March 2nd, 2017, was a nightmare day for unionism. The result of the Assembly election saw the gap between the DUP and Sinn Féin narrow to 1,200 votes and one seat. It left the DUP as the largest party and entitled to the first minister’s role but, for the first time, unionism didn’t account for a majority of the seats in a local Assembly or Parliament.
It was a huge psychological hammer blow: underpinned by the realisation that the days of being able to describe themselves as the unquestionable majority in Northern Ireland could be coming to an end. Some comfort was taken from the fact the combined nationalist seats were still less than unionist seats, but that comfort was offset by the fear that the growing political/electoral middle ground shouldn’t be banked as small-u unionist in the event of a border poll.
Frost's resignation on the Saturday before Christmas suggests the chances of any deal acceptable to the DUP has receded to the point of invisibility
An unexpected general election a few weeks later brought some comfort for the DUP, when its 10 MPs (its best ever tally) were required to prop up Theresa May’s government. It was an opportunity for the party to push for a benign, bespoke arrangement tailored to Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances but, instead, it opted for a bizarre form of uber-unionism which saw it tuck in behind a regenerated English nationalism represented by the European Reform Group in the Conservative parliamentary party.
That relationship delivered nothing for the DUP. Lord Frost’s resignation on the Saturday before Christmas suggests the chances of any deal acceptable to the DUP has receded to the point of invisibility. The next Assembly election is just five months away and polling suggests the DUP is behind Sinn Féin, as well as in danger of losing votes to rival unionists in the UUP and TUV, as well as to the centrist Alliance. All of which means the chances of a Sinn Féin first minister (another huge psychological blow) are pretty high right now.
But unionism has another problem waiting in the wings: Sinn Féin’s electoral rise in the south. It wasn’t even an issue in 2017, when Gerry Adams was still running the show and there was a sanguine consensus across key elements of the media and political establishment in Dublin and Belfast that the party would never be capable of making a game-changing electoral breakthrough at the polls.
Which was good news for unionism, of course, which mostly despised Adams and was pleased its dislike was shared by its neighbours. And when he stood aside in February 2018, political unionism assumed that without his experience, leadership, presence and total control of the entire Sinn Féin machine on both sides of the Border, Mary Lou McDonald wouldn’t pose much of a problem for them. Indeed, some thought that an O’Neill-McDonald leadership team – bound, or so they hoped, to be much less influential than Adams-McGuinness – would reduce SF’s electoral appeal in Northern Ireland as well.
Yet Sinn Féin is now topping opinion polls on both sides of the Border and remains on a continuing upward swing in the south. While nothing is ever inevitable in politics, only a fool would dismiss the possibility of there being a Sinn Féin first minister and Sinn Féin taoiseach in office at the same time in or around early 2025. And if losing their overall majority in the Assembly and possibly even the role of first minister in a few months are clearly psychological blows for unionism, I’m not sure how a first minister/taoiseach tag-team would be described.
Mercy of UK government
Some elements of unionism and loyalism are keen on pulling down the Assembly altogether if, as seems increasingly likely, there isn’t going to be an “acceptable” solution to the protocol. Others insist there must be a pre-election pact which rules out any unionist taking the role of deputy first minister. But both of those options leave unionism at the mercy of a UK government which, judging by a lengthy line of evidence stretching back to March 1972 (when the Stormont Parliament was closed), is unlikely to do them any favours, let alone protect and promote their interests.
The other question for unionism: is Mary Lou McDonald the “Shinner” who will take the party to places that Adams could only dream of? Will she find herself powerful enough within just a few years to persuade both an Irish and UK government to trigger a border poll? Could the strength of her mandate in 2024/25 be enough to reassure Irish voters who, in a recent opinion poll, hinted that while they agreed with unity, there were limits to their support. Could she persuade pro-EU (but unity agnostics) supporters in NI to trust her in a border poll?
None of this may come to pass. The DUP could do much better than expected at the next election. There may be a protocol deal political unionism can live with. The Sinn Féin electoral bubble could burst. The southern electorate may yet prove resistant to the reality rather than the mythology of unity and settle for authentic mammon over bogus gods. The Conservatives could be consumed by their own internal conflagrations and replaced with a Labour/Lib-Dem coalition which opts for an entirely different approach to the EU. Who knows?
One thing is certain: unionists cannot rely on helpful circumstances and benign outcomes
But one thing is certain: unionists cannot rely on helpful circumstances and benign outcomes. They have been caught on the hop far too often since 2016. They need to be prepared for every outcome and have thought-through strategies for every eventuality.
They limped through their centenary year, taking one blow after another. The present confusion and worry across all sections of unionism needs to be addressed: sensibly, coherently and without utterly pointless, self-defeating threats of one sort or another. And maybe, just maybe, look at how Sinn Féin reinvented and positioned itself.
Alex Kane is a commentator based in Belfast. He was formerly director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party