What do ‘remain’ Unionists do tomorrow? – By Terry Wright

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Numbers vary as to the quantity of unionists who voted to remain in the EU in 2016 but it is acknowledged that they constitute a sizeable proportion of the majority in Northern Ireland who rejected the ‘leave’ option. In the current EU election, they stand abandoned by the electoral strategy of political unionism which has retreated to the ground of a pan-Unionist tribal headcount and the spin of defending the Union.

In making the EU election in Northern Ireland about the Union, unionist voters who voted to remain and feel that the only way to deal with the impasse at Westminster is through a confirmatory vote are forgotten and the debate is narrowed unnecessarily as important issues are ignored to be replaced by an ‘it will be alright on the night’ attitude when pressed for detail.

Voters did not vote for a specific deal and that is the problem. Many voted to leave without any consideration as to how this could be achieved or what the future would look like. Campaigners displayed a disturbing disinterest in the truth. Once the Government began to negotiate, the context of the referendum altered thereby rendering the vote open to interpretation in terms of understanding and options. This is further complicated when No Deal is taken off the table.

The logic of leave is leave. Negotiation renders this conditional yet the electorate is being denied any say on the conditions and a parliament cannot make up its mind. We are left with a totality which is faux democracy.

What has emerged has to do with party issues at Westminster, a failure to build consensus, the importance of retaining economic and security linkage with the EU, the issue of an EU/UK border in Ireland and very weak negotiation.

The government has made it clear that the deal on offer is Brexit so when unionism urges that the vote is respected it also implies acceptance of the Deal which it wants to oppose because of the backstop. It is a contradictory position so unionism, particularly the UUP has retreated to old territory and the lowest common denominator of blind loyalty unionism. This is not a strategy for creating stability and an increasing number of the unionist electorate know this. Progress led by unionist community and civic activists within their communities provides the evidence.

The irony is that even if Unionism gets two seats the argument about the border and a Border poll in the event of Brexit will be intensified and if government Minister Liam Fox MP and others are correct, the backstop which is anathema to many unionists will be in place. The Prime Minister’s latest offer merely re-arranges the deckchairs on a vessel that is holed below the water line and the lifeboats have gone away.

An opportunity for leadership and support for a confirmatory vote on three choices, which could deliver a solution, has been missed by unionism.

As in the recent local government elections, many unionists who could find no unionist party to represent their views on economic and social justice issues and refuse to be election fodder for out of date thinking must abstain or place their preferences elsewhere.

Terry Wright


20 May 2019

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