Losing Belfast City – the Unionist retreat?

Losing the City of Belfast at the forthcoming election will do massive psychological damage to unionism. After the calamity of RHI, many in my family happily told of how they would not be exercising their vote at the Assembly election held after Martin McGuinness’ dramatic resignation in 2016 and especially in the second election called the next year. When the tally had come through in the 2017 election it was like a punch in the gut to some in the family who had made the decision not to decide, as unionism had lost its cross-party Assembly majority.

For me it bolstered my belief that something better could be sought, like many other ‘soft’ voters I have chosen to vote ‘other’ ever since and not returned to the ‘unionist family’ that some of my kin have done since. As an ardent Remainer, the attempts to sectarianise Brexit has deeply angered me as I was a supporter of the 2016 campaign which for once was a rainbow pallet of all parties.

I fear that the shock of losing Belfast will not spark such a change in attitude among many in the community to which I was born. It will further drive disillusionment particularly in working class unionist areas, where already those who should know better stand idly by with their fingers in their ears as the abhorrent crawl out of the woodwork. The rank arrogance of the DUP statement that they ‘had not seen’ the disgraceful banner attacking Mr Finucane, dramatically demonstrates their lack of leadership when it comes to civil discourse.

Belfast is a city which is currently unionist dominated at Westminster because of the archaic first past the post electoral system. But crucially it is the only traditional NI city (excluding the two new cities of Newry and Lisburn) which is still in a unionist majority, at council the unionist majority has long gone but this did not permeate into the national unionist psyche deeply, as only inside observers and some rabble rousers in Belfast would make hay with this come bonfire season.

The general election is a national and UK-wide event, a rare opportunity for the staunch amongst us to feel ‘properly British’ as they cast their ballot on the same day as Finchley – with a good old fashioned ‘X’ marks the spot. Therefore, the orange map with a slight green tinge in West Belfast going completely green and possibly yellow will cause some indignation in the living rooms of rural unionist Ulster.

The last big loss of this kind was when they lost the City of Derry/Londonderry in the 1950s and 1960s with consistent decline in their vote share, the result of which was rank gerrymandering at local government level and a rift signified by the River Foyle which somewhat persists until this day (the city was split into two Stormont seats with one side of the river being nationalist and one unionist from 1953 onwards when Eddie McAteer won Foyle). We live in different times, but we cannot underestimate the obvious and disastrous retreat from the west that bred an extreme feeling of isolation which toxified community relations (especially in border areas). A full route to Ballymena, Strangford and Portadown (literally the fringes of greater Belfast) is the kind of ‘writing on the wall’ moment that unionist hardliners would do well to note.

I think overall if they do lose Belfast it could be an opportunity for Northern Ireland, the bile will spew for a few weeks from the usual characters but the DUP in particular are a strategic bunch at their core (even if the strategy often has rubbish outcomes – like Boris’ obvious “betrayal”). They could use it as an opportunity to grasp the nettle tight and win back those of us who feel on the fence about the constitutional issue by actually making a positive case for the union and even a softer tone on Brexit which may include abolition of it with some fudge (much like their U-turn on the GFA with Saint Andrews).

The last thing we all need is for them to shore up the base by whipping up hatred and hysteria in their rural heartlands of Antrim and Down – while the rest of us try to build something else and something better…

Photo by Stephen118 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

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