27 May 2010 Edition
Unionist unity; is it a possibility?
By Laura Friel
Setting aside the initial trauma of the Westminster election results, which left the leaders of both main unionist parties unelected and saw the failure of their unity candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the call for unionist unity as a way forward has been raised once again.
Speaking at an Orange Hall in County Antrim, head of the Order Robert Saulters, called on politicians to form “one big unionist party” and said he had “warned” unionist leaders that “the time was now right for a new way forward”.
“There is a huge groundswell of opinion that there must be a drive towards unionist unity or, at the very least, better joined-up thinking between unionists,” Saulters told Orangemen.
“The one phrase which seems to upset our enemies is unionist unity. They are unable to cope with the prospect and we should take note of that,” said Saulters.
Responses to Saulters’ “warning” have been mixed. His comments were met with a diplomatic “welcome” rather than enthusiastic support by DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds and UUP defectors to the DUP, Jeffery Donaldson and Arlene Foster.
The DUP said the party was “keen” to forge greater links with the UUP but the DUP were not seeking any “formal” relationship. But most members of the UUP are even less enamoured with the notion of unionist unity as the way forward.
The oldest political party in Ireland and most favoured by the British, the UUP can’t quite stomach playing second fiddle to its political rivals, the DUP. In practice that’s what unionist unity would mean for the UUP. The DUP might now command the largest share of the unionist vote but the UUP still believe they were born to lead not to follow.
The failed attempt by Reg Empey to leap frog his party into the British Cabinet was a desperate attempt by the old unionist powerbrokers to side step the Six-county unionist electorate, the majority of whom now vote DUP.
And anyway, the UUP strategy, even if it had been successful, wasn’t so much a bid for power as influence. In other words a strategy of a party already resigned to inevitable decline.
Unsurprisingly the UUP strategy was not embraced by unionist voters who were more concerned about the imposition of Tory cuts than the fortunes of the UUP.
“The link with the Conservative Party has not worked,” admitted UUP MLA Basil McCrea. Worse still, the strategy not only failed to elect anyone, it also cut to the heart of how the UUP understands itself. “It has resulted in the virtual takeover of the UUP,” said McCrea.
Commenting on the meeting of the UUPs executive, Newsletter commentator Sam McBride noted the sense of drift within the party.
“Aside from whether Sir Reg stays or goes, the party is grappling with the reason for its existence,” said McBride.
Unionist unity encourages Sinn Féin rise
Their election strategy might have ended in abysmal failure but although the UUP were prepared to try jumping into bed with David Cameron, they remain coy with the DUP. Responding to Sautlers’ unity call, Basil McCrea warned against “mixed marriages”.
As the Lisburn MLA pointed out, the call did not emerge because of a genuine desire for unionist unity but more as a response to the rise of Sinn Fein.
Worse still it was a response that, in the last election, did not mobilise the unionist vote sufficiently. The unionist vote fell and the unity candidate’s vote fell even further.
“For every person who thinks unity is the way to go, there is someone else who feels unrepresented by it and it provokes a reaction from nationalists. The rationale of this proposal seems to be smash Sinn Fein but it is likely to have the opposite effect. Talk of unionist unity unites nationalism,” said McCrea.
“There is no point in just getting together to try and thwart Sinn Fein. As Fermanagh and South Tyrone shows, an artificial unionist unity just increases Sinn Fein’s vote. Unionist unity will encourage the rise of Sinn Fein, not defeat it,” said McCrea.
Party colleague Tom Elliot agrees and any way “there is too much immediate history between the DUP and Ulster Unionists for that to happen”. There also significant political difference.
“I am accepted as pretty right wing within the Ulster Unionist Party but if I was in the DUP I’d look like some sort of liberal. We are relatively comfortable with many issues that the DUP have difficulty with,” said Elliot.
Rather than an alliance with the DUP, Elliot and McCrea hope to attract those who find the DUPs religious fundamentalism too much, perhaps even a few Catholics, by re-branding the UUP as a kind of “civic unionism”. “I believe in standing on our own feet and reaching out to all members of the community,” said McCrea.
No wonder members of the UUP find the intervention of the Orange Order less than helpful. “Any co operation within unionism would be better served if the Orange Order wasn’t part of it,” said Elliot, and McCrea agrees. A fundamental shift from the prancing days of David Trimble, hand in hand with Ian Paisley in an Orange march along the Garvaghy Road.
No positive vision
What unionism needs, McCrea pointed out, was “a positive vision of why people should vote for us”. But that’s the problem. Unionism knows it needs a positive vision but it hasn’t managed to come up with one yet.
To date any momentum towards unionist unity has been retrogressive, negative and backward-looking. Comments by DUP MLA Jim Wells encapsulate the kind of support the call attracts. Supporting unity, Wells declared he was “tempted to go back to the UUUC days”.
In 1973 under the auspices of the United, Ulster Unionist Council, the DUP and UUP joined forces with loyalist paramilitaries to defeat the modest power sharing arrangements of Sunningdale.
“I think a UUUC model is something that’s worthy of repeating to maximise the unionist vote in the face of an ever-growing Sinn Fein,” said Wells.
But even in 1973 unionist unity could only be maintained for three years, a fact apparently obscured by the Orange mists of time.
So is unionist unity possible? It’s never wise to say never but there are any number of factors to make it unlikely, the most important of which, is the message from the unionist voter in the last election. Unionist communities want to move forward, not revisit the past.
Despite the wishful day dreaming of Jim Wells, unionist unity even if it was achievable and sustainable, could not bring back unionist hegemony. The days of the Orange state are over and gone.
The days of the Orange state are over and gone