The opportunity for a new beginning
The opportunity for a new beginning



As former DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson was mobbed by a media scrum outside Newry Courthouse following a first court hearing of shock sex crime charges dating back to 1985, DUP interim leader Gavin Robinson has been appealing for unionist unity. Unionism can use the current crisis to plan for the future, argues Brian Feeney (for the Irish News).


You might say there’s only a crisis in the DUP, and the DUP isn’t unionism. Fair enough, but with the DUP outpolling the UUP almost two-and-a-half to one, and by the same ratio in numbers of council and assembly seats, and the UUP holding no Westminster seats, it’s clear the DUP dominates unionism.

Unionism has always struggled to formulate, let alone express, a vision for its future. This failure has been particularly glaring since the IRA ceasefire, astonishingly described by the UUP’s Jim Molyneaux as “the most destabilising event since partition” and “the worst thing that has ever happened to us”.

What dim Jim was trying to articulate was that, in the face of the IRA campaign, unionism didn’t have to do anything to justify its existence or present a vision for its future: all unionists had to do was resist the republican insurgency and say no to everything except defeating the IRA.

With no IRA, unionism was bereft. With no enemy, no bogeyman, the search for something positive to say drew a blank and so it remains.

Ask nationalists where they want to be in 10 years’ time and they’ll tell you in a reunified Ireland. Ask unionists and what will they say? In a diminishing minority in Stormont?

The central problem for unionists in devising a plan for the future is that since the 18th century, even before the Act of Union, the history of unionism has been one of decline. Even the very first novel examining the Anglo-Irish condition, Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent in 1800, recounted four generations of decline. In the past 50 years the speed of that decline has accelerated rapidly but unionism hasn’t come to terms with it or its inevitable consequences.

The signs of that unionist mindset changing are not promising. The first priority of the new DUP leader was to appeal for unionist unity, warning Jim Allister that his TUV/Reform intervention would hand Sinn Féin “a hat trick”: most seats in Stormont, most seats in councils and, next, most seats at Westminster.

Unionist unity is a chimera. Gavin Robinson must know that, but it’s traditional to ignore reality and summon the nostalgic faith that unionists will always outnumber nationalists.

However, here’s the thing. Should the impossible happen and unionists agree candidates, it has ceased to matter because the number of unionist voters is on the down escalator. Unionists are in a majority only in two counties.

There is only one direction of travel. Soon, perhaps after the 2027 assembly elections, by which time nationalists will be on their way to a second hat trick, the assembly will pass a resolution calling on the British and Irish governments to set out a plan for a reunification referendum. Will unionists have the numbers to constitute a petition of concern? It won’t matter of course because such a resolution can’t compel any action. Still, when it happens, and it will, the marker will have been set.

Ask nationalists where they want to be in 10 years’ time and they’ll tell you in a reunified Ireland. Ask unionists and what will they say?

Political unionism can sit tight, do nothing and watch as events unfold outside their control. Alternatively, the new DUP leader can seize the opportunity of a new beginning with what is in effect a new assembly (though it hung fire for two years) and articulate what he sees as the future aspiration of his party.

One of the problems of political unionism is that its leaders have always pretended that the future will be the same as the past. For that reason they have always set their face against change. Understandable, because for unionism change inevitably means decline, decline in numbers, decline in power and influence and that has been the case since the 19th century.

So far unionist leaders have never had the wit to explain this inevitability to their supporters and the consequent necessity to sit down and negotiate with the deck of cards they hold. Instead, they’ve foolishly relied on British governments to defend their corner or, worse, enlisted the help of British carpetbaggers and mavericks, the latest of whom have attached themselves to the Hiroo Onoda of unionist politics, as Peter Robinson described Jim Allister. (Onoda was the last Japanese soldier to emerge from the jungle after World War II).

A political leader should listen to the words of Kenny Rogers’ 1978 hit. You can only play the cards you’ve got, but it depends how you play them: “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em; know when to fold ‘em.”

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