The dilemma facing Unionism on all fronts – By Dave Maley

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There’s been huge controversy since the introduction of VAR into Premiership soccer, but its more recent introduction into Northern Ireland politics is potentially even more divisive.

Unionism looked to be making increasingly desperate appeals to VAR (Very Aberrant Reasoning) to try to get their monumental own goal over the Irish Sea border ruled out, when lo and behold the EU levelled the score with a spectacular strike into their own net.

If the EU hadn’t made such a demi-tour rapidement on their blunder, I think it would have been illuminating to see whether Her Majesty’s Government would have been any more inclined to accede to the DUP demands to invoke Article 16: I would wager not. It was not just Teresa May that they held to ransom with their ill-judged wielding of power, it was the whole British Establishment, and there will be a price to pay.

Anything and everything was being (and may well continue to be) thrown up as a pretext for asking Westminster to revoke “the Protocol”, but the brutal truth is that the DUP no longer have votes in the Commons that matter; and when they did, they made choices with the strategic insight of a cuttlefish.

Unionism needs to get its act together: it needs a calibre of leadership that quite frankly I don’t think it has ever had in its century of existence. It wasn’t needed in the early decades, but it is sorely needed now: something more statesmanlike than “I don’t believe in that green guff anyway” as a position on the Climate Crisis (just because Covid has dominated the headlines in 2020, our choking planet hasn’t gone away, y’know).

Remarks like these might gratify and satisfy their internal electorate, but Unionism’s biggest weakness has always been the susceptibility of Northern Ireland to external events on a larger scale. A change of government in London, a change of government in Washington, or any other shift of power on the world stage can impact affairs here.

The end of Britain’s “selfish, strategic and economic interest” in Northern Ireland, announced by Secretary of State Peter Brooke in 1991 following the end of the Cold War, was one such game changer: Brexit is another, especially with the knock-on consequences for the break-up of the UK as we know it, potentially without the need for even a single vote to be cast on this side of the water.

Boris Johnson looks a worried man these days, and I don’t think it’s just the calamitous death rate from Covid. He sees the end of the UK happening on his watch. Hence the “essential” trip to Scotland last week to try to make the case for the Union. If Scots do vote for independence (even in a vote with no constitutional authority) he will only have himself to blame: how much of his championing the cause of Brexit was principled conviction, and how much was shameless opportunism on the basis that it served his ambitions to become Prime Minister? Too late to think about that now Boris. Ego, arrogance and ambition can do so much damage in politics (look no further than the mess in which the United States is).

I would rarely recommend following any example set by BoJo, but Unionism also needs to get on the road and start selling the benefits of the Union. It will improve its chances of success if it can muster a united approach across its various parties, and if it can sideline the clowns who have showboated on the safety of their constituency majorities for years. If Unionism is to have a future it can no longer afford to be represented by some of the current crop of shallow and self-serving lightweights.

Trevor Lunn recently wrote in this forum that the case for staying in the UK is no longer as clear-cut as it used to be. I think in the past, Unionists were confident that there would be enough voters who knew from where their public sector pay cheque or their welfare payment was coming not throw us on the mercy of a far smaller economy. We are now in a position where if it suited the EU to take over sponsorship of our basket case economy from Her Majesty’s Treasury, the financial impact of a change of sovereignty might be less of a compelling factor.

So much is at stake, and so much is uncertain. A hundred years after its creation, what has become a statelet of the co-marooned really is at a crossroads. The case for Unionism has to be forward-thinking – hardly an attribute for which its current representatives have established a reputation. Trying to revoke “the Protocol” and claw back lost ground is backward looking and doomed to fail. That said, if Scotland votes for independence and rejoins the EU, the DUP’s embarrassment over the Irish Sea arrangements might eventually go away as poor old Michel Barnier is hauled out of retirement to try and negotiate a new border on mainland Britain. The EU might even replace the Irish Sea border with the bridge to Scotland that is so beloved of DUP manifestos.


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About Author

Dave Maley is yet another blow-in from across the water. He spent his first year in Belfast working at a community centre in North Belfast, and has continued to be involved in community work in a voluntary capacity for the intervening 25 years; most recently, with Alan McBride, he was General Instigator and Dogsbody for Codswallop Young Men's Group. In his spare time he has done a PhD in Computer Science, been Irish coach at the World University Cross Country, and earned a crust working in Higher Education.


  1. This was a rather good article, until the last paragraph, which highlights that tone is important. I’m afraid that the word “statelet” is enough to irk even the most liberal of unionists; and perhaps that is the best hope of maintaining their place in the UK Union that unionism now has.

    • The real dilemma facing Unionism is that for the last century, the main thrust of the argument in defense of the Union – aside from the old ‘Home Rule is Rome Rule’ canard (a self-perpetuating prophecy if ever there was one!) – was largely an economic one… that the South didn’t have two punts to rub together, that northern heavy industries would be prohibitively taxed by Dublin to pay for the rest of the island, and our bottom-line interests were better served remaining with Great Britain.

      But with the increased economic prosperity of the Republic, it’s development into a world-class place to do business through conservative economic principles (as the Celtic Tiger years ably proved), the shattering of political influence from the Catholic Church, and now the hand grenade of Brexit (and everything that has followed as a consequence), that economic argument has been reduced to ash… what is there that benefits the six counties from London now? As a former (if somewhat equivocal Unionist), I honestly no longer have an answer for that… in fact, the continued betrayal, backstabbing, and arrogant imperiousness towards N.I. from Westminster is a reason in itself to seriously consider reunification… and I’m deadly serious about that! Revolutions have started over far less than what we’ve had to endure from perfidious Albion over the last five decades.

      In a reunified island, the six counties would have approximately 60-70 deputies in the Dail, at least 30 of which would be ‘unionist’ (although that term would be a moot point by then), meaning centre-right and largely socially/economically conservative in nature if you take the combined DUP/UUP/TUV vote percentage as exists now.

      If that bloc was smart and reached out to conservative Catholics both north and south – including the roughly 30% of southern citizens who rejected the recent social policy referendums – that number in the Dail could easily be increased to 40 deputies if not more. A new party would be needed, calling themselves the Christian Democratic Party or something similar, and one which would be a very formidable political force indeed, especially in a legislature elected on PR with the other parties largely centre to centre-left in nature… there is huge untapped market across Ireland for a singular conservative political party.

      I believe there is everything to northern Protestant’s advantage in a new Ireland… i see nothing for us in the UK anymore… socially, economically, culturally, or politically.

      The winds have shifted… but political Unionism still has it’s finger in their pocket, alas…

      • There is an interesting article from Slugger a couple years back about a possible 32-county Dail;

        I don’t agree with all seat tallies as projected above as the SDLP would undoubtedly merge with Fianna Fail, and the southern parties at large would contest for northern seats, drawing votes (and seats) away from primarily the Shinners.

        The northern Protestant vote could be as high as 40 deputies from the outset, and if combined with conservative southern votes across the island as a whole, you could even see around a 50-seat ‘conservative’ party in a newly-united Ireland… and in a potential Dail of around 220 to 230 deputies, that, my friends, would be an absolute game-changer that would undoubtedly alter the gravitational orbit of the Irish body politic, make no mistake about it.

        Such a scenario would make Irish Protestants kingmakers, a likely quasi-permanent part of Irish governance, and very far indeed from the “powerless minority” that Unionists feared they would be during the kerfuffle over Home Rule a century ago.

        Interesting debate, if purely a hypothetical one for now…

  2. Who in the south would vote for a former northern unionist party?

    What other party in their right mind would go into government with former unionists?

    Why the assumption the SF would lose votes to FFG. Where have they been in the North for the last hundred years?

    And finally, what is this desperate need for Protestants to be kingmaker. Ie., to lord it over the Irish.

    If history has taught the people of this country anything, it’s the certainly that Protestants in Ireland shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near power, political or economic, as they have been an utter disaster for the island and its people.

    Hasn’t history taught you anything?

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