The census results in Northern Ireland were as predictable as was much of the subsequent commentary and predictions. It can be easy to get drawn into this cycle of claim and counterclaim, but for Unionists to dismiss the results entirely would be foolish. The Union is not dead but there is a looming danger that some interpret as the inevitability of Unification; but what is beyond doubt is that Unionism’s current trajectory will not save the Union.
Many of the problems within Unionism are not new, they’ve been discussed and debated many times, calls for change have been ignored and subsequent elections have only yielded ever diminishing returns for the various Unionist parties.
The census results will add to the calls for Unionism to join the Unity debates, however, Unionism can still sit tight on this, there is no guarantee that a border poll is imminent and there is still little value in Unionism joining these discussions, instead Unionism would be better served to tackle internal problems that have been festering for years.
A rising Catholic population coupled with a declining Protestant population against the backdrop of an increasingly secular Northern Ireland will be dismissed by some in Unionism as an event beyond their control. There is some truth in this and perhaps Protestant churches across Northern Ireland have unfairly escaped some just criticism for their declining flocks that are not solely down to secularism, ironically many suffer from the same problems as Unionism, poor leadership, fragmentation, and frankly too many variations that in reality offer very little in the way of real differences. Where Unionism should take some blame is for its inability to broaden the appeal of the Union beyond a Protestant base, the demographical changes have been predicted for quite some time but few within Unionism have ever produced a realistic strategy on how to adapt to this trend. Another issue that should concern Unionism within the census results is the drop in British identity by around 6.1%, this is highly attributable to the fallout from Brexit and the subsequent Protocol.
Identity for Unionism has frequently been a struggle, many don’t identify as Irish, feeling that it is the antithesis to being British thus leaving a void at a more local level and the constant jibes from some about not being British and if evidence is needed, ask the “real British”, presumably the English. Even Unionists who are Irish almost express it cautiously, nervously and even this gets a rebuttal from some about “not being real Irish” as Irish and British don’t mix. Unionism is very much on a journey on this and as with identity as a whole there will be much fluidity and variations but Unionists need to get more comfortable within their own identity and for some, there is a need to reclaim their Irishness.
Unionism scored a huge own goal with its rejection of an Irish Language Act (ILA), and instead of recognising a rich history immersed within the language from Presbyterianism to the Orange Institution, Unionism airbrushed this from history and led an ill-fated campaign against the ILA. This type of action, whilst not only doomed to fail, but also ignored historical truths and undermined Northern Ireland’s position within the Union as many outside of Unionism felt with some justification that Unionists were unwilling to show any generosity. Genuine concerns about how an ILA would be implemented could have been dealt with via negotiations and practical solutions, instead, hysteria was whipped up with even the UUP suggesting that it was a tool to Balkanise Northern Ireland. This entire episode was a failure of leadership and generosity from Unionism and even today there are no attempts to redress this.
Leadership within Unionism down through the years has been abysmal to non-existent. When leadership has been demonstrated with strategic thinking and generosity shown, the Unionists in question are lundified and excommunicated, this is still an issue in 2022. Unionism isn’t an easy bloc to lead, almost akin to herding cats, this is due to it being varied with many competing requirements outside of maintaining the Union accompanied with a liberal dollop of thran thrown into the mix. Looking at the political parties, there are too many and they’re not good enough. In a shrinking market, it’s difficult to see a future for either the TUV or PUP, however, continued question marks exist with the DUP in terms of competence, decision making as well as being deemed wreckless with the Union, aptly demonstrated with the crashed Northern Ireland Executive. In such a scenario, this is an ideal time for the UUP to shine, however, they have almost disappeared entirely from public life with very little to say on most topics. Further issues are on the horizon for the UUP with heavy losses predicted for them in the upcoming council elections which will be making the UUP even more nervous.
I thought it might be fun to forecast the 2023 NI local elections using the party support figures from the recent @LucidTalk poll (an Assembly poll not a council election poll, so caveat emptor). Looking good for SF and Alliance, bad for UUP and SDLP, meh for everyone else. pic.twitter.com/3kxLZuabE7
— Peter Donaghy (@peterdonaghy) August 29, 2022
With significant issues within all Unionist parties and no imminent solutions, the leadership issues are going to continue and this will lead many to question the validity of having Unionist parties if they continue to be anonymous or continually undermine the Union.
There are ongoing problems that continue to cause difficulties for Unionism, including Loyalist paramilitaries and the failure to address them. This problem came into sharp focus recently when a memorial parade was held for Brian Robinson, attracting over 50 bands. Robinson was a member of the UVF who murdered an innocent Catholic and was subsequently shot dead by an undercover British army unit. Many within Unionism have voiced unhappiness with the parade for Robinson. However, Unionist leaders and some influencers who frequently criticise similar IRA events were completely silent on the Robinson event. One exception was Doug Beattie who spoke out against the parade, however, his condemnation was quickly undermined when it transpired that members of his party attend this parade. This encapsulates the problem within Unionism, contradictions mixed with an inability and unwillingness to address issues that are crippling communities here. Paramilitaries bring extortion, drug dealing, intimidation, violence, and murder to their communities, they are a plague, and a failure to address paramilitaries damages both the communities impacted and Northern Ireland as a whole, Unionism has a huge responsibility to address this.
The term “Loyalist” is bandied about frequently but it’s very unclear as to what the word means, Loyalists themselves offer various definitions and there is the problematic catchment of simply labelling all such people as paramilitaries. This inability to define Loyalism and communicate its goals feeds into Unionism and how it distinguishes itself. The term Unionist has so many different meanings and at times conjures up unfavourable cliches that more people prefer to disassociate from, preferring the term “pro-Union” rather than Unionist. Unionism does have an image problem that it has never properly addressed, redefining what a 21st century Unionist is and making it a package that people feel more comfortable aligning to should be critical. Communication is the past has been dreadful from Unionism, articulating its past and presenting a viable vision for the future has never been done. Unionism instead has allowed others write its story and then subsequently reacted. Now more than ever, effective and consistent communication is necessary both in defining Unionism and driving it forward.
One of the most prominent issues within Unionism at present is the Protocol, however, with so much time and energy focused on this, no solution has been implemented. This creates a headache for the DUP, crashing the Executive has brought it huge support from within Unionism but this could change dramatically as difficult winter sets in. The DUP will be conscious of the need to take a win from their actions on the Protocol and sell this to the electorate to get the Executive rebooted. There is much to criticise about the Executive and it needs to be overhauled, but if Unionism is serious about making Northern Ireland work, then the bigger picture must be viewed and this includes a functioning Executive with Unionism taking the Deputy First Minister position. These actions are imperative to maximise the chances of Northern Ireland working for all, a working and prosperous Northern Ireland is effectively the only thing that can save Northern Ireland’s place within the Union, it’s been discussed to death but delivery has been very poor.
There are other issues that Unionism could address such as social deprivation, educational underachievement, health reforms, the oversaturation of flags across Northern Ireland as well as creating a shared island initiative working seamlessly within the Union. All of these things will require Unionism to work with others but as an entity ravaged by internal squabbling and difficult external relationships this is a huge ask. An effective Unionism will need to court the “Other” demographic and this will require in some regards a cooling off on hostilities with this demographic and in particular the Alliance party, there is no surer way of losing the Other demographic than by demonising or by ignoring it. Unionism also needs to reach out within its demographic, there are large swathes of Unionists, particularly from a younger generation who cannot relate to the current manifestation, Unionism is seen as old and out of touch and this is a huge problem to address.
The public face of Unionism has been much lampooned and there are serious concerns over who has overriding influence. Too often people in local media who speak on behalf of Unionism and wield disproportionate power behind the scenes are the same people who are turning more and more people off the Union and in the process leading Unionism into a cul-de-sac of its creation. Unionism needs newer faces within the mix but it also needs to sever ties with some of the prominent elected and unelected personalities who have undermined the cause.
The story of Northern Ireland’s Unionism could be told as a Greek tragedy reaching its final act. Although Unionism’s search for answers also draws parallels with the dark western “The Searchers”. Unionism’s search has lost all meaning and like the character of Ethan Edwards in “The Searchers,” it has, in turn, begun to show an ugly and uncomfortable side. The character of Ethan Edwards, in a pivotal moment in the movie shoots the eyes of a Comanche corpse to lead its spirit to “wander forever between the winds” and thus sealed his fate by being rejected by society and cast aside. Unionism faces a similar conclusion; Northern Ireland has moved on and Unionism faces being sidelined which was aptly apparent during the King’s visit. Unionism will have to search for its soul and decide if it really does want the Union to survive and what this means in reality, it will certainly mean ending the ongoing daily battles on various meaningless topics and focusing on the bigger picture. However, at the time of writing this tweet from Jim Allister appeared and typifies the pettiness and nonsense that Unionism gets involved with, this purposely misses the bigger picture and turns more people off Unionism.
Mr Jim Allister KC (North Antrim)
To ask the Minister of Finance how many respondents to the 2021 Census fully completed their forms in (i) English; (ii) Irish; and (iii) Ulster Scots.
— Jim Allister (@JimAllister) September 22, 2022
The census results will invariably cause a psychological blow to many Unionists, particularly those living east of the Bann, whereas those of us from west of the Bann were always well aware of the sea change that was happening and the need to change course. A calm and purposeful response from Unionism can still save the Union but more of the same, and it’s over, and at present, there are no signs that things are going to change.
Choyaa is a Fermanagh Orangeman