Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Has unionism reached its tipping point now?

If Unionism continues to be divided at the ballot box what will the political landscape look like in 2011, and will we then have Gerry Kelly as the new First Minister, asks Alex Kane

I'm not entirely sure why unionist division has emerged as the ‘big' story of the Euro election; when, in reality, it has been an ongoing story since the mid-1960s. Come the election, come the division!

This is how it stands at the moment. The TUV, while it doesn't seem determined to wreck the Assembly, doesn't want a mandatory coalition which allows Sinn Fein into the Executive.

The problem, however, is that Jim Allister cannot rewrite either the Belfast or St Andrews Agreements and is, in effect, in exactly the same position as the DUP between 1998 and 2003.

The DUP, meanwhile, is where the UUP was in 1998 and defending a position it never expected to find itself in.

Indeed, in the past week I have heard Peter Robinson use the ‘no viable or available alternative’ mantra used by David Trimble in the early stages of the Belfast Agreement; and arguing that what we have, while imperfect, is much better than Direct Rule or the mythical Plan B.

As for the UUP, it has moved on to new territory, and having forced Sinn Fein into a partitionist settlement a decade ago now feels that the time is right to build a broader based pan-UK unionism with the Conservative Party.

What the unionist electorate was offered on June 4 can be summed up as a choice between the retro unionism of the TUV, the next generation unionism of the UUP/Conservatives and the ‘this-is-as-good-as-it-gets' unionism of the DUP. The outcome was support for all three positions — and hence the story about divided unionism.

Yet there are at least four other bodies of pro-Union opinion out there.

The first is the Garden Centre Prods or IKEA unionists. They want to stay in the United Kingdom, but feel they are being offered nothing which encourages them to the polls.

Then there's housing estate unionism/loyalism, which now regards the UUP and DUP as voices of the middle class rather than the working class. There's ‘what's-the-point' unionism, the belief that since unionists never get what they voted for what's the point in voting at all.

And finally, there's, for want of a better term, Catholic Unionism, a bloc which is happy enough to be part of the United Kingdom, but which has never felt comfortable in voting for what many of them regard as ‘little-Ulster' unionist parties.

That's a pretty messy situation. The unionists who do vote are divided into three camps and the unionists who don't vote fall into a further four camps; which makes it very much easier for the non-unionist voters and parties to make an impact at elections in particular, and in politics generally.

In terms of headcount, the reality is that the non-voting unionist bloc is the biggest of the unionist blocs and its continuing absence from the ballot box is doing more to undermine unionism than anything else.

Put starkly, if the Union is to survive and if the electoral impact of republicanism is to be blunted, then unionism needs to find a way of re-engaging the non-voting bloc and maximising the pro-Union turnout.

For all of the difficulties which have accompanied the new relationship between the UUP and the Conservatives, the fact remains that they are building a political and electoral force which may be able to tap into the non-voting bloc. That said, there will be voters they could never hope to reach.

Similarly, there is little chance of building the unionist vote by either scare tactics or an agenda which ignores present political and electoral realities.

People will vote for you if they think you are offering them something which is deliverable and worthwhile.

They will vote for you if they see evidence that their vote makes a difference. They will vote for you if you make them feel confident.

What they won't do is vote for the same-old, same-old. In my view unionism is at a tipping point.

If we continue to divide in the polling stations, while the non-voting unionist bloc keeps on growing, then, inevitably, we lose more seats at local council, Assembly and Westminster and watch as Gerry Kelly is installed as First Minister in 2011.

And that, in turn, feeds the pessimism and loss of confidence within unionism. It is nonsense to believe that one united unionist party is the answer to the problem. It clearly isn't. But nor can we have a grow-your-own approach.

There is room for two mainstream pro-Union parties in Northern Ireland: securing their core votes and tapping into targeted areas of the non-voting bloc, and cooperating, when necessary, for the purposes of seat and turnout maximisation.

One thing is certain, though; if the only growth sectors in unionism are the actual number of parties and the increase of the non-voting bloc, then political and electoral catastrophe can't be far away.

Alex Kane is a columnist, commentator and Director of Communications for the UUP

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