Voice of mainstream unionism is missing from public life

Posted By: August 29, 2019


The DUP does not reflect mainstream unionist opinion

Newton Emerson. Irish News. Belfast. Thursday, August 29, 2019

STATE papers just declassified from 1994 peace talks show loyalist leaders were “very disappointed at the continual references to the smallness of their mandate”.

This sense of entitlement continues today, with blogger Jamie Bryson waving his even tinier mandate around and complaining loyalist voices are not heard.

In truth, we hear a great deal from and about loyalist organizations, and spend a great deal of time and money trying to manage them and their relationship to the working-class Protestant population, which is how they would like ‘loyalism’ to be defined.

The quality of this listening effort could certainly be improved but in terms of quantity, it is already generous to loyalism’s numbers.

The voice that is missing from public life, strikingly so, is of mainstream unionism. It has fallen almost completely silent in the 15 years since the DUP became Northern Ireland’s largest party.

The DUP does not reflect mainstream unionist opinion. According to the latest Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, conducted between last October and February, 62 percent of people are unionists in the sense they support a long-term link with Britain. The DUP represents that view, of course, but has otherwise left most of these people politically and intellectually orphaned.

The survey is broken down by religious background, where ‘Protestant’ can be taken as a proxy for unionist.

On abortion, 88 percent of Protestants think abortion should definitely or probably be legal – slightly higher than the Catholic percentage.

On same-sex marriage, 53 percent of Protestants think it should be legal – much lower than the Catholic figure but still a majority.

The survey also contained a set of questions on “respect”, covering attitudes towards different political and religious views, minorities and immigrants. Protestants reported the same high level of tolerance as Catholics, of around 90 percent.

The conservative and religious DUP has always been an objectively strange vehicle in which to place the hopes of an entire community. As the competitive dynamic of Stormont politics has driven voters into its arms, the elastic between the party and its supporters has stretched. Strains were masked for a decade by the managerialism of Peter Robinson. Unionists also had a more liberal alternative, at least in theory, via the UUP under Reg Empey and Mike Nesbitt.

What finally snapped the elastic was Brexit. Unionist voters divided roughly 40/60 Remain/Leave in the EU referendum, with the UUP and DUP representing each. But within a year the issue had become so fraught the UUP fell in behind the DUP, with unionist voters dragged along by the mounting constitutional stakes.

A separate online survey this month showed three-quarters of people who describe themselves as British oppose the “Backstop,” or Northern Ireland leaving the EU on different terms to Britain. Internet surveys may produce polarized results and opposing the “Backstop” does not necessarily make someone a leaver. However, ethnic solidarity has clearly come into play.

That solidarity obscures the DUP’s loss of connection to the bulk of its target electorate, with the UUP now providing no alternative, on Brexit or anything else.

The result can be seen in another Life and Times question, where only 26 percent of respondents described themselves as Unionists, with 50 percent describing themselves as ‘other’. This means well over half of people who support the Union have stopped calling themselves Unionists – presumably because, for them, “Unionist” means ‘DUP’. No wonder such voices are under-represented: they have nothing left to say, as Unionists, beyond waving the flag – the very type of Unionism they are rejecting.

Some of these people must have switched to Alliance, whose vote has gone up in many areas on the order by which the Unionist vote has gone down. However, Alliance is adamant most of its new supporters are new voters, provoked off the sofa by the Stormont stalemate.

It appears that mainstream Unionists are retreating to the garden center to stick their head in a plant pot and wait for things to change.

If they do not devise a wider idea of Unionism beyond mere support for The Union [with Britain], the change will happen without them.