By Ulster Unionist Party leader, Doug Beattie MC MLA
They say it is always darkest before dawn, but for unionism dawn is still quite some way off. The reliance on narrow bases, rather than focusing on growing support for the broader pro-union message is a flawed tactic born out of frustration rather than the strategic vision unionism needs right now.
Unionism’s strength lies in its diversity. Conservative and liberal views can be catered for by a broad range of parties who are capable of uniting around the benefits of Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. This should offer an electoral advantage in motivating a pro-union minded majority to vote for unionist parties. This is how we should be celebrating 100 years of Northern Ireland by seeking to make it an attractive place to live, work and do business.
Lord David Trimble saw this and in negotiating the Belfast Agreement he gave us the tools to maintain the Union by making Northern Ireland work for everyone.
However this electoral advantage has failed to materialise, largely because the politics of fear has become the dominant narrative and has seen the unionist parties’ voting base stagnate. Any attempts to rejuvenate pro-union politics is lost in the negative mentality that returns at election times. The courage to do the right thing has been replaced with doing the popular thing. Instead of leading, some unionists have become reactionary as they follow the path of least resistance. They do so even though they know that in the long term their actions will end in failure.
Statistics around elections in the last number of years tell an important story. Since 2016 there has been just over 179,000 new votes added to the election count. Of these 68,000 or 38% have gone to APNI while 78,000 or 44% have gone to nationalist parties. The figure for unionism is just 32,000 or 18% new votes added. This is set to get worse in the coming years if action is not taken.
At the last Assembly election much was made of Sinn Fein becoming the largest party and being entitled to the First Minister’s post. There was much less focus on the fact that Unionism remained the largest designation in the Assembly with 42% of the vote and 37 MLAs. Nationalism received 41% of the vote and secured 36 MLAs. If the DUP had not changed the Belfast Agreement at St Andrews, it would be unionism nominating for the First Ministers post. But thanks to the changes made at St Andrews, the First Minister is now appointed from the largest party, rather than the largest party of the largest designation. Sinn Fein is now entitled to be appointed to the role of First Minister despite being from the smaller designation.
However, that is the outcome of the system which currently governs our institutions and it must be respected. I believe attempts to block Sinn Fein from taking up the First Minister’s post would only serve to weaken democracy and unionism even further.
There is a growing narrative that the DUP wishes to see another Assembly election, based on a deal around the Northern Ireland Protocol. The supposed rationale is that votes that haemorrhaged to the TUV would come back, allowing the DUP to edge out Sinn Fein in the process.
Yet every action has a reaction and I believe if Sinn Fein is prevented from taking the role of First Minister and another election was to be called, it would simply act as a lightning rod for voters akin to the 2017 ‘crocodile election’, but on a much larger scale. This would almost inevitably lead to a surge in support behind Sinn Fein.
Another election would simply jeopardise the position of unionism as the largest designation, and for no good reason. If nationalism were to rise above unionism in the popular vote, then the calls for a border poll would intensify. It would be another strategic blunder like St Andrews and the reduction in the total number of MLAs from 108 to 90, which led to 16 of the 18 seats lost being unionist seats.
At the start of the Second World War the British Expeditionary Force faced a number of serious defeats leading to the heroic retreat at Dunkirk. From that setback the UK consolidated, set change in place and defended what they had until they were able to strike back. They didn’t work on a short-term tactical plan but instead prioritised long-term strategic thinking in looking for allies and gaining purchase when the opportunity arose. This is not a call to invoke the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ by any means, instead it is a simple example of dealing with challenging times, consolidating and creating the conditions for success.
In the past 24 years, Nationalism has only managed to increase its vote share by 2 per cent, so it can hardly be said to be on a roll. Unionism however has serious questions to answer as to why it has failed to maintain its position, as it has seen a decrease of 8 per cent since 1998.
Unionism and unionist political parties need to understand the current electoral environment and adapt. We need to ask why Unionism has shed so many votes since 1998 and how we can best address this. I believe there is nothing to be gained from attacking those people who choose to vote for Alliance and time is far better spent trying to understand why they do so. Insulting people is generally never successful when trying to win hearts and minds, and this is a time when unionism needs to win converts. Thinking strategically, if there ever was to be a border poll at any stage in the future, this portion of the electorate will be key, as of course will, what might be termed, the ‘soft nationalist’ vote.
I have said previously that I do not believe there will be a United Ireland in my lifetime or my children’s lifetime. I say this because I am confident in the pro-union argument. It’s a confidence I maintain because that is my brand of unionism; confident, optimistic and inclusive. That is not to say that the road ahead is easy. The impact of the Northern Ireland Protocol has created instability within the UK. Northern Ireland is now a pawn in a game of chess between the EU and the UK and between One Nation Conservatives and the ERG, with a new Prime Minister who will be desperate for allies from all corners of the party.
For unionism to make inroads in the electoral environment, while at the same time dealing with the issues around the Northern Ireland Protocol and tackling the present cost of living crisis, then it must go back into government. This does not take away leverage that the DUP may have as the largest unionist party. If at any time they feel the Protocol Bill is not proceeding as they wish they can step out of government – although this would not be my preferred course of action.
Unionism must evolve with the ever-changing face of society and the electoral environment if it is to succeed. The DUP should nominate a deputy First Minister giving unionism time to regroup, prepare for a local council election next year and the Westminster election the following year, and begin the process of repair. That would be strategic thinking, whilst pushing for another election would simply be another tactical failure with potentially dire outcomes.
This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.