As the DUP licks its wounds after Peter Robinson’s defeat in East Belfast, and the UUP ponders its future, both parties should make one question central to their post-election soul-searching: what exactly is the purpose of unionist politics?
Unionists frequently claim to be defenders of the Union, but the stark truth is, since the Belfast Agreement, parties defined solely by ‘unionism’ serve only to highlight differences between the province and the rest of the UK.
There is a strong argument that they could best defend the Union by disbanding and persuading members to align with the main British parties.
Of course, this isn’t a particularly new idea. In 1987, Bob McCartney was turfed out of the UUP in North Down for saying the same thing, and daring to stand at the Westminster election on that platform.
During the campaign, his former colleagues, and the DUP, rallied around a ‘unionist unity’ candidate, Jim Kilfedder, who opposed Northern Ireland’s political integration with the rest of the UK. But despite that, McCartney lost by fewer than 4,000 votes.
Fast forward 13 years and the North Down UUP lost another member just before an election, albeit in utterly different circumstances. This time, Sylvia Hermon couldn’t stomach her party’s plan to align with the Conservatives.
Ironically, at the 2010 poll, Ulster Unionists advocated Northern Ireland’s involvement with national parties and Hermon was backed by the DUP in a bizarre anti-Conservative pact.
Nevertheless, the contest which emerged, between a Tory candidate, Ian Parsley, and a centre-left politician, vocal in her support for New Labour, looked a lot like the normal politics which McCartney once championed.
The UUP’s deal with the Conservatives might have been driven by the right instincts, but Lady Hermon graphically demonstrated the limitations of UCUNF. Although the Tory party considers itself a natural ally of Ulster unionism, it cannot hope to encompass its breadth of opinion.
Which isn’t to argue that unionist parties must attempt to be all things to all people. There are very real differences between unionists, and those differences are important, precisely because they reflect the currents of national politics. They represent the very substance of unionists’ political engagement with the rest of the UK.
In The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde wrote, “each man kills the thing he loves”, and if unionism continues to think of itself as a monolithic block, capable only of resisting nationalism, it will progressively destroy the essence of its political connection to Great Britain.
Northern Ireland is part of the UK, and will remain so until a majority of people here decide otherwise. That principle is enshrined in international law. Yet our politics are still based squarely around Irish nationalism’s premise that the British link is impermanent, rather than unionism’s contention that it will endure.
Unionist politicians have for far too long fixated on nationalist aspirations, to the detriment of strengthening a political relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom, which is already in place.
Unionism doesn’t need to become one party, nor does it need the UUP to repudiate British Conservatism. Instead, other Northern Irish unionists, with different political allegiances, should focus on their own links with like-minded national groups. Sylvia Hermon, who already has a warm relationship with the Labour Party in place, could set the trend.
The alternative for unionism is to remain myopically focussed on the constitutional issue. If it does, it will always struggle to appeal beyond its base and demographics could eventually deliver a united Ireland. If unionist parties are not careful, their very existence will contribute to the Union’s demise.
Owen Polley is a unionist blogger and commentator