Susan McKay: Traditional unionism is incoherent and broken

For young unionists, Irish unity is ‘just another issue’ alongside many others

The artist Dermot Seymour once explained why his paintings often featured headless men: if you are a Protestant in the North you are not allowed to think for yourself, because “you might talk sense and that threatens their insecurities”.

Your neck, he said, would be twisted until you had no head. The twisters were those “stiff with rhetoric” leaders who spoke with “bleak afflatus” and rejected the need to “understand and forgive”. They are depicted by Derek Mahon in his poem Ecclesiastes. The poet tells himself: “this is your/ country, close one eye and be king.”

Joel Keyes, a 20-year-old aspiring unionist politician, got a visit from the police last week. They came to his house in Belfast in the middle of the night to tell him they had received information concerning threats against him, and that “the use of firearms cannot be ruled out”.

Jeffrey Donaldson, MP, who does not even have a seat at Stormont, was meant to have been the sensible choice as DUP leader, but his position is riddled with contradictions

The PSNI provides no information about the sources of such threats, and no organisation has claimed responsibility. However, it seems likely it was loyalists of some extreme stripe.

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The warning came just after Joel wrote on social media that he found it fascinating that people he knows think “United Ireland” refers to Northern Ireland being annexed by the Republic. This had been his own impression too, until recently, he wrote, adding: “Perhaps a better term to use is “New Ireland”.

Joel recently took part in a Shared Ireland podcast. His interview was warmly received by people who want a Border poll and support unification.

Violence

Keyes says he does not understand unionism’s fear of a Border poll, or its outcome: “If the people of the country come back and say we want to join the Republic of Ireland, why would I want to stop a democratic vote?”

However, when he gave evidence last May on behalf of the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster, he said that he could not “rule violence on or off the table” for loyalists, albeit as “an absolute last resort”.

When outcry followed, the LCC immediately sprang to his defence, condemning his “vilification”. It is a different story now. Loyalists and their many organisations have largely remained silent about the threats to Keyes. He says he was confused, but that, “With our side you are very limited in what you can say. There’s a bit of paranoia.”

There certainly is. Unionism is in a state of incoherence and the extent of its disarray is on full view.

The UUP's position is complicated

Jeffrey Donaldson, MP, who does not even have a seat at Stormont, was meant to have been the sensible choice as DUP leader, but his position is riddled with contradictions. He denounced those who have been out burning buses and getting children to riot in some of the poorest parts of the North. Yet they did so to mark a deadline he had solemnly and with some pomp set for potentially collapsing the regime at Stormont.

What is more, he relies on being able to cite these manifestations of what is meant to look like community rage (but doesn’t and isn’t), to make his case that the protocol is intolerable to unionists.

Polls and statements from business leaders have ripped this to shreds. The DUP illegally boycotts North-South meetings – an intrinsic part of the Belfast Agreement – while claiming outrage that the protocol is damaging the agreement, and that it definitely isn’t Brexit that is the problem. For the bus burners the posters that declare “the deal is dead” are about the protocol, the agreement and deals, in general, with Catholics and foreigners.

The PUP leader Billy Hutchinson’s midweek statement only went to show how far that party has fallen. Once it was exciting – now it is irrelevant. Hutchinson left listeners puzzled as he fended off interviewers with increasingly crabby variations of “No, that’s not what I’m saying.”

Unelectable extremists

The TUV’s Jim Allister is in the happy position of holding the DUP as his craven and miserable hostage, of having unlimited airtime on BBC NI, and of gaining traction in opinion polls.

e is in the unhappy position of being the leader of a party in which he is the sole MLA, a trail of disaffected and fundamentally unelectable extremists of one kind or another having come and gone over the years.

The UUP’s position is complicated. Doug Beattie is the best leader the once dominant party has had for many years, but he is trapped between the need to hold on to the conservative men in suits, the UUP’s stalwarts, and his need to attract young voters who are repelled by unionism’s narrow-mindedness on social issues.

They have other options – chiefly Alliance – and many of them put their energy into community activism. The UUP’s health minister has alienated feminists by refusing to commission abortion services, thereby breaching UK law. But the suits are leaving anyway.

Keyes has not lost his head. He remains “100 per cent hopeful” that Northern Ireland can change. He told me that young people in the unionist community – by which he means those his age and teenagers – are starting to take an interest in politics. They may have views on the constitutional question, but they are not talking about it along traditional orange and green lines. It is “just another issue” along with all the others, like health, education and poverty. “And that’s a good thing,” he says.