove his political and religious purity. Those who could not match his standards were traitors. That theme of competitive purity still fuels much of modern unionism's confusion.

Paisley saw four main enemies: the Catholic Church; republicans; nationalists and the Catholic Church again (just to be safe). However, the windmills which he built for unionists to tilt at have now largely disappeared.

Opposition to the Catholic Church is now usually a pastime exclusively enjoyed by Catholics. The Church's self-inflicted demise has largely removed it from the political arena. Republicans have become nationalists and in accepting the legality of partition, nationalism has become caffeine-free unionism.

Unionism is now discovering that there is nothing more annoying in politics than not being able to find an enemy. (The recent British government claim that an armed IRA still exists has confused unionists even more because, says Theresa Villiers, its purpose is to protect Stormont and thus the union.)

The shortage of enemies in Ireland has been made worse by unionism's confusion over exactly with whom it wishes to unite. With devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales, does unionism want union only with England? Would it want union with what the British national anthem's sixth verse describes as `the rebellious Scots' if they gain more independence?

Last week the House of Commons began debating English votes for English laws, which means that unionists (along with Scottish and Welsh MPs) could no longer vote on laws relating only to England. Supporting union with Britain these days is a bit like pledging loyalty to an iceberg - it will ultimately melt.

Although David Cameron will always be glad of DUP support in Westminster, Britain no longer needs unionism to govern the north on its behalf. New nationalism can now do that with far fewer conditions and with greater political ability.

It could happen next May. If the current UUP-DUP wrangle results in fewer seats for the DUP, Sinn Féin could become the largest Stormont party. Nationalism would then become the new unionism, which might prompt unionists to realise that the soul of Irish unionism still lies in Ireland.

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