Alex Kane: Unionism must stop holding out for a hero and sit down and talk

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.

Bonnie Tyler - holding out for a hero? Picture by Dominic Lipinski, PA
Bonnie Tyler - holding out for a hero? Picture by Dominic Lipinski, PA Bonnie Tyler - holding out for a hero? Picture by Dominic Lipinski, PA

Jeffrey Donaldson won’t have been one bit surprised that the contents of an email he sent to DUP members last weekend appeared on the front page of the Belfast Telegraph a few days later.

Actually, I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if he hoped it would be leaked. He wants DUP members and supporters (maybe even the UUP) to be aware of the scale of the problem he is facing; and he also wants key players in the UK and Irish governments, along with the EU and US, to recognise his internal travails.

He is a devolutionist. He acknowledges that any solution which removes devolution and restores some form of ersatz direct rule (which wouldn’t, I suspect, be all that far removed from de facto joint authority) would likely be bad for unionism.

Read more:

  • Brian Feeney: Expect nothing from leaderless, directionless unionism – Jeffrey Donaldson has boxed himself in
  • Tom Kelly: The DUP is now clutching at straws
  • Alex Kane: Jeffrey Donaldson alone can't decide if or when the assembly comes back – and the British government knows it

Let’s face it, if the primary concern of unionism since 2016 has been the serial shafting by Conservative PMs, governments, backbench groups and even Westminster’s opposition parties (who committed to the Windsor Framework before the ink had dried), then it seems unlikely they’d be of much use to unionism under direct rule.

Listening to some Duppers it would be easy to conclude they are believers in the Bonnie Tyler solution: holding out for a hero, ‘the streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds’.

Or they dare to dream that Keir Starmer will scrape to power on a wing and a prayer and come crawling to them with a “let’s rip up the Framework’ confidence and supply arrangement.

I was listening to one of unionism’s strongest Brexiteers a couple of days ago, as he made the case for every unionist refusing to support a return to any form of devolution which conveyed the impression that unionism would, by choice, assist in the subjugation of the union.

When pushed on what the alternative was, he suggested a return to what might best be described as the old-fashioned unionist values which underpinned unionism during the Home Rule crises from the mid-1880s to 1921 and the creation of Northern Ireland.

But what he didn’t mention was that Northern Ireland, complete with its own parliament, required an acceptance of a huge compromise by unionism. Unionism didn’t want it. It viewed partition as a perpetual threat to ‘Ulster’ unionism and a devolved parliament as a form of governance that didn’t apply in the rest of the UK.

Yet it accepted it because the potential alternatives were worse. Lord Carson’s ‘puppets’ speech was a recognition that ‘Ulster’ unionism was different to GB unionism; as well as confirming that, when it came down to it, there was no particular emotional attachment to the new Northern Ireland from Westminster’s political establishment.

One thing that just about all of political/electoral unionism is agreed upon is that the Framework, like the Protocol before it, has changed the relationship between Northern Ireland and GB.

Read more:What is the Windsor Framework?

Republicans and nationalists will be heading over to my Twitter account to tell me that nothing has changed. But something has changed. My sense of who I am within the UK has changed. My sense of constitutional identity has changed.

Fair enough, the constitutional guarantee (NI stays in UK until a majority in a border poll decides otherwise) remains in place; but I would contend that leaving NI in the EU for a range of issues has already altered my constitutional status.

But we are where we are. And where unionism is right now is in a place where it has to make a call between rebooting devolution or walking away altogether. Irrespective of what decision we make it seems inevitable that the Framework will stay.

My own fear is that abandoning devolution will leave unionism in a worse position than it is; because we will be friendless, without influence to counter the influence of our constitutional opponents and, probably worst of all, mostly helpless in the face of those who neither understand us nor even try to understand us.

But those within political/electoral unionism who want to make the case for rebooting the assembly need to make a more convincing case than they have been up to this point.

If there are benefits to having our own executive and ministers then spell out those benefits. If NI’s position within the union is best served by devolution then, again, set out the benefits.

And if it is possible to create genuine cooperation and power-sharing between unionism and nationalism, then let’s see the gameplan.

On the other hand, those who believe that the ‘present ongoing subjugation’ makes unionist participation in the assembly an impossibility also need to go beyond their no, nay, never response.

They need to set out the likely consequences for unionism if the present assembly goes the way of the NI Parliament in 1972 and the Sunningdale assembly in 1974.

They need to explain what form direct rule is likely to take and how they would counter the bits – quite a few I imagine – they won’t like.

Most important of all, they need to explain how unionism benefits without devolution and against a background in which unionism is no longer an electoral majority.

 Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen as the EU and British government agree the Windsor Framework in February
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen as the EU and British government agree the Windsor Framework in February Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen as the EU and British government agree the Windsor Framework in February

Back to Donaldson’s email, particularly his claim that members of his own party are both damaging its election prospects and harming the union.

The present dilemma is too great for one party to make the call. Key players within electoral unionism need to sit down – within a matter of days – and talk. They need input, too, from voices within loyalism and Orangeism.

I’m not predicting a meeting of minds, but at least they might find it possible to find a way of presenting their different cases and, if necessary, go their own way.

The present internecine bickering and negative briefing is pointless. And reckless, given what’s at stake.