If the results of the general election just before the Christmas period in 2019 are anything to go by, then its fair to say that political Unionism is in trouble. As someone from a unionism background, its been interesting to see some of the changes that have taken place within this political movement in the last 30 years. Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, once sworn enemies becoming the political double act in the post-Good Friday Agreement era and David Trimble and John Hume securing a lasting peace-deal was another proud moment for Unionism (at least part of it).
Both of these examples are demonstrations of when Unionism found itself at a crossroads, whether it was Trimble’s UUP or Paisley’s more hard-line DUP. Each time, the political movement realised it had to change and evolve to face a changing and evolving Northern Ireland it did so. Now the question has to be asked, have we reached the time that Unionism must take a long and reflective look at itself and ask what it must do to stay relevant?
In March 2018, I attended a lecture at Queens’ University Belfast (QUB) from the newly appointed leader of Sinn Fein, Mary-Lou McDonald. As it was one of her first formal speaking engagements, Mrs McDonald seemed keen to set her stall out as a new kind of leader of Sinn Fein, a leader that didn’t have a connection to Republican Paramilitarism or the Troubles in the past but rather as a leader who wanted to work with politicians from all political traditions including Unionism.
Obviously as a committed Irish Republican it was not surprising to hear Mrs McDonald talk about a “new” and “united” Ireland. But what did surprise me was when she stated quite frankly and openly that “everything would be on the table” during a reunification campaign. From the flag to the anthem, from the commonwealth to the system of government, everything would be fair game.
Similarly, other politicians from the Republic of Ireland have begun to think about Unionism and its place in a ‘New Ireland’ if a successful border poll was held. But is it time for Unionism to begin discussing its place in such a project as former First Minister Peter Robinson once suggested, or is Unionism still relevant and what can it do to maintain its relevancy in a changing and evolving Northern Ireland?
To maintain its relevance, political unionism must be seen to become something more than just a monolithic ideology. It must reach out to those not of one tribe or another. It must work to embrace identities that are not seen as part of ‘traditional Unionism but that are part the vibrant and multicultural identities that makes up the United Kingdom. It must sell its vision of Northern Ireland well or face the difficult reality of being rejected by an entire generation of voters.
This vision cannot simple be a monolithic view of parades, flags and ‘themmuns’ viewed through a red, white and blue prism. It has to be more dynamic and it has to ultimate win back middle-ground unionists that have made the Alliance Party their home. Its also needs to start providing for those within Unionism and needs to be more vocal of its benefits, and not just for unionists, loyalists or protestants. Working class protestant males continue to have lower educational attainment than their Catholic counterparts with young men generally being 10 times more likely to attempt suicide. These facts lay bare the failure of political Unionism to adequately represent the views of their core demographics. How will Unionism address these failures in the restored Assembly and Executive?
The central point is one that isn’t directed solely towards Unionism, but rather towards politics generally in Northern Ireland. The days where entrenched tribalistic politics could win you votes in NI are coming to a close. Voters are seeing real results when they move away from the ‘Green and Orange’ political groupings, choosing instead more moderate parties such as the SDLP, Alliance and Green Party. The last election helped to demonstrate the beginnings of this trend with the DUP & Sinn Fein losing over 100,000 votes combined compared to the 2017 General Election.
So what does this mean for Unionism and a political movement? Well I certainly wouldn’t suggest that its days are numbered. Amongst its voter base, passion and commitment are still clearly there. However, and it’s not often that I say this, I believe Jim Allister is right when he says "Unionism is at a crossroads". What will Unionism be defined by in a post-Brexit era? Will it become more about what it ISN’T than what it IS?
I believe its time for unionists to re-examine what their ideology means to them and NI more generally. Is it purely focused on identity and culture, or can and should unionism seek to offer more to voters? I would contend that for it to survive, Unionism must do more to BE more. What can it offer voters of my generation who are generally much more socially liberal than the generations that came before us?
Whilst it has a long way to go before it can puts these worries and concerns to rest, Arlene Foster's words at the first meeting of the restored Assembly last week gave me cause for cautious optimism.
“there are people who are British, Irish, Northern Irish and European. There are many identities. Those of us here today should have each of our identities respected… We want everyone to feel at home in Northern Ireland… Michelle's narrative of the past 40 years could not be any more different from mine, and I am not sure that we will ever agree on much about the past, but we can agree that there was too much suffering and that we cannot allow society to drift back and allow division to grow.”
As we move closer to January 31st and ‘Brexit Day’, Unionists in Northern Ireland face an existential question about what should define their movement post-Brexit. In 2021, we will commemorate the centenary of the foundation in of Northern Ireland but these celebrations will take place in the background of a volatile debate that threatens to further fracture Unionism.
Ultimately, whether political and cultural Unionism comes together to have this necessary debate, it is clear that whatever decision they come to will alter the relationship between Britain and Ireland forever.
Michael Jardine holds a BSc (Hons) from Ulster University in Political Science and an MA in Violence, Terrorism & Security from Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) with a thesis focusing on US Anti-Ballistic Missile Policy. Michael is also an Alumni of the Washington Ireland Program (WIP) having be a member of the class of 2018. He currently works in Public Affairs, having interned with the PSNI, Centre for Democracy and Peace Building (CDPB) and with the Centre for Democracy & Technology (CDT) previously. Michael loves writing about all thing politics, policy, tech and current affairs. He is also the Head of News at Queens Radio, coordinating their news and current affairs output.