Belfast Telegraph

Don Anderson: Unionists worry about being the forgotten members of the Union ... but what if there was no Union to belong to?

The threat to the future of the UK doesn't just come from Irish republicanism: English and, more importantly, Scottish nationalism poses an equivalent danger, says Don Anderson

Tory supporters (pictured) in England and SNP backers in Scotland could both cause problems for Northern Irish unionists
Tory supporters (pictured) in England and SNP backers in Scotland could both cause problems for Northern Irish unionists
Tory supporters in England and SNP backers in Scotland (pictured) could both cause problems for Northern Irish unionists

By Don Anderson

This general election is, of course, being hailed everywhere as a watershed moment for the United Kingdom. The Conservative landslide will get Brexit done - that's the big watershed - but more than one watershed has been crossed.

Nothing illustrated this more than the plaintive cry from the DUP's Sammy Wilson in the wake of the election that the Prime Minister should go ahead with the horrendously expensive bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland (this was a DUP manifesto pledge).

It is not immediately obvious to me how a bridge joining the Scottish anti-unionist bastion to a shaky - and shaken - unionist one on this side would benefit unionism, but that is the DUP's belief. More interestingly, Mr Wilson, speaking to the Sunday Telegraph, was postulating that one of the big themes of the new Parliament will be how to protect the Union of the United Kingdom, given the strong showing of nationalist parties in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

He appears to be worried about the situation that unionism, as a whole, has landed itself in. "This idea that parts of the UK are being governed by remote control by southern English men and women, it's one of the driving factors of nationalism," the DUP MP said. "We would love to talk to him (Boris) about the things he can do to make sure that a sense of isolation is not engendered."

Too late, Mr Wilson. That sense of isolation is already engendered in many quarters here, perhaps more so among the unionist population than among nationalists. And, anyway, I can't imagine that talking to the DUP will be high on the Prime Minister's list of priorities, since he will be putting an economic border in the Irish Sea notwithstanding DUP apoplexy. The Conservatives are friends no longer. Is anyone over there?

Last week, Ed Curran, a distinguished former editor of this paper but also a one-time leader of the Young Unionists, wrote in these pages an excoriating analysis of where unionism now stands. He accused the DUP of making an unholy mess at home and in London. "How all this pans out in the year ahead is anybody's guess. Like it or not, Northern Ireland's future is at the Brexit mercy of Boris Johnson and his new government," he wrote.

Inevitably, others will begin to guess at a future, so here goes. First, nothing will happen immediately. In the face of strong Conservative opposition, it will take the Scottish nationalists at least the lifetime of this Parliament to make progress on the issue of a Scottish referendum.

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What happens in Scotland in the meantime will impact upon Northern Ireland and, inevitably, constitutional tensions will mount. If that happens, will Scottish flags begin to migrate from fraternal loyalist lamp-posts to the top of bonfires? If so, then the feeling of loyalist and unionist isolation will grow further. Mr Wilson may, or may not, be anticipating that.

There is undoubtedly a fear within the Westminster corridors of power that, if unionist fears are heightened, then the marching season could be focusing on perfidious Albion, with consequences. Could there be something like another Ulster Workers' Council-type general strike against British policy? A remote possibility, I venture, since loyalist voices have already been heard, stating that anything along these lines would not only be futile, but would merely serve to reinforce English perceptions that this place wasn't all that British, emphatically not as British as Yorkshire.

That, in turn, points to an almost unspoken fear among the unionist fraternity, which is that the link to Great Britain could be severed from the English end.

Is that what is beginning to happen? Some believe so, because Brexit has exposed that Northern Ireland is costing the British Exchequer at least as much as EU membership. Are there unionists - of any party - contemplating this political shift? If not, the future of the unionist community in Northern Ireland may be decided unilaterally by those remote southern English men and women of whom Sammy Wilson spoke. They might say goodbye to a nuisance.

The history of political parties on the unionist spectrum is littered with the political cadavers of leaders who strayed over much from what their fathers and grandfathers did. If this mindset continues, then the outcome could eventually be uncomfortable - even distressing - for unionism.

The time for radical thinking is right now, because the old certainties, among them a unionist voting majority for ever and a day and an Orange card as a political trump card, are fading.

There should be a discussion among unionists as to what strategies are possible if the Orange wall no longer holds. As has happened so often in the past, those exploring new, even extraordinary, scenarios should not be branded traitors to the cause.

Honest, strategic thinking becomes impossible otherwise. The lack of clear strategic thinking has served unionism very badly.

Political parties do not relish having new courses of action, or new lines of thought, being imposed from outside. We can see the pain of the Labour Party in Britain in the wake of a drubbing at the hustings. This is imposing a rethink of strategies from the ground up, a disheartening process that should have been done years ago. An honest analysis of their situation at the outset would have placed them very differently for last week's election.

If unionists want to politically influence what is to happen to them over the near or distant future, then men and women in the proverbial grey suits ought to be gathering in quiet rooms and sounding out ideas, some of which should ponder possibilities if the United Kingdom disappears. Sammy Wilson has demonstrated through his remarks that he thinks the Union is in peril from more than the usual directions.

That's a start.

Don Anderson is a writer and broadcaster. He is the author of 14 May Days: The Inside Story Of The Loyalist Strike Of 1974 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1994)

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