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Circling wagons and shouting 'Gerry Adams is behind you' just doesn't work anymore

By Alex Kane

Ulster unionism has its roots in the mantra 'United We Stand: Divided We Fall.' And it was a mantra that held unionism - although there were always dissident voices - together until the mid-1960s.

It began to fracture at that point because individuals, groups, factions and offshoots argued their voices and concerns weren't penetrating the "thick brick walls of big-house unionism".

That fracturing worsened when Stormont was closed and terrorism became part of our everyday lives. Since then, we have seen Vanguard, DUP, UUP, UPNI, PUP, NIUP, UUAP, UUUP, UUUC UKUP, UDP, TUV, UKIP, UCUNF, UUUM, NI Conservatives, WBLC (and that's just off the top of my head), plus a boat-load of ginger groups and one-man-bands.

Now and then the electoral consequences of their divisions - usually why they acknowledge that vote splintering costs them seats - forces them into temporary coalitions and pacts.

The United Ulster Unionist Council was set up in 1974 to fight the Sunningdale Agreement.

An election pact was agreed in 1986 to contest the 15 by-elections forced by reaction to the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

In 2013, Mike Nesbitt and Peter Robinson jointly created a Unionist Forum to "get control" of the fall out from the flags protest. Another pact was reached in 2015 to "secure the maximum number of pro-Union seats" at Westminster, as well as wresting East Belfast back from Naomi Long.

Now, in response to the shock of losing their overall majority in the Assembly (the first time since 1921), Arlene Foster has suggested "a renewed attempt to create unionist unity where the parties would come together".

"Failing that, we need to agree transfer pacts where unionists transfer down the ballot paper to each other," she said.

It's an argument that will appeal to large swathes of unionism - even some small-u elements - who have had fear of 'them'uns' drilled into their psyche by the relentless negativity of unionist spokespeople (not all of them in the DUP).

It may also appeal to key figures within the UUP who, looking at the Assembly election, may conclude that they need a pact if they are to retain South Antrim and Fermanagh-South Tyrone.

With the PUP and TUV losing votes and Ukip barely registering, it's likely that some of their main figures will be tempted by a unity vehicle.

The problem with unionist unity is that it tends to fall apart fairly quickly afterwards.

The 2013 Unionist Forum imploded. The 2015 pact (which also embraced the smaller parties; albeit not formally) was followed by a return to the usual old ding-dong. And it falls apart because: a) there's little evidence that it fully maximizes the pro-Union vote; and b) it tends to focus on the short-term rather than the grander, over-arching ambition of promoting an inclusive, positive, confident unionism.

In September 2012, Peter Robinson talked about the creation of a Council For The Union to bring together all elements within the pro-Union community in preparation for Northern Ireland's centenary in 2021.

The idea was to promote a new perspective on unionism and Northern Ireland, a perspective that would unite big-U and small-u, as well as opening the door to small-n nationalists and constitutional agnostics who seemed happy enough to remain in the UK.

I have no difficulty with that, but I do have difficulty with a unity based on electoral fear and raising the drawbridges.

My unionism is inclusive and not afraid of promoting the equality of citizenship and multiculturalism that underpins pan-UK unionism. In other words, a unionism that promotes 'a place apart' values and unimaginative insularity is anathema to me.

It's okay not to like Sinn Fein's all-Ireland agenda and unity project, but circling the wagons and joining hands around the electoral campfire is not much of a response to Sinn Fein.

It's simply sending the message - mostly to potential voters and supporters - that you haven't a clue what else to do.

Unionism will not survive on headcounts alone.

It needs a vibrant counter-narrative to Irish nationalism and an argument more coherent and more convincing than, 'Look out! Gerry's behind you'.

Put bluntly: what does it actually mean to be a unionist in Northern Ireland four years before the 2021 centenary?

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