Unionism must regroup, learn from Sinn Féin and reemerge with a united ambition
It may be idiosyncratic to present a “unionist” view of the general election, especially since a unionist view of anything now seems to mean something divided and incoherent.
The election was essentially held in one important area – the appointment of First Minister. Sinn Féin is now poised to take that lead and announce the most sensational development in the North in a quarter century.
It is at once a triumph for the legacy of violent nationalism and its passage to the ballot box, and a disastrous blow to the leadership of the DUP.
It also emphasizes the fragility of a union that relies on consent. After all, a border survey is not imminent.
That will bring little comfort to the many Unionist households, where the symbolism of Sinn Féin’s victory will be accompanied by a sense of foreboding.
The poll has returned a verdict on seat spacing that appears just as narrow as it was in the last general election, but this time in a different direction.
The fact that a quarter of a million people voted for the SF First Preference while the DUP received 184,000 votes – down 41,000 from 2017 – is a sobering and worrying statistic for the party.
It should not detract from Michelle O’Neill’s triumph to say that nationalism has managed to coalesce around a common goal.
But within these elections another election took place, which was about trade union movements. That has failed to achieve coherence, but has highlighted how a failure to prioritize key principles has led to fragmentation.
The impressive increase in the Alliance’s vote shows an appetite among more liberal, progressive, younger voters uninterested in stuffy, loud, sectarian Orange and Green slogans.
This may not have had as great an impact within nationalism as it did within unionism. This isn’t the first pick to have felt the impact of this cultural shift, but it’s the one that feels like a seismic shift.
After last year’s amazing coups and counter-coups within the DUP, its supporters were poised for a new direction. They were promised that. Instead, the party acted as if nothing had happened and lost momentum for change.
The party will likely talk about their percentage vote. It may even highlight the total number of unionists returning, but the point is that the strategic goal should only be achieved under a single unified union banner.
The anti-protocol cast of Jeffrey Donaldson, Doug Beattie, Jim Allister and Billy Hutchinson ended up a tour of Orange’s Ulster Halls less about rallying the unions around a core target than about kicking a leg at rivals place.
It played foot with Mr Allister, who returned the compliment by tucking his boot up his bum on election day.
The party understood that it had to increase its vote to retain the First Minister post, but interpreted this as “maximizing” the hardcore stereotypical vote.
Even when rally participants sought out DUP members, they came back for more. There was nothing contemporary, attractive or appealing about these events.
Every other segment of the population has been ignored, particularly the appeal that the Union seems to have for large numbers of Catholics in Northern Ireland who want stability, prosperity and neighbourhood.
Where was the big event for business people – nationalists and unionists – to voice their concerns about protocol? After all, it is meant to be a disaster for trade and an existential crisis for the constitution.
A radical review of the DUP must see if it can give the only strong unionist voice the same credibility, credibility and reach as nationalism. If not, then it is useless. Failure is not a strategy.
At no point in its various dealings with the SDLP has Sinn Féin surrendered as a party whose central tenet was the core value of Irish nationalism – the island’s political unification. This is part of Sinn Fein. It copyrighted that ambition. If the DUP cannot emulate this single-minded intent on behalf of the union, it must find a vehicle that can.
The two major victims of this election are the UUP and SDLP, the parties with the weakest versions of unionism and nationalism. Every time a constitutional question arises, these parties lose.
Paradoxically, the big winner of this poll, Alliance, has little constitutional baggage. When Orange and Green fight, the Alliance benefits.
It feels pretty rude, but it’s clear now that there won’t be a revival for the SDLP or UUP. They are anomalies and have been replaced. Their versions of nationalism and unionism cannot be separated from the versions propagated by larger and more vocal political parties.
Sinn Féin cannibalizes the SDLP, choice after choice, just as the DUP and TÜV devour the UUP.
Crucially, unions also have a generational problem that cannot be solved by offering them a Friday night at an Orange Hall. Nationalism and the Alliance Party have much more appeal to younger voters.
This is a historic high point for Sinn Féin. After 101 years it holds the leading position in Northern Ireland, the first significant position it has held across the island. But appearances are deceptive – and symbolism doesn’t go very far when looking for actual political change.
Michelle O’Neill, who deserves congratulations, will find navigating the Stormont Executive’s labyrinthine corridors just as difficult as her predecessors have. Assuming the executive branch ever returns.
Making Stormont work is an idiosyncratic job description that its predecessors at Sinn Féin, dating back a century, may not readily recognize, but it does capture the serious problems faced by ordinary people in Northern Ireland – chronic health waiting lists, the cost of living crisis, jobs, reconciliation – will demand that it do just that. There’s also the fact that when it comes to climaxes, there’s only one way…
The demand for a border poll could also prove controversial, as there is still a majority for the status quo. That remains unionism’s opportunity, not its crisis.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/unionism-must-regroup-learn-from-sinn-fein-and-re-emerge-with-a-united-ambition-41628672.html Unionism must regroup, learn from Sinn Féin and reemerge with a united ambition