Saturday, with Sinn Féin confirmed as the largest party in Northern Ireland, was a psychologically game-changing day for nationalism. It wasn’t, in fact, the first time a nationalist party had been in that position. The SDLP topped the poll in the 1998 election, but even though it got more votes, the UUP won more seats, so the SDLP served as deputy first minister to David Trimble’s first minister. It didn’t rattle unionists, because most of them, even those opposing the Belfast Agreement, had a lot of time for Seamus Mallon.
As time marched on, unionists – or sections of unionism – got increasingly rattled. I still remember the intake of breath and mutters of “Shame” when Martin McGuinness was appointed to the Executive in December 1999. When he became deputy first minister, in May 2007, it would lead to Jim Allister forming the TUV – which has just inflicted enormous electoral damage on the DUP.
Unionists were rattled again in March 2017 when they were reduced to minority status in the Assembly. It was a huge blow, although they didn’t really notice because the Assembly didn’t meet for three years and, when it did, the parties were preoccupied by Covid. But with every television channel and headline blaring the news at them since Saturday, it really is hard to avoid the reality that their numbers have been reduced again and Michelle O’Neill has dibs on first minister.
Circle of hell
This is now a Dante circle of hell for unionism. On one side they are being serially undermined by a Conservative government which has put a new border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Fair enough, most unionists (indeed, people generally) don’t understand the intricacies of the protocol, let alone the costs; anyway, there’s another cost-of-living crisis which is having a much greater palpable impact. That said, most do acknowledge that there is now something different in the relationship between the North and Britain – even if they can’t quite put their finger on it.
And on the other side they have seen Sinn Féin finally slipping past and laying claim to the title of first minister. It doesn’t matter that the first minister/deputy first minister relationship is, in essence, a Siamese twin relationship because, until Saturday, unionists could comfort themselves they were still ‘first’. It’s different now; and nothing matters more in politics than the perception of something having changed. It may not bring a Border poll any closer and it doesn’t mean the union is in peril. But unionism feels different.
Even though the DUP based its entire campaign on concerns about a Border poll, a Sinn Féin first minister and an existential threat to union from the protocol (hoping it would galvanise the pro-union community) unionism ended up losing seats and winning much the same share of votes and percentages as it did in 2017 and 2019 (when hits were also taken and seats lost).
Ironically, unionists weren’t damaged by anything Sinn Féin said or did. But in just the same way the ‘crocodile’ comments gifted votes to Sinn Féin in 2017 – leaving them just 1,200 votes and one seat behind the DUP – the refusal of any unionist leader to commit to accepting the role of deputy first minister should Sinn Féin win, gifted more votes to Sinn Féin. It won, even though it didn’t gain a seat, because unionism was fighting itself while not attracting enough new votes.
Unionists were also hit by the Alliance party, often described by key unionist figures as a ‘pan-nationalist party’. But in yet another irony, a section of unionism seemed more comfortable with Alliance than with any of the four unionist parties. Indeed, the ‘surge’ to Alliance, which has been ongoing since 2017, seems to increase the more it is attacked by unionists.
So, what does unionism do? First, it needs to recognise that while the electoral appetite for party political unionism seems to be diminishing, it doesn’t follow that the appetite for Irish unity is growing; although it might, if electoral unionism continues to gift votes to its electoral opponents and dismisses as lundies, liberals and rollovers anyone daring to suggest there might be a better approach to problem-solving than implicit or explicit threat, while conga-lining into yet another cul de sac.
In August 2016 Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness wrote a joint letter to Theresa May: “We have had constructive initial discussions with the Irish government through the NSMC and wish to play our part in the engagement between the two governments on the unique aspects of negotiations that arise from the border, recognising the possibility that it cannot be guaranteed that outcomes that suit our common interests are ultimately deliverable. We wish to have full access to that intergovernmental process as the border issues affecting trade, employment, energy . . . and it will also be important to proactively seek out opportunities in any new arrangements that would be of benefit to the UK and its regions.”
It would, I suggest, make sense if a way were found – quickly to establish a forum (including both governments and the European Union) in which the parties likely to be in the next Executive were able to discuss some of the issues first outlined by Foster and McGuinness. I accept the DUP did itself, and unionism generally, no favours in its 2017-2019 relationship with the hardline Brexiteers in the Conservatives’ ERG and its forlorn determination to prove Boris Johnson was capable of integrity at key moments. But we are where we are, and the DUP needs to find allies rather than continue to rely on Johnson.
It was a tipping-point election for both unionism and nationalism – as well as the Alliance party. For unionists that tipping point must embrace a recognition of changing political/electoral/demographic realities and an acknowledgement that it needs to attract rather than antagonise. So please, no more pointless circling of the wagons followed by, to paraphrase Stephen Leacock, flinging themselves from the room, flinging themselves upon their horses and riding madly off in all directions.
Alex Kane is a commentator based in Belfast. He was formerly director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party