Party should make move to show a rejection of sectarian politics
Would it do any harm for the Alliance party to designate as unionist? Current polling shows that it is likely to overtake the DUP, but that the DUP, being the largest unionist party will be entitled to have the Deputy First Minister’s office alongside Sinn Fein in the first.
As unionists, Alliance would appoint Naomi Long as DFM and a cheer would resound throughout the land.
If the DUP came third and yet took that post that would be conspicuously undemocratic and unsustainable. It would likely rile the secular tendency in Northern Irish politics and turn it against the current constitutional arrangements.
Alliance did designate as unionist before, in 2001 to help David Trimble become First Minister. The arrangements were different then. This was before the St Andrews Agreement changed the system by which First and Deputy First Ministers are appointed. Under the actual agreement, affirmed in the referendum of 1998, the assembly had to vote on whether or not to accept the nominated ministers.
The St Andrews Agreement changed that fundamental, to give the First and Deputy First Minister posts to the largest unionist and nationalist parties, cutting others out of the election process.
Jim Allister is among the first to see the possible undemocratic outcome of that change. He argues that the next assembly election may produce a Sinn Fein First Minister even as more unionist MLAs are returned.
Under the Good Friday Agreement, as we affirmed it back then, there would be little likelihood that Michelle O’Neill would be First Minister at the next election.
The most recent poll suggests that Sinn Féin would get 25% of the votes while unionists combined would get 41%.
And would it be dishonest of the Alliance to use the word unionist to describe its current position?
You don’t have to be a monarchist or a chauvinist to say you prefer not to bring Northern Ireland out of the UK. You could be a British republican and still not want to end the Union.
You could even believe that a united Ireland might be a good thing some day, but not yet, and still regard yourself as a unionist today.
In short, Alliance designating as unionist might be the most creative way of changing the meaning of that word.
And, in reality, I think they are unionists. They are certainly not campaigning for a border poll. If Boris Johnson called a border poll tomorrow the Alliance would be left floundering for want of a position on it, so they can’t actually want that.
They are not nationalists and not unionists but they are pro-agreement, three-stranders, and that means they endorse the current arrangements which establish Northern Ireland’s position in the Union. So it shouldn’t be hard to say that they are unionists, but for the emotional significance of that word, its association with Protestantism and the monarchy.
But recent research cited by Pete Shirlow of Liverpool University shows that most unionists are liberal and secular and don’t actually vote for unionist parties.
The current crisis in the DUP is not a crisis in unionism, it is a crisis in a party which is losing its relevance. It has indulged the fantasy that the survival of the Union depends on there being a strong unionist party with traditional values and Shirlow’s research shows that that is quite simply a miscalculation.
And some might argue that Alliance designating as unionist would be an insincere tactic, enabling it to claim leadership of an ideology which it abandoned long ago.
Well, what of it? Until the St Andrews stitch up, Alliance MLAs could vote for the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Why would it not be entitled to use the devices of the sectarians to their own advantage?
Of course there would be outrage at them for denying the Deputy First Minister’s office to the DUP, which would regard itself as a real rather than a provisional unionist party, effectively the leader of the whole unionist movement, as if it had some proprietorial rights over the Ulster Unionist party.
They will say there are still more unionists, probably, than nationalists and that means there really should be a unionist First Minister. Well, that’s what would have happened if the DUP and Sinn Féin had not agreed to banjax that agreement in St Andrews, thinking that it would secure the growth of their own parties at the expense of rival parties in their own communities, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP.
Voters seeing the prospect in the run up to the next election that Naomi Long could be Deputy First Minister, would be further incentivised to vote for the Alliance party. Others, who identify as Irish might desert the party but they would also see some powerful incentives to stay with it.
A surge around Alliance, when it had a realistic prospect of a Deputy First Minister’s post, would be the best expression of the changed mood in Northern Ireland which rejects sectarian politics and the evangelical conservatism of the unionist tradition.
The alternative to the Alliance designating as unionist could be that it will overtake the DUP anyway, be denied the Deputy First Minister’s office on the grounds that it does not represent one of the blocs for which power sharing was devised, and demonstrate that the agreement has expired and that it is no longer democratically viable.