I’m an unapologetic unionist, who if cut, may possibly bleed red, white and blue. However, I am fundamentally against an idea which has been floated around unionist circles since unionism became a formidable political movement in the late 19th century. The idea that there should be one, united, all-encompassing political party and the belief that it's the solution to the threat of Irish republicanism and the means of maximizing electoral success. I believe wholeheartedly that a united unionist party would fall apart as quickly as it could be created. Modern unionism is a broad movement containing many different world views; from conservatism to liberalism, from moderate to hardline, unionism is too ill-defined to be tied to one party. Furthermore, having a united political front would only hurt our own interests. One party leaves little room for unionists who don’t fit the image or mould of a supposed unionist party, and I predict this party would quickly become stagnant with little room for internal debate or serious competition from outsiders.
The first problem any attempt at forming this new political party would bring would be leadership selection. The new leader of a united unionist front would likely be either; the DUP’s Arlene Foster, the UUP’s Steve Aiken, or Jim Allister of the TUV as a potential third outsider choice. All these options have immediate problems. Would the liberal wing of the UUP ever follow Jim Allister’s more conservative ideology? I would doubt it. Following the calamitous Renewable Heat Incentive debacle, sections of unionist voters have sworn off the DUP. Arlene Foster seems to have been tainted, removing her chances of becoming an all-encompassing unionist figure. Finally, Steve Aiken represents a more moderate and liberal side of unionism which some hardline loyalists openly reject. A new Unionist Party would be forced to operate as an umbrella party similar to the UUP today, containing different strains of unionism. However, the DUP could never justify joining a smaller party. No current party leader has the ideology or mass public support to effectively lead and hold together a united unionist party.
Outside of being unionist, the new party would have an extremely difficult task of writing other policies and a general manifesto without disintegrating. Social issues regarding same-sex marriage and abortion splits unionism today and there will always be issues that divide conservatives, moderates and liberals. I fear any attempt to make a sole unionist party would lead to the issue of unionism only having one identity. This would create further problems. Could a lesbian be a member of a movement whose political party are opposed to LGBT+ rights? Could a Presbyterian minister justify to his congregation supporting a party which supports a woman's right to choose? A sole unionist party could marginalize large numbers of unionists who don’t fit the mould of the new party. This could lead to otherwise unionists abandoning the movement to other parties such as Alliance, Labour or the Conservatives. We have already seen unionists vote for the DUP in one election and Alliance in the next, so this is definitely within the realms of possibility. Multiple parties serve a benefit to Unionism. The parties are forced to compete in front of the electorate, promoting ambition, ability and articulation. A sole unionist party would see the party become far too comfortable and this would only breed incompetence and complacency as no electoral competitor would exist to motivate the party. This lack of alternatives would only serve to harm unionism and its arguments.
I will grant my critics that unionism was a much more formidable force before the splintering of unionism politically. However, we must remember the electoral system of old was First Past the Post, which is now gone in most Northern Ireland elections. First Past the Post benefits large parties and encourages umbrella parties, hence during this period, the Ulster Unionist Party was much more of an umbrella party even when compared with today. Stormont today is elected via a Proportional Representation system. This system in Northern Ireland, and indeed across Europe, encourages multiple smaller parties. It’s PR STV that makes single-issue parties such as The Greens a viable vote, whereas in a First Past the Post system they would be much less likely to achieve seats due to tactical voting. Therefore, unionism must play into the system and use it as effectively as possible. This means that multiple unionist parties must exist to maximize its vote potential, allowing a choice for liberal, moderate, traditional or conservative unionists, reducing voter apathy for a candidate they don’t feel represents them, and securing as many first vote preferences for unionism. This will stop unionist voters drifting away from the movement to other parties as mentioned above, by encouraging variety and ensuring unionism as a diverse movement still retains as many votes as possible due to its broad appeal.
To be clear, unionists can and should work together in key areas. If a border poll was to ever occur, it would be vital that all unionists pull resources and fight a strong unionist campaign for the sake of Northern Ireland, similar to how both remain and leave parties worked together during the EU referendum. Similarly, unionist dominated councils often contain multiple unionist parties to promote the unionist cause. These councillors form a wide range of social backgrounds and political ideologies, which encourages internal unionist debate in council chambers while maintaining the movement’s dynamic and adaptable nature.
Unionism today is an umbrella movement. As Northern Irish politics continues to move away from green and orange issues, the divide between liberalism and traditionalism, socialism and conservatism, will become ever more apparent. Therefore, for the survival of a strong unionist movement, it is vital we have multiple unionist parties ready to accommodate every sort of Northern Irish voter.
Matthew Bell is 20 and from West Tyrone. He is studying History and Politics at QUB and is University officer in the Young Unionists. Matthew aims to promote unionism to the post-Good Friday Agreement generation.