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What Next For Unionism?


Well. What a month we’ve had. We’ve finished off the decade with an historic election, followed by another fantastic Christmas. It actually seems Christmas has killed off all of the hype around the election, which is peculiar because I thought the opposite would happen, but here we are.

Despite the Tories gaining a landslide victory in the mainland, taking many seats in constituencies that haven’t voted Conservative in decades, Northern Ireland has seen a rather different shift in the political paradigm. The two big parties, Sinn Féin and the DUP, appeared to take a huge hit in terms of the popular vote, with the DUP losing two seats, and Sinn Fein maintaining their seven seats, despite taking a nearly seven point loss to their vote share. That being said, both parties attracted a phenomenal surge of voters in 2017, and if we ignore the 2017 election, both parties actually have increased their votes, so all may not be lost. And of course, we cannot ignore the success of the Alliance Party in recent years. They acquired their first Westminster seat, and gained almost nine points in the vote share.

Full disclosure, I am a pretty firm unionist. I am a member of a unionist party, and I was on the campaigning team for a unionist candidate in South Belfast. In this piece, I intend to give my thoughts on how unionism should proceed going forward into the new decade, including how I believe we can take back some of those votes being lost to non-designated parties like Alliance.

I want to talk about two main areas unionism needs to address and improve on. Before I do that, I do want to separate unionism into two categories that I have developed in my mind, just so there is no misunderstanding of anything I say. The first is social unionism, which I see as the interactions that unionism has with society in terms of how people express their British identities. That would be your Twelfth of July parades, your red white and blue clothing, and the Union Flag emojis that people have in their social media bios which also tend to find themselves at the end of every comment issued by a staunch unionist. I honestly believe this area of unionism is doing fine at the minute. People still attend the parades, they still fly their flags, and they still scream ‘God Save the Queen’, on drunken nights out. This area is led by the unionist people.

The second area of unionism is political unionism, and that is the area of unionism that seeks to expand and protect our place in the Kingdom by influencing new people to become unionists, by voting unionist in elections, that sort of thing. This is the area led by the unionist leaders, like our politicians, but also by public figures, like Jamie Bryson. This is the area that I feel needs worked on, as is clear by the unionist vote share in recent elections.

77Just to reiterate, there are two areas I feel unionism needs to address. The first, is voter apathy. People are great at getting out to parades and screaming unionist slogans at parties, but that doesn’t actually advance the unionist cause. It might help strengthen unionist culture, but do you know what else does? Being in the union. The only way we can maintain our position in the United Kingdom is if we have unionist representatives arguing our case in Westminster and in Stormont (when it’s running, of course). We don’t get representatives by participating in our culture, we get representatives by participating in our democracy by voting.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that the majority of people who don’t vote, which is around 40% of the electorate, are pro-union, or would at least vote for the union in a border poll (I should also mention that when I refer to ‘union’, I mean the UK, not the EU). Why is it safe to assume this? I think the majority of people who don’t vote are happy with the status quo, hence why they don’t vote. People tend to vote for two reasons – to keep someone they do want in power, or to vote for change. The people who aren’t voting obviously don’t care about keeping someone they do want in power, and they also clearly do not want to vote for change, which means I do think we can assume that the majority of non-voters are happy with the status quo. Following this logic, if we can increase turnout, surely that will likely increase the unionist vote. This can be done in a few ways. I am not a fan of government overreach, so I would oppose mandatory voting, however I think I could stomach a small fine for anyone who doesn’t vote. Our right to vote is the main reason that our soldiers give up their lives, after all, so it seems reasonable to impose a small fee for not voting. To partner with this, I think voting day should be a bank holiday to ensure people have the time to vote.

The next thing, and this is really the main thing unionism needs to address, is our rhetoric. You cannot be a unionist and a nationalist, but this that doesn’t mean that in order to be one you have to hate the other one. I feel unionism has become less so pro-union and more so anti-republic. You can see this for yourself, ask any staunch unionist why they are unionist and I’d bet money that they mention the Irish Republic in the first few sentences. I think unionism needs to stop looking at why joining a United Ireland would be so bad, and start focusing on why being in the union is so good. There are an astounding number of benefits for being in the UK, not least of which is our National Health Service, which even the nationalist community overwhelmingly support. Now, that’s not to say that we cannot argue against joining a United Ireland, I just feel like the conversations need to be separated clearly into ‘Why are we best off in the union?’ and ‘Why should we join a United Ireland?’. Generally, if you ask these questions, you get two very different answers. Unionists will immediately begin counter-arguing the second question instead of answering the first question if you ask them why we are best off in the union. Nationalists, however, don’t start attacking the benefits of being in the UK if they are asked the latter question. They put forward their case with clear reasons why they feel we are best off in a United Ireland.

I actually think this is what has contributed to the success of the Alliance Party in recent years. They don’t waste time attacking other parties, they spend their time putting forward their own ideas. They approach the electorate less with ‘Look at what themuns have done! Vote for us to stop them!’ and more so ‘This is what we intend to do. Vote for us to get it’. I think people like it when they know what they are voting for, which is why, in my opinion, Alliance have attracted so much of the soft-unionist vote. Not only that, but if your whole mantra is not liking the other side, it forces your followers to look into what the other side believe so they know what there is not to like. This is dangerous, because it means you run the risk of losing some supporters who like what they see when they look into the other side.

I’ve already run over the word limit I was given, so I will rap this up with a quick summary. The two things I think unionism needs to address is one – voter apathy, i.e. getting people out to vote, and two – our rhetoric. Let’s stop highlighting what other people are doing wrong and focus on what we can do right. What can unionism offer? What will unionism provide? If we make these adjustments going into the new decade, I feel very positive about the future of unionism. If not, this may mark the beginning of the end.


Joel Keys is an 18 year old unionist activist studying A-Levels at Sixth Form. His goal is to politicise young unionists who currently don’t care about politics.

#JoelKeys #Unionism

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