Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Unionism must unite to survive after Westminster poll disaster

It's goodnight from me, and it's goodnight from him. No, not the two Ronnies' famous television sign-off but, dare I say it, Peter Robinson and Sir Reg Empey offering their resignations after their respective defeats in the General Election.

For very different reasons, neither unionist leader retains sufficient respect and authority to continue to lead his party. Peter Robinson will blame the media for hounding him.

On the contrary, the largesse of his personal circumstances and his brazen defiance of critical public opinion have seen him rejected in East Belfast and should spell the end of his leadership of the DUP.

Sir Reg Empey's gamble in joining forces with the Conservative Party did not pay off. He knows the buck stops with him.

Unionism is at the crossroads in both the DUP and UUP. The statistics of the 2010 General Election will tell them everything they need to know about the way forward.

First and foremost, while more people voted in Britain, Northern Ireland proved a very different story.

Turnout was 90,000 down on 2005. We have experienced an 11% fall in votes in only a decade.

Nine years ago, 810,000 votes were cast in Northern Ireland - 68% of the electorate. In 2005, that figure dropped to 71,7000 - 62%. Today we are looking at a turnout of only 627,000 - 56.9%.

So how and where have 183,000 Ulster votes disappeared in less than a decade? The answer is simple. The DUP and UUP had nearly 400,000 supporters at the ballot box in 2001. Last week, they had only 270,000. The two main unionist parties have lost more than 100,000 votes in nine years.

The unionist vote has fallen victim to a variety of damaging factors: bitter party divisions, disillusion with devolution, double-jobbing and the Westminster expenses scandal. All of this adds up to apathy.

We have just been watching another episode of The Decline and Fall of Ulster Unionism. This is an open-ended and ongoing political drama in which the characters eventually die off, as do the viewers, and a new generation finds it eventually so boring as to switch off altogether.

Where, then, are the unionist actors and actresses with the box office appeal to avoid that fate?

The future will fall to new leaders, most likely Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds in the DUP, the former as likely First Minister replacement for Peter Robinson, the latter as leader of the party, to take the initiative along with whoever takes over from Sir Reg Empey.

Who would have believed that nationalists and republicans would show more enthusiasm for voting in a UK election than the unionist community itself? Yet that is now a fact of life in Northern Ireland in 2010. The two main unionist parties have a choice. They can continue to battle each other, or they can search for common ground and a new alliance.

That cannot be on the basis of a sectarian head-count. It must be founded in recognisable values, principles and policies.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with individuals within any party displaying strong religious convictions, as was the case with some DUP members in their acceptance speeches last week. But a united unionist party will not succeed any more than divided unionism through any pan-Protestant front, or with behaviour or policies which offend or reject Catholics in our society.

Any new alliance must be founded on shared future values; must outlaw intolerance and embrace fairness. There is nothing sectarian about respecting and promoting a British way of life.

The DUP is moving away from its hardline, blatantly Protestant and offensively sectarian past. If an accommodation is to be reached with other unionists, then that progression must be central to the policies and principles of a wider party.

The prize for unionism is enormous: a restoration of faith in politics for the growing army of apathetic unionists; the opportunity to build a new, totally non-sectarian style of unionism which, in fairness to the UUP, they have gone a long way towards in the past decade.

This will be no easy task, given the bitter backdrop of unionist divisions. But the choice facing the unionist community is simple: either the two main parties find a reconciliation in new shared future policies, or they reinforce their differences and go their separate ways until one or other, probably the Ulster Unionists, fades away. That is the harsh lesson to be learned from the General Election of 2010.

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