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Alex Kane

Unionism is now facing an existential challenge, but just how prepared is it? (Clue: not very)

Alex Kane


Arlene Foster says there won't be a border poll in her lifetime. But what if she's wrong?

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DUP leader Arlene Foster and unionism in general faces ever-greater challenges

DUP leader Arlene Foster and unionism in general faces ever-greater challenges

Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Prime Minister Boris Johnson

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steve aiken

steve aiken

DUP leader Arlene Foster and unionism in general faces ever-greater challenges

Arlene Foster may well be right when she says that there won't be a united Ireland in her lifetime. She may also be right when she says that there won't be a border poll in her lifetime either.

Yet I worry that her response - and that of others within unionism - instils a sense of misplaced sanguinity, leading in turn to a reluctance to prepare for any and every eventuality.

My view - one I have espoused for what seems like forever - is that unionism should always be ready for every challenge rather than simply replying on the Dickensean trope that "something will turn up".

In other words, work from the assumption that a border poll, while not inevitable, is certainly a possibility; and consequently, like all possibilities, it should be prepared for.

Say, for example, Sinn Fein does get a place in the next Irish Government and that the price for that place has already been named by Matt Carty TD: "... a junior minister for Irish unity. We will have a key unit in the Department of the Taoiseach and maybe a sub-committee, as well as an Oireachtas committee and a citizens' assembly".

If that happens you can bet your bottom dollar that the unity debate will expand across sections within the Republic that haven't really been listening very much up to now.

It will also expand across Northern Ireland if Sinn Fein's Executive team have a counterpart in the Irish Government. It may even spread to conversations, albeit below the radar, between the British and Irish Governments.

Unionists, it seems, must put their trust in a Secretary of State, who in turn would be steered by a Prime Minister. I'm damn sure I wouldn't put too much faith in the present Prime Minister

Is unionism prepared for any of those possibilities?

I can understand why Foster and others don't want to have any formal, or even informal, conversations with those groups pushing for a united Ireland (not least because those groups are clearly working on the basis that unity is inevitable, which it isn't).

But as the leader of the largest unionist party and de facto "leader of unionism", surely Foster has a responsibility to gather together all elements of the pro-Union community (and, just off the top of my head, that embraces a number of parties and fringe groups; the loyal orders; community organisations; Churches; loyalism; civic unionism and a myriad of offshoots) and do the spadework for the options and strategies required to meet and counter every new political and electoral challenge?

Look, for example, at her response to a potential border poll: "There has to be evidence there. As you know, the test for a border poll is that people would vote in a majority (for a united Ireland). And there's no evidence of that. Yes, people can have different opinion polls, but there's no tangible evidence, if you look right across Northern Ireland."

Yet too much of that response seems to rest on intangibles. How is "evidence" defined? In the Belfast Agreement paragraphs about a border poll there is no definition of the word "likely" (in the sense of "likely" to vote for a united Ireland).

Unionists, it seems, must put their trust in a Secretary of State, who in turn would be steered by a Prime Minister. I'm damn sure I wouldn't put too much faith in the present Prime Minister.

As for the "evidence", unionists don't have a majority in the Assembly. Unionists don't have a majority in Belfast City Council. In two of the last three elections the UUP has been outpolled by Alliance (a party now routinely described by unionists as not a unionist party).

For the first time ever unionists represent a minority of the MPs returned from Northern Ireland.

In a number of elections over the last few years the total unionist vote has hovered around 50% or so - hardly a thumping endorsement.

So, start defining the term "likely" when weighed against that kind of "evidence".

A man willing to smash to smithereens a number of promises he made in order to sign up to a border in the Irish Sea is a man who could, just as easily, be prepared to play the border poll card to suit his own interests

I'm not arguing - mostly because I don't believe it to be true - that all of this means either a border poll or a united Ireland is hurtling down the track.

But I am arguing that I can see how a strong case in favour of a poll could be made and accepted by people who don't believe they owe unionism any particular favours.

A man willing to smash to smithereens a number of promises he made in order to sign up to a border in the Irish Sea is a man who could, just as easily, be prepared to play the border poll card to suit his own interests.

Northern Ireland unionism has faced many challenges since 1921, most of them, though, stemming from the removal of the Stormont Parliament in 1972 and the emergence of mandatory power-sharing and an in-built "Irish dimension" in October of the same year.

Those developments came as huge surprises, as did many other developments since then, most of which unionism wasn't prepared for.

Some surprises can, eventually, be accommodated. But what happens if unionism is surprised by a border poll and isn't prepared for the subsequent debate?

Whatever Foster thinks, whatever I think, whether we are right or wrong, all of it is to some extent irrelevant.

The constitutional question is always going to be front and centre of political debate in Northern Ireland.

As political and electoral dynamics have shifted and as increasing numbers of nationalists (small-'n' and big-'n') and some elements of unionism (though not on the scale I think, as Sinn Fein may imagine) have begun engaging in a debate about the potential of a united Ireland, the challenges facing the pro-Union side have continued to grow.

And at some point one of those challenges may become an existential one.

Are unionists ready for that moment? Are the arguments mustered and thought-through? Have we our core vote and newer, potential voters briefed and persuaded? Does party-political unionism (which embraces five parties and a number of fringe groups at the moment) have an agreed and singing-from-the-same-hymn sheet strategy and coherent, attractive message in place?

Do we have "friends in high places" across the UK who will also champion our case? Do we know who within the pro-Union family here would take the lead in a border poll debate and campaign? Are we ready to deconstruct the arguments in favour of a united Ireland and present a case which would be appealing to the increasing numbers of people - particularly younger voters - who define themselves as "others"? Do we even agree among ourselves what we mean by unionism?

I believe the next few years will present unionism with the greatest challenge of my lifetime. And it is, by the way, a challenge which was always coming, even if it may be true that Brexit pushed it up the agenda.

Is the pro-Union community and party-political unionism ready for that challenge?

Maybe that's the question which Foster and others need to focus upon.

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