Unionism in a tailspin is bad for Unionism but it’s bad for everyone in Northern Ireland too…

For some time now I have been voicing grave concerns about the direction in which Unionism is travelling in and indeed the underlying problems that have hamstrung it, however, over the last week we have seen Unionism and Loyalism in a tailspin, and as both groupings begin to lose control, pockets of violence have broken out across Northern Ireland.

The core issues that have stymied Unionism at present are as follows:

– Leadership vacuum

– Lacking a vision

– Incompetence

– Lacking discipline

– No strategy or coherent thought process

– Lacking credible ideas and solutions

– Political Unionism has left Unionists and Loyalists without a credible voice

The fallout from these problems has been snowballing over recent years and in recent days they have contributed to the violence that has broken out across Northern Ireland.

The violence itself is not easily explained as several contributing factors have culminated to cause tensions to spill over, there are five core areas that I feel help explain the current turmoil.

Northern Ireland Protocol

Unionism is still baffled as to how this particular constitutional problem should be tackled. As I pointed out in a recent article, the legality of the Protocol is currently going through the courts which is the correct course of action. Unionism needs to highlight this point to its base and work on other solutions should the court case fail. One of the main problems with the Protocol is that too many Unionists are unaware of what it actually is and more worryingly even fewer seem to be aware that its legality is being tested in court. The Protocol sums up Unionism’s problems, it was an arrogant strategic failure that brought it about, however, the response to the Protocol has often been ill-informed and lacking credible alternatives. A resolution to this problem can be found politically but it will require bringing many other stakeholders together, however, Unionism at the moment is a long way from being able to reach out to the relevant people to find a resolution, especially considering there is either no relationship built with the stakeholders or indeed it’s an extremely fractious relationship. There are aspects of the Protocol to consider at present, for example, what easy wins can be gained by common sense adjustments?

In terms of the Protocol’s severity, mitigating its impact and smoothing out some of the more cumbersome elements should be a priority. Many in Unionism will not like me for saying this, however, the reality is that making the Protocol work to Northern Ireland’s advantage could well be the final landing point. If managed correctly can Unionism contribute to making trading between Great Britain and Northern Ireland seamless? In addition to this, if the Protocol can be made to work to allow trading with the EU, it could not only prevent the Protocol from being a threat to the Union but make it a necessity in maintaining it. There is much to think about concerning the Protocol and how best to tackle it, political Unionism needs a realistic plan and it needs to be honest with its base.


Last week Steve Aiken’s UUP followed the TUV and DUP and called for the Chief Constable to resign, on Good Friday Steve Aiken was on the ‘Nolan Show’ for what he thought would be a casual chitchat, but it turned out to be a bad Friday for Aiken. Aiken went into a monologue before Nolan had asked him the first question and then what ensued was a car crash interview during which it became obvious that Aiken was not abreast of the facts, did not know why he was calling for the Chief Constable to resign and it became clear that Aiken had only latched onto the resignation demands because the TUV and DUP had previously called for the Chief Constable to resign. Unionism has some genuine questions for the Chief Constable, furthermore, the Northern Ireland public has serious questions for the Chief Constable due to a series of gaffes that have blighted his tenure.

Unionism has concluded that there is “two-tier” policing in place that discriminates against Unionism. This isn’t necessarily correct, what we have is inconsistent policing in which key COVID breaches across the community were in some cases ignored whilst others were pursued with vigour. Unionism withdrawing support for the Chief Constable is understandable, however, this needs to be more evidence-based rather than claiming there is “two-tier policing”, whilst ignoring the Loyalist funerals and Rangers’ celebrations that all breached COVID regulations and were ignored by the police. In relation to the Bobby Storey funeral, whilst many across Northern Ireland from all sections of the community were disappointed that prosecutions didn’t follow the flagrant breaches at this funeral, Unionism appears to have been unable to accept a rare win in which Sinn Fein received almost universal condemnation and by the ensuing violence, Unionism and Loyalism have managed to turn the win into a defeat.

A huge issue now for Unionism is the fact that with serious rioting ongoing, Arlene Foster had initially refused to meet the Chief Constable, a decision which has subsequently been reversed. This initial kneejerk decision was a catastrophic mistake, especially as Arlene Foster is the First Minister and leader of a party that supports law and order. It placed Unionism in the uncomfortable position of being on the side of rioters rather than the police. Unionism cannot diverge from absolute support for law and order, it can and indeed should vigorously challenge the mechanisms within the PSNI that have contributed to some questionable policing decisions, however, media-led calls for resignations serve Northern Ireland very poorly.

Loyalist Paramilitaries

Let’s cut to the chase, in 2021 paramilitaries should have long since been wound up, there was never a time for them to have existed but in 2021 their existence is abnormal. More emphasis needs to be placed on the fact that these gangs are common criminals involved in extortion and drug dealing etc and they blight and destroy their communities. The South East Antrim UDA has been cited as being heavily involved in orchestrating the violence, using teenagers to cause the disturbances as the older members direct from the sidelines. This is again why it is key that political Unionism is on the side of the police and not on the side of crime gangs. Young people caught within the clutches of paramilitaries must also be given a way out that both protects them and their families. It is clear that in 2021 a sustainable plan for tackling organised crime gangs that masquerade as being Loyalists or indeed Republicans is needed.

As long as paramilitaries exist and as long as we allow them the oxygen of political failure and social deprivation to survive then Northern Ireland is always going to have problems with organised criminality and violence.

Social Deprivation

Many of the areas that have seen rioting and violence suffer from social deprivation, high unemployment, and as discussed these areas are often in the grip of paramilitaries. Pumping money into these parts is frequently seen as the answer, however, as has been proven all too often, this money often goes to dubious bodies whilst those in most need are ignored. Within Loyalist areas, there are particular problems with educational underachievement amongst male Protestants and many Loyalists feel they are unrepresented and left without a voice, left without opportunity, and left without hope. This is why it is imperative that since these areas heavily support the DUP, that the DUP in turn work to improve these areas. More Loyalists need to be afforded opportunities within politics, support for legitimate community groups that can steer people away from criminality is essential, educational reform, and direct liaising with the police to ensure that crime gangs are rooted out of these areas. Critically important also is the need for people from these areas to be able to have access to job opportunities, with unemployment disproportionately high, this a feeding ground for paramilitaries to recruit.

An important point to highlight is that despite the social deprivation in many of these areas, the overwhelming majority within these communities are not involved in criminality, however, their lives are blighted by it.

Recreational Violence and Lockdown Release

For some involved in the violence, it is a release from having been in lockdown for over one year, whilst others latch onto the rioting as an opportunity to engage in anti-social behaviour. This will seem like an abnormal grouping to many, however, when looking for a reason for the current problems, some of it boils down to there being no logical reason at all.

Taking a wider look at the violence, it does nothing to solidify Northern Ireland’s position within the UK and in reality, it undermines it. The violence makes Northern Ireland appear unworkable and the threat of violence has always lurked under the surface in the region. The current violence feels similar to the ‘flag protests’ that greatly diminished Unionism long-term, interestingly, some of the same players are involved here, the same rhetoric is being used and the result will be the same. Some Loyalists have argued that their actions

whether it be peaceful protest or violence have got the ear of the international stage that politics simply wasn’t getting. This is distorted logic; the violence is damaging Unionism and Loyalism and there is no evidence that any of the key players are going to take action. In Northern Ireland we have to ensure politics works, the default of turning to violence cannot be par

for the course, I was dismayed when Unionists with genuine concerns on the Protocol were ridiculed for expressing them or even ignored, if we don’t allow for the open channels of dialogue and a way to meaningfully address these issues then that paves the way for the scenes we are now seeing.

Several points concerning Loyalism concern me at present. Like Unionism they are rudderless, there is no clear leader or indeed leaders, their objectives are unclear and it’s evident that those calling for peaceful protests have been unable to prevent the violence when it inevitably happens. This invariably reflects badly on Unionism and Loyalism and there is a need for both to work together to better articulate concerns and direct these through the relevant channels.

Another point with Loyalism is that it’s a poorly defined ideology, many in the media use it as a term for those who engage in violence and there is certainly an overall perception that it is a more militant brand of Unionism. There are some very interesting voices within Loyalism that if as a movement it was better organised it could articulate and address important concerns facing their community. William Ennis posted the following on Twitter this week and many within Loyalism are pushing this type of positive agenda that is often overlooked, we need to hear more of these voices.

I make no apologies for reiterating for the umpteenth time that impotent leadership within Unionism is at the foundation of many of the problems. The leadership is preventing new ideas from manifesting, it’s preventing new people from getting involved and frankly, it’s creating a never-ending cycle of gaffs and chaos. Arlene Foster’s tenure should have ended in 2016 when the RHI scandal emerged, she was saved and has since gone on to preside over several calamities culminating in the ‘sea border’. I keep hearing that there is no alternative leader, however, this is a ludicrous position for a leading political party to be in. It also begs the question of how much more damage would a new leader cause? Steve Aiken has not had a successful tenure as UUP leader and has also presided over a failed election campaign and been gaff prone. The main issue is that the UUP is not a party in waiting, they appear to be a party in terminal decline. Both party leaders must consider their positions, if they feel they have something to offer Unionism and Northern Ireland then this must be communicated, if they have taken their parties as far as they can then they must step down. This is an issue that needs to be grappled with as a matter of urgency.

In addition to a review of leadership, Unionism needs new faces to get involved, this will not happen via the current options of a crumbling DUP and UUP, therefore civic Unionism can be a vehicle to attract new voices. An aging profile within political Unionism that is male-dominated is not reflective of the overall Unionist demographic. This becomes more problematic as the old and failing ideas of the past are reheated and rehashed to inevitable greater failure.

One noticeable thing is how absent political Unionism is on the ground during the riots. At best some tweets were issued out and even these were problematic with Arlene Foster managing to bring Sinn Fein into a condemnation about a bus being petrol bombed by Loyalists. Key figures such as Ian Paisley, Sammy Wilson, and indeed Jim Allister have gone underground as the riots rage, Unionism needs much better leadership than this.

There have been many valid discussions in recent days about how Loyalism has been left without a voice in politics, this is true. However, I would take this a step further and point out that most Unionists have been left without a voice, political Unionism has become so detached from those that it is supposed to represent that it’s difficult to see the value in having Unionist parties if they don’t represent their voters or indeed actively misrepresent them.

I recognise that my brand of Unionism is extremely unpopular with many fellow Unionists, however, even the most ardent opponent to change must realise that a new direction is needed. Surely there are clear concepts within Unionism that

everyone can rally around and upon which change can be unlocked, some initial thoughts on this are:

– Support for policing and the rule of law

– Support for the NHS

– Supporting business and encouraging entrepreneurial activity in Northern Ireland

– Build relationships with the Republic of Ireland

– A commitment to not only make Stormont work but to drive through some much-needed reform

-Commitment to end all paramilitary activity and groups I imagine from the above list there is much that non-Unionists could sign up to also. That is the key, in a small piece of land where Unionism is not the majority, we have to make Northern Ireland work for the majority in all communities.

I will conclude with a point that I have been reiterating in recent days, the overwhelming majority of Unionists and Loyalists whilst disillusioned with politics in Northern Ireland and feeling they have no voice are not reverting to violence, the vast majority support the police, however, we need to address the damage that is being done to both Unionism and Loyalism by the violence and this starts by utterly rejecting it. Unionism in a tailspin is bad for Unionism but it’s bad for everyone in Northern Ireland too. Unionism needs to change, if it doesn’t it will continue to accelerate unification, but when will that change begin, perhaps a crucial starting point would be for the DUP and UUP to admit there is a problem………

Cuilcagh, Fermanagh” by Carl Meehan is licensed under CC BY

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