By Robert P. Connolly
Special to the BIR
For years, the political playbook for Northern Ireland’s unionists stressed saber-rattling and offering up the hardest of hard-line stands. After all, the party that dominated unionist politics for decades, the Ulster Unionist Party, once had its armed wing and in the aftermath of partition made clear that Northern Ireland was a Protestant state and that Catholics were a barely tolerated and little-trusted enemy within the North’s borders.
From its inception in 1971, the Democratic Unionist Party, founded and led by the volcanic Ian Paisley, chipped away at the UUP by depicting it as being too soft on Dublin, nationalism, and Catholics in general. The DUP’s relentless hammering finally bore fruit in 2003, when it supplanted the UUP as the North’s leading unionist party.
Withering rhetoric and sharp elbows still seemed to be the key to political success for Northern Ireland unionists. But all of that seemed to change last month, when unionist voters went to the polls in the British parliamentary election and appeared to endorse a more moderate and constructive approach.
The biggest loser in the election was the political startup known at the Traditional Unionist Voice, founded in 2007 by former members of the DUP outraged by the DUP’s surprising decision to serve in government with representatives of former arch-enemy Sinn Fein.
Many political observers thought that the TUV could soar in last month’s election and might even take the Westminster seat being vacated by the retiring Paisley. But in the end, the TUV took only 4 percent of the vote across Northern Ireland and was demolished in the North Antrim constituency where Ian Paisley Jr. trounced TUV leader Jim Allister, polling 19,672 votes to Allister’s 7,114.
Meanwhile, a progressive unionist, Lady Sylvia Hermon, retained her North Down seat after breaking with the UUP over an election pact the party had formed with Britain’s Conservative Party. Hermon, saying she was more in tune with Labor, ran as an independent and took nearly two thirds of the votes cast in her constituency.
Overall, the election was wipeout for the once-proud Ulster Unionist Party, which did not claim a single parliamentary seat and saw its party leader, Sir Reg Empey, go down in flames in his own race.
The Democratic Unionist Party went into the election holding nine of Northern Ireland’s eighteen Westminster seats and saw that number slip to eight seats. But the loss was a big one, with party leader and Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson shockingly going down to defeat in Belfast East. Political analysts rightly observed that Robinson’s loss had more to do with a set of difficult personal issues swirling around him than with ideology or the major issues of the day.
Pointing to the poor performance of the hardline TUV, Jeffrey Donaldson, a DUP member of parliament re-elected last month, said: “The TUV was wiped off the political map. The message contained within their defeat was that the unionist community by and large supports the settlement at Stormont.”
Perhaps the most interesting question arising out of the election is: Where does unionism go from here?
With the UUP in disrepair and with the sharp differences that once divided the UUP and the DUP now gone, some wonder whether this is the moment to create a single unionist party that would constitute a united front for the preservation of the union as the nationalist population in Northern Ireland continues to grow.
While the ideological differences have faded in the aftermath of the elder Paisley’s decision to go into government with Sinn Fein, the residue of the cultural differences between the parties still exists, although that would not seem to be an insurmountable problem.
As the dust from the election was settling, Robert Saulters, the leader of the Orange Order, the iconic Protestant fraternal organization, pointed to the need for unionist unity. “We will continue to dilute the union if we fight and bicker among ourselves,” said Saulters, who added: “Personally, I believe there should be one big unionist party which represents all the views that I hear. It must be a party that is big enough and modern enough to allow people with conflicting opinions to work together for the common purpose of maintaining the union.”
Certainly, it would not be easy to unite two parties that have battled for unionist supremacy for decades, although there is plenty of motivation for the UUP and the DUP to head to the altar.
Particularly galvanizing is the specter of Sinn Fein winning the most seats in next year’s Northern Ireland Assembly election, which would result in former Irish Republican Army chieftain Martin McGuinness moving up to become First Minister.
In last month’s election, Sinn Fein won 25.5 percent of the vote, only fractionally better than the DUP’s 25 percent, but certainly catching the eyes of unionists who must now face the prospect of a former IRA man driving past the statue of Carson, walking in the footsteps of Craig, and becoming the face of Northern Ireland.