In the early autumn of 1974 – a few months after the collapse of the Sunningdale agreement and assembly – the possibility of a weekend meeting between the various unionist parties (there were at least five or six at the time) was mooted. An old friend of my dad’s reckoned it would be a waste of time: “Six parties, a few mavericks and a couple of fringe groups would travel to the hotel in one bus on Friday evening. By Monday morning there’d be eight parties, an explosion of mavericks and probably four fringe groups; and they’d also need three buses to bring them back.”
That was the nature of unionism after the collapse of the Stormont Parliament in March 1972. For 50 years, the “united we stand, divided we fall” mantra, along with the patronage exercised by a one-party unionist government had, more or less, ensured the machinery and institutions of unionism remained intact. There were occasional public arguments and differences on policy issues yet, generally speaking, unionism spoke with one voice (including the Orange Order and Protestant denominations) and moved in one direction.
With the possible exception of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, unionism has struggled to find a common voice, let along agree on a direction of travel since 1972. The old Brendan Behan joke about the republican movement was that “the first item on the agenda is the split”, yet it is mostly unionism that splits and usually on issues that use the head of a pin for a platform. Unionism enjoys (and there actually isn’t a more appropriate word) nuance. It enjoys pole-vaulting from the pin head to an even smaller space with a more rarefied atmosphere. Unity of purpose is something written on an individual basis.
When you realise how difficult unionists find it to talk to each other, it should come as no surprise that talking to non-unionists is mostly impossible for them. Oh yes, they’ll go through the motions and smile politely at their political opponents, but don’t expect them to be having anything approaching a serious conversation about the future with either the SDLP or Sinn Féin. Anyway, all they want to talk about, it seems, is Irish unity; and unionists won’t be talking about that because that’s the sort of stuff you leave to the likes of Lundy, small-u unionist liberals and other assorted traitors.
It is mostly unionism that splits and usually on issues that use the head of a pin for a platform
But if a Border poll is likely – and I think it is (election results matter much more than opinion polls and anyway most unionists wouldn’t trust Boris Johnson with their cat, let alone their citizenship) then there is surely an argument for unionism to talk to someone? Actually, talking among themselves, because it is a huge, diverse family, would be a good starting point in the run-up to the 2021 centenary.
I’ve long supported some sort of convention which would bring together all wings of the family, along with academics and influencers, to consider the future of unionism at a time when the entire United Kingdom has a constitutional crisis. I’ve argued before that this is endgame territory and there needs to be a game plan with all possibilities and outcomes analysed and fully assessed.
A unionist is, first and foremost, someone who supports the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. For some the support is unconditional, but for others (as we have seen with EU membership) it is conditional. Unionism is also spread across a number of platforms: political parties, the loyal orders, Protestantism, loyalism, civic unionism, paramilitary groupings and a growing civic/secular unionism. It’s important, too, to distinguish between unionists (who would mostly support traditional political/electoral unionism) and those who prefer the description pro-union (and seem happy to vote for middle ground parties like Alliance and Green).
What is missing in all of this is a broad, coherent, commonly agreed understanding of unionist/pro-union identity and what, precisely, defines a unionist. Without that, unionism cannot talk with anyone else about the future, because some sections of unionism don’t even know what is acceptable to other sections of unionism.
No unionist can take that majority for granted anymore. This isn't 1921 or 1974 or 1985 or even 1998
The future of Northern Ireland depends on sustaining a majority for the union. No unionist can take that majority for granted anymore. This isn’t 1921 or 1974 or 1985 or even 1998. Brexit presented a problem. Irish sea borders present a problem. The United Kingdom crashing out of the EU without a deal (still possible) would be an even bigger problem. And the biggest problem of all comes if the moment arrives when increasing numbers of those from a pro-union background believe they are on the losing side and think a deal should be reached in advance of “inevitable” unity.
There is scant evidence that mainstream unionism has given any particular thought to any of this. It needs to. If you’re not entirely sure what it is you’re promoting and defending you can hardly be surprised if potential supporters listen to other arguments instead.
Alex Kane is a commentator based in Belfast and a former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party