Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Unionists: Come Home

"Dilettante", whom some of you may know also as "Manc Unionist" from the comments-zone, has kindly sent the following answer to my question "Whither Northern Irish Unionism?"

Unionists: Come Home

As O’Neill invites me to write this, we stand in the aftermath of a general election that was not a good one for unionism – every model it had going suffered defeat. The dominant party was decapitated in Belfast East; Unionist Unity failed to break through in Fermanagh & South Tyrone; this led to a nationalist counter-move that delivered in South Belfast, and attempts to integrate the province into mainstream British politics floundered in North Down and South Antrim. A string of disappointing results but, if we learn from them, potentially useful lessons. What unionism does now will be crucial, and it is my view that there is only one route that offers a positive, long-term hope for a unionist triumph.

It is time for unionists, of all stripes and none, to join the mainstream political parties of the United Kingdom. Unionist MPs can no longer afford to be a caste apart in Westminster, sidelined and relevant only in coalition negotiations where their regionalist influence is resented. More broadly, unionism can no longer afford both to compete within itself and to come across as a cultural expression with a limited reach. All that will lead to is more split votes, more disaffection and a continued erosion of the pro-union electorate. Instead, unionists should opt for real unionist unity: with their fellow British citizens on the mainland.

Only normalised mainland politics in Northern Ireland will ever represent a final victory for unionists As long as a completely separate six-party system is maintained in Northern Ireland, the union will never be normalised - if the SNP or Plaid could have completely separate party systems in their respective countries would they not jump at it? Without normalised politics the ‘us and them’ will always remain, and support for the union amidst Catholics will remain untapped, wasted on the neutral Alliance or the SDLP. Catholics are not automatically nationalists: crude population projections and headcounts mask support for the union within sections of the Catholic population that mainland political parties, untainted by their histories, can tap. A wholesale transfer of MPs, MLAs and Councillors into the mainland parties (all of which organise in NI) would force them to take Northern Ireland seriously. What better way to ensure a unionist –sympathetic government in Westminster than to provide it with an electoral stake in the province?

The alternative, an orange-hued monolithic approach to ‘unionist unity’ that attempts to turn Shankill Road into some form of Maginot Line, is doomed. Unionist Unity is postponed surrender: an admittance that unionism is sapped of courage and hope, forced into a deeply unappealing rearguard action that will only serve to further alienate moderate Protestants and Catholics alike. The path that offers salvation is the path that offers perhaps the greatest short-term courage: nionists must decisively reject the trappings of an isolated and sectarian past, and embrace fully the politics of the United Kingdom. To win, unionists must come home.

You can read more of "Dilettante", writing from a liberal Conservative Unionist viewpoint, at his own blog here.


Dilettante said...

The version currently up (at 7:50 am) is the first draft I sent in rather than the final one, which I have resent to O'Neill and will hopefully be up shortly.

slug said...

PS did you notice how much the Rodney Connor joint candidate ENERGISED the SF campaigners and SECTARIANISED the election?

That's unionist unity for you. Horrible.

fair_deal said...

Those who instinctively oppose Unionist unity are predefining it to fit within their political prejudices and assumptions. It needn't be the 'monster' you assume it to be.

Anonymous said...

Interesting to note that you have at least admitted that unionism is tainted. For me, unionism is a negative ideology. It expresses itself in negative terms. Its strap lines have been ,"No surrender," "Not an inch," "Never, never, never." It has never expressed itself as being a positive and pragmatic ideology. As a Catholic, unionism will offer nothing to me for so long as it is aligned to orangeism. However, I don't think that unionism will be strong enough to break that link and, therefore, it will continue to represent divison, discord and secterianism.

O'Neill said...


Instinctively I agree with you as a long term goal. I really believe that our aim should be a scenario close to Scotland or Wales where obv nationalism still exists as a threat but where the Unionism of Labour and the Conservatives is assumed and therefore is not their raison d'etre and doesn't need to be trumpeted above all else every election campaign. In NI terms the thought of a Welsh Conservative Unionist speaking Welsh on the campaign trail is mind-blowing, but metaphorically that's where we need to be heading.

Short-term though I can see a whole host of challenges:

1. Will Cameron deliver on his promises with relation to NI in what is now surely a post UCUNF situation? In other words, will he lavish on the NI Conservatives the same financial, logistical and moral support that the Scottish Conservatives enjoy (with very little to show for it)?

2. Are the NI Conservatives temperamentally capable of moving beyond what has been referred to as (probably cruelly but still..) their "supper-club" stage into a fully functioning political party capable of at least competing at the ballot box?

3. Is the Labour Party prepared to show some balls by offering their supporters in NI the same logistical, financial and moral support as they do to other socialists in the UK? BTW Lady Hermon could and should be taking a much stronger role with this.

4. NI folk, Unionists as well as nationalists have an "Ourselves alone" mentality engraved into their collective consciousnesses. What's the message or key the UCUNF missed to break into that thinking?

I think if there are enough representatives and foot-soldiers behind the idea it could be done but we're looking very much long-term and a lot of hard work. I suspect something extra to happen is going to be needed to give it the necessary impetus.

O'Neill said...

Those who instinctively oppose Unionist unity are predefining it to fit within their political prejudices and assumptions. It needn't be the 'monster' you assume it to be.

As I put in the comments at Open Unionism, I think a single entity is the logical outworking of what we've seen and had confirmed over the last few months ie there is a wafer-thin gap in terms of idealogical difference between the DUP as a whole and much of the UUP.

For the rest of the UUP (and other non-aligned Unionists), apart from the Union, there are many idealogical differences which I can't see accomodated within one political fighting unit (whether its one party or not). Personally I will never vote for a McCrea (or a McNarry come to that) never mind work to get them elected, there's no point pretending otherwise.

But I think "Unionist Unity" does open spaces for the liberal or (OK, I'm self-defining again;))progressive wing of Unionism. That's why, personally, I don't think it need be the end of the world.

slug said...


I would suggest keeping the Conservative link but maintaining the UUP brand. Its clear the Tory brand isn't worth that much in votes.

I thought a good feature of UCUNF was that for Westminster Commons and (soon) the new Lords replacement - and European elections the candidates agree to a joint manifesto and share in government jobs if elected. Its surely good that the UUP are part of a more powerful group at Westminster.

But features of UCUNF that could be changed include

*trusting UUP to choose their own candidates

*maintaining a little distance between the identity of the Tory party and the identity of the UUP.

*keeping autonomy over matters that affect NI

The actual policies of the Conservatives are fairly mainstream European centre right-I really dont think they are a turn-off to UUP voters. (Cameron did boob over cuts but it was more the style than the content of his comments that caused rippls).

The UUP can sign up to all of that policy, and thus present themselvesa as combining to form part of a powerful "group" at Westminster, but maintain their own middle-NI brand. There are "groups" in the EU parliament that are a possible model, though I think the relationship could be closer than that.

Thus those who want to vote for mainstream politics can do so, but those that vote because of the big-house unionism of the UUP can also do so. And NI politicians can still aspire to top jobs at Westminster if elected, which is an important point in terms of making sense of the union.

The NI conservatives of course would wonder how they would fit into this.

It seems desirable that NI politics be issue rather then community based but emphasis of the Conservative brand is not necessary to do this.

slug said...

"But I think "Unionist Unity" does open spaces for the liberal or (OK, I'm self-defining again;))progressive wing of Unionism. That's why, personally, I don't think it need be the end of the world"

This is essentially to say that there would not be unionist unity because those liberal progressives would not be part of it?

O'Neill said...

"This is essentially to say that there would not be unionist unity because those liberal progressives would not be part of it?"


You're quite right, I guess I'm confusing "Unity" the concept with what it would mean in practise. Perhaps I should say "Unionist alignment" is not to feared instead.

Re your first point as example I suppose would be the CDU/CSU relationship in Germany. Might do some research in that and put up a post.