Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: It used to be thought that you couldn't really be pro-Union unless you voted UUP or DUP... but if that's true, why does the Alliance Party do so well in traditional unionist heartlands?

We're now seeing the re-emergence of the centrist party's earlier incarnation: people who want to stay in the UK, but who aren't happy with the message coming from unionism's 'Big Two'.

DUP leader Arlene Foster
DUP leader Arlene Foster
UUP leader Robin Swann
A jubilant Naomi Long
Alex Kane

By Alex Kane

Here are some sobering facts. Unionists are now a minority of the 462 councillors elected last Thursday. There are only 19 unionists out of 60 councillors in Belfast. Only six of the 20 MLAs in the Belfast constituencies are unionist. Unionists are now a minority in the Assembly: 40-50.

In the greater Belfast area (covering the Belfast, North Down and Ards, Castlereagh and Lisburn and Antrim and Newtownabbey council areas) Alliance outpolled the UUP by almost 50,000 to 35,000 votes.

The Green Party outpolled the UUP in Belfast by 6,785 to 6,709 (enabling them to pick up two of their four seats because UUP candidates were eliminated first), while People Before Profit ran just 954 votes behind the UUP. Both those smaller parties ended up with more councillors.

It is now possible that unionists could lose their second Euro seat on May 23. The UUP's Danny Kennedy will not only be competing with the DUP and TUV for first preferences, he will also be in a major transfer battle for survival. Naomi Long looks well-placed, assuming she's able to hold on to Alliance's 11.5% vote (which I think is likely), to benefit from significant trickle-down from Sinn Fein, SDLP and others.

If the second unionist seat is lost it will not only be a hammer-blow for the UUP (which has held it since 1979), it will also be an enormous psychological blow for unionism: another piece of hard electoral confirmation that just holding on to what they have may be an even bigger challenge than making gains.

It's okay for the DUP to say that they are continuing to hold on and add on, but that doesn't really mean all that much if the overall unionist vote continues to decline.

In the 2014 local council elections, there were 24 unionist councillors in Belfast: 13 DUP, seven UUP, three PUP and one TUV. There are 19 now. The DUP added two, but the overall unionist numbers fell.

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At some point soon, it will probably be impossible for the DUP to hold on to their MPs in North and South Belfast, even if they have an electoral pact with other unionists.

Even in East Belfast, which was once the brightest jewel in unionism's electoral crown, the DUP will probably require a pact. And the more pacts are required to hold seats, the likelier it is that the small unionist parties - PUP and TUV - will vanish altogether, while the UUP finds it impossible to resist the electoral arguments in favour of a formal merger with the DUP.

A few weeks ago, a veteran unionist said to me: "Did you ever think the time would come when unionists needed a pact to secure East Belfast?" I talked to him again on Saturday. He shook his head: "Dear me, I never thought I'd see the day when Alliance would have more councillors in Belfast than the UUP. How do we stop this?"

I have a very close friend: we've known each other since university days in the 1970s. He would always have voted unionist. That is, until the 2010 General Election. He voted for Naomi Long; and he has voted Alliance in every election since then. He doesn't regard himself as any less of a unionist and would vote to remain in the UK if there were a border poll.

When I discussed the council elections with him on Sunday he made a point I had never really considered before: "When it comes down to it, Alex, I would now describe myself as pro-Union rather than just a unionist. There is a big difference between the two terms and I don't think the unionist parties have recognised that difference. Alliance isn't picking up 'unionist' votes as such; it is picking up pro-Union people like me. People who find themselves increasingly uncomfortable with how unionism manifests itself here."

As I say, I'd never really considered this point before. But it's a good one. When the Alliance Party was formed, it was regarded as a pro-Union, small unionist party. Many of its early members and founders were rising to the challenges set out in Terence O'Neill's "Ulster at the Crossroads" speech; as well as responding to the rise of Paisley, William Craig's Vanguard and what they regarded as a drift to the hard Right. In their first five elections - 1973-1979 - they won an average of 11.5% of the vote (which is what they won again last Thursday), mostly from within the pro-Union/unionist community. As the Troubles took hold, they faded into the electoral background.

Are we now seeing the re-emergence of that earlier Alliance core; people who want to stay in the UK, but who aren't happy with the message coming from the DUP/UUP/TUV/PUP? It has become almost a cliche to hear elements of unionism describe Alliance as "no friend of unionism", yet those same critics can't seem to explain why Alliance does so well in what would once have been regarded as reasonably safe unionist areas.

Two immediate reasons seem obvious: increasing numbers of pro-Union, as opposed to unionist, voters don't regard Alliance as a threat to their identity; and they also believe that Alliance policy on some key social/moral/equality issues better reflects their own stance than the "place apart" policy of unionist parties.

So, maybe the unionist parties need to reflect on the difference between someone who describes themselves as pro-Union and someone who describes themselves as a unionist. It used to be thought that you couldn't really be pro-Union if you weren't voting for a unionist party. But if that is true, then how does unionism reach out to people who might now be voting for parties which don't define themselves as unionist (but who aren't pro-Irish unity)? More importantly, how do unionist parties respond to the societal changes happening all around them?

In my case, I describe myself as a pan-UK unionist: if something is legal in England, Scotland and Wales (and I'm talking about issues like same-sex-marriage and abortion law reform), it must be legal in Northern Ireland. If it isn't, because unionists stop it, then we are undermining the very equality of citizenship that should be at the heart of the Union and the constituent parts.

That is what my friend means when he chooses pro-Union over unionist. It seems to be how increasing numbers of unionists are seeing themselves. It's probably how many young people from a once typically unionist background see themselves. The list of sobering facts I set out at the start will continue to lengthen if the unionist parties don't embark on an examination of how they are seen and how they want to be seen.

A border poll - which will happen if that list lengthens - won't just be won by a unionist vote. It requires the entire pro-Union community to support the UK link.

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