JOHN COULTER’S MAY 2013 IRELAND EYE COPY FOR TRIBUNE
Would the real unionist party in Northern Ireland please stand up?
Given the fragmentation within Ulster’s Pro-Union community, their Scottish counterparts must be secretly but highly relieved that the Northern Ireland unionist family is not trying to organise the ‘No’ campaign to Scottish independence.
Such has been the degree of splitting, defecting and realignment in unionism since the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that a new unionist movement seems to be unveiled every month.
The Belfast City Hall Union flag crisis, sparked when the centrist Alliance Party sided with Sinn Fein and the SDLP to vote for the flag not to be flown permanently at City Hall, but only on designated days, unleashed a loyalist mobilization of protest and rioting not witnessed since the Drumcree Orange parade stand-offs of the late 1990s.
From the Province-wide Union flag protest over the cold winter months emerged a militant grassroots movement known as the People’s Forum, which highlighted how much working class loyalists felt abandoned by the establishment Unionist parties, the DUP and UUP.
To combat this mobilised, yet directionless movement, the Unionist leadership unveiled the Unionist Forum series of debates to supposedly enable the UUP and DUP to re-connect with grassroots voters.
The crisis facing the pro-Union community is simple – voter apathy. Turnout in many Protestant working class areas averages 30 per cent; compared to around 80 per cent in Catholic areas.
The end result is that nationalists and republicans from the SDLP and Sinn Fein are winning seats in councils, the Assembly and even Westminster in areas which in the early 1970s were unionist strongholds and heartlands.
That crisis was emphasised during a recent Unionist Forum discussion event on Belfast’s Shankill Road, viewed as the heartland of working class Protestantism. While several hundred people attended, the glaring problem was the panel.
Had such a Forum taken place in 1963, the panel would have comprised a single representative from the establishment The Unionist Party.
The Shankill panel comprised the Ulster Political Research Group (political advisors to the UDA and UFF), the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice party; the Progressive Unionist Party (political advisors to the UVF and Red Hand Commando), DUP, UUP, the Orange Order, and Red Hand Comrades group. UKIP was invited, but did not attend. But which view is the real Unionist view?
When Unionist fragmentation because a serious electoral threat, people talked about the need for Unionist unity. That has now been downgraded to the concept of Unionist co-operation.
That Unionist co-operation has been further dented with the emergence of two more political parties in recent months.
Two liberal Ulster Unionist MLAs have quit the party over the concept of unity candidates to form their own, as yet unnamed, pluralist and centrist movement which bears a striking resemblance to the now defunct moderate Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, set up by former Stormont Prime Minister Brian Faulkner.
Union flag protesters have taken their street rallies a stage further by launching the very hardline Protestant Coalition party. It, too, bears a striking resemblance to the equally defunct Far Right 1930s organisation, the Ulster Protestant League.
Given the gains which UKIP notched up in the council elections in mainland Britain this week, it is inevitable the hardline Eurosceptic party will launch a massive recruitment drive in Northern Ireland.
What the pro-Union community also lacks is a coherent strategy. Protestants, Unionists and Loyalists – commonly called the PUL community, need to adopt the same tactics as the American civil rights movement in the Deep South in the Sixties. The PUL community must register its voters.
Registering is not enough; the Unionist parties must educate the PUL community to actually come out and vote. Then there is the dilemma of who to vote for. If too many Unionist candidates enter the fray, the vote will be so badly split that the so-called Pan Nationalist Front wins even more seats in PUL heartlands.
Since it entered a power-sharing Executive with Sinn Fein, the DUP has been suffering the same confrontational abuse from the Unionist grassroots as David Trimble’s UUP endured in the years immediately after the Good Friday Agreement.
Estimations now suggest the UUP will be obliterated electorally at the next Stormont poll from its highpoint of well over 30 MLAs in 1998 to half a dozen. If the PUL community turned its voting guns on Peter Robinson’s DUP in the same way it demolished the UUP, just who would that community vote for?
One strategy is clearly emerging from the Unionist Forum meetings. The main aim of the fledgling Unionist co-operation is to wipe out the centrist Alliance Party at the polls, one of the key parties to benefit from Unionist infighting and apathy over the years.
The vast majority of Alliance representatives get elected on transfers from Unionist parties. The Unionist Forum meetings are pumping out a clear message – don’t transfer to Alliance and destroy it at the polls!
This tactic, if it works, will leave another question to ponder – who will take over the mantel of the centre ground? Ironically, Unionist co-operation will crush Alliance, but it could let the Ulster Tories in instead. Thatcher the Snatcher’s ghost will be laughing at Northern Ireland Unionists again.