I recently wrote about how Sinn Féin aren’t selling a united Ireland to those outside steadfast republicanism. As talk about a referendum on reunification intensifies, unionism’s complacent failure to promote whatever virtues there are to remaining in the UK now merits discussion.
From its foundation, Northern Ireland was dominated by unionism. The UUP governed absolutely until 1972. The Catholic/nationalist community were a silenced, oppressed minority within a state that was designed to maintain unionist hegemony in perpetuity. There was no imperative to market the state to non-unionists.
A century later, despite the demise of that unjust hegemony, surveys still show that most Northerners want to remain in the UK. And arguably, many undecided citizens would back the Union to avoid a reunification that may potentially yield instability in their lives. Further, there’s no indication that a referendum is imminent. Unionism therefore has cause to be optimistic.
Yet, the demographic gap between both communities has almost disappeared. Sinn Féin could become the largest party in the Assembly this year. Moreover, some surveys indicate that the minority who favour reunification is growing, and that a majority of Northerners want a referendum in the coming years.
These shifts herald the end of the certainties upon which Northern Ireland was created: immutable unionist ascendancy and everlasting union with Britain. Moreover, the fallout from Brexit has galvanised republicanism’s determination to secure a referendum and has buttressed their campaign by thrusting discussion about reunification into the limelight within the media, academia and society generally.
As such, unionist complacency about the Union’s security has become untenable. One might therefore expect mainstream unionism to have moved beyond its characteristically obstinate dogma towards creating a Northern Ireland they can sell not only to unionists, but to the undecided and to moderate nationalists who may determine the outcome of a referendum. But that hasn’t happened.
The DUP won’t entertain any notion that a referendum may eventuate, never mind that republicanism/nationalism could be victorious. Their overthrown former leader stated categorically that a referendum and reunification won’t happen in her lifetime, an attitude seemingly shared by her erstwhile colleagues. This misguided faith in the Union’s eternality may explain the DUP’s hubris, illusory supremacy and antipathy towards everybody outside their myopic ideology.
They seemingly strive to antagonise the nationalist community and moderate voters. They vociferously supported Brexit, despite majority will here and despite the endless difficulties it has caused. They’re still vehemently opposed to Irish language legislation. They still attack the LGBT+ community. They still spout sectarian vitriol. They’re still boycotting the North-South Ministerial Council. And, they’re still threatening to collapse Stormont if they don’t get their way on the Protocol, irrespective of majority sentiment.
This may all have augmented Sinn Féin’s growth, with more nationalists seeing a vote for Sinn Féin as key to protecting their interests. It may also have triggered the sharp drop in support for the DUP suggested by recent surveys, with many moderate unionists defecting to other unionist parties and to Alliance, thereby splitting the unionist vote.
The ongoing growth of Sinn Féin on both sides of the border is arguably boosting republicanism’s campaign to procure a referendum. If a referendum was mooted by the Northern Secretary, that fragmented and weakened unionist vote could undermine the coherence and clout of unionist opposition to it. The danger here is that, in any referendum, the stakes will be vastly higher for unionism and loyalism than “the other side”.
Nationalists can afford to lose a referendum. Their Irish identity isn’t diluted by the North’s status and thus doesn’t depend upon eventual reunification. Despite 400 years of baleful attempts to rid Ulster of Gaelic culture and identity, it was never eradicated and today it thrives throughout Northern Ireland. Should a referendum not go nationalism’s way, their culture and identity will keep thriving and they’ll merely wait until they can have another crack. They’ve waited a century: what’s another 7 or more years?
Unionism, however, cannot afford to lose a referendum. Loyalists (and many staunch unionists) view Northern Ireland being in the UK as integral to their identity. Theoretically, the Good Friday Agreement would protect British identity and citizenship within a united Ireland. But that could never salve those communities.
As Mrs Foster said to RTÉ, a united Ireland would be incompatible with her identity. Loyalist and unionist communities would feel like displaced minorities in a united Ireland, detached from the nation to which they are loyal. This would be catastrophic for them and their representatives.
Given the above, the DUP’s unwillingness to change is treacherous. They cannot proceed unreconstructed. The recent UUP rebrand indicates that they’ve finally recognised that unionism cannot remain obstinate and must embrace citizens of all backgrounds, ethnicities and identities, as was suggested by the abundant diversity in their latest party broadcast. Yet, that revamp remains superficial, given that they recently aligned with the other three unionist parties to demand that the Protocol be rejected, and that they still oppose Irish language legislation.
Moreover, regressive statements previously made by their leader on Twitter have seriously undermined their attempted rebranding. While their change of tack is timely, they have a long way to go.
The DUP changing tack may be unlikely. It would be a radical departure from fifty years of anti-Irish, anti-Catholic, anti-minority orthodoxy. Indeed, it would alienate many loyalist and fundamentalist Christian voters. But such voters are a minority upon whom the DUP can no longer rely to maintain its dominance or that of unionism.
Working in retail for nearly a decade, I learned that if your customer base recedes, you must revamp and diversify your offering to reclaim your customers. Otherwise, you’ll go bust and your vision will wither away. The same applies to unionism today. While not imminent, a referendum could happen in the coming years. Unionism must acknowledge that, reform itself and start selling the Union in anticipation.
Unionists must stop rabble-rousing. A mere smattering of loyalists have taken the DUP’s bait over the Protocol, and the DUP’s vote share seems to have simultaneously declined: evidently, their traditional business model no longer works.
Unionism must strive to make the Union tolerable to the people at large. That means agreeing to demands from the nationalist community and others, even if it feels like surrender. Irish language legislation and such does not threaten unionist identity or the Union. Indeed, facilitating it and facilitating women’s rights and minority rights may be essential to entice voters towards unionism and to slow the velocity towards a referendum.
To secure the Union’s future, unionism must appeal to left-leaning moderates, the undecided, and that persuadable cohort of “small-n” nationalists. Staunch unionism’s current trajectory repulses those groups and is a gift to republicanism. If unionism keeps giving it, republicans may successfully commandeer it to swing a future referendum their way. That would be the ultimate betrayal of unionists by unionism itself.
Unionism can no longer act as if it remains hegemonic and as if a referendum won’t happen. The Union isn’t guaranteed in perpetuity any longer. Moreover, the stakes in any referendum would be greatest for unionism. The sacred cows that formerly grazed the province’s pastures have been butchered and eaten. Therefore, unionism must wake up, shake up and sell the Union.