Sinn Fein: A Catalyst For Unionist Unity
A four-year dose of Martin McGuinness as Sinn Fein First Minister is the perfect remedy to bring about unionist unity, and ultimately a single Unionist Party.
Since my primary school days, I have watched unionist rip unionist apart, and become convinced that Irish unity will eventually come about because of Protestant voter disunity. It is going to take some very bitter medicine to create a situation like the early 1960s when all shades of unionism were represented by a sole movement, simply known as The Unionist Party.
And in last year’s General Election, even when we Prods had an agreed candidate in Fermanagh South Tyrone along with a split nationalist vote, they still managed to allow ‘Shinner’ farming minister Michelle Gildernew to hold the seat.
Unionist unity has become almost as big an aspiration as Irish unity. Realistically, the wounds of unionist infighting will take generations to heal.
Even the latest campaign of violence by the factions which comprise the so-called dissident republican movement does not seemed to have sparked an enthusiasm among Unionists for the ballot box.
Had it not been for the collapse of the Celtic Tiger and the need for a multi-million euro bailout, the island would have been well on the way to political unity by the Shinners’ target date of 2016 – the centenary of the failed Dublin Easter Rising.
Since the late 1960s, there have been so many movements whose aim was unionist unity, they have now run out of names to call themselves. If you thought divisions were bad between Peter Robinson’s DUP and Tom Elliott’s feud-festering Ulster Unionists, you should see the political exchanges between the DUP and its even more bitter rivals in Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice party.
While it will take decades to bring about an eventual single Unionist Party, nationalists have the chance on 5 May’s Stormont poll to create a scenario where there will be Irish unity in everything but name only. But this means moderate Catholics sacrificing the ‘Stoops’ in favour of ‘Shinners’. It may mean respectable, middle class nationalists having to vote for ex-IRA jailbirds.
For many Catholics, snubbing the moderate SDLP may be one bitter pill too much to swallow. A Sinn Fein victory on 5 May will not just mean McGuinness ascending to the First Minister’s throne. It will also mean a huge rise in power for the cross-border bodies.
For republicans, would an increase in cross-body numbers and powers be enough to get the dissident terror groups to call a halt to their campaigns?
Unionists will be so busy indulging themselves in their favourite political pastime, the ‘Blame Game’, that they will have totally missed the all-island structures which mainstream Sinn Fein will have sneaked into place.
And nationalists should not underestimate how deep the divisions in unionism run. I grew up in Bannside, the launching pad for political Paisleyism. As a Primary Six pupil in the heart of unionist North Antrim, I remember a fundamentalist fellow pupil waving a ‘Vote Paisley’ poster at me in class. When I laughed, I literally got the boot stuck in me.
During the 1970 General Election campaign, I brought cups of tea to a very physically shaken Unionist MP Henry Clark, who lost his seat to Paisley senior, after he witnessed a painted slogan ‘Shoot Clark’ in a 100 per cent Protestant village.
My father and a fellow Orange chaplain, the late Rev John Brown, had to try and calm Clark’s nerves in Clough Presbyterian manse after Paisley supporters blocked his canvassing team from entering a staunchly unionist area.
The RUC once called my father – then the local mainstream Irish Presbyterian minister - to physically escort the chairman of a local Unionist branch out of an Orange hall after Paisley supporters surrounded it and forced the meeting to be abandoned.
In those days, attending a Unionist Party meeting in North Antrim was by formal invitation only. A one-time Paisley supporter told me he was ‘leaked’ his ticket to infiltrate the party meeting in an Orange Hall by hardline Right-wing elements in the Unionist Party itself.
Even within their own Unionist Party ranks in the early 1970s, the Hard Right was working in cahoots with Paisley supporters to undermine Prime Ministers Terence O’Neill and James Chichester-Clark.The anti-liberal Unionist Party members were using Paisleyite ‘boo-boys’ to undermine the liberising policies of the UP leadership.
In the coming years, many UUP meetings ended in chaos as Paisley supporters disrupted the party in an orchestrated campaign. This drove many Ulster Unionist branches out of the Orange Hall, especially in rural areas, and into people’s homes, which could only accommodate a limited attendance.
Eventually, many once thriving Unionist Party rural branches folded, both because people were too scared to attend, or there was nowhere big enough to hold the meetings. This policy of having to meet in people’s homes was even still taking place as late as 1979.
My father, who retired at 81 as an MLA last month, still bears the scars of a kicking given to him by DUP hardmen during a Ballymena canvass in the 1983 General Election campaign.
In another sickening episode, fanatical DUP supporters heckled an UUP candidate who had been disabled through an IRA booby-trap bomb. They even goaded his relatives as he walked into an election count to give him a suicide pill.
Incidents like these are burned into the memories of many unionist families. Like malign tumours, no sooner has one been eradicated, than another cancer of disunity appears.
Unionism has already had its crossroads election when Paisleyism landed on the political map. May 5 will be nationalism’s crossroads. The question is simple – can republicans unite and maximise on unionist disunity?
Many Christian outreach workers believe only through a united Ireland will a genuine spiritual revival once more come to the island as it did in 1859. My own political ideology is that of Revolutionary Unionism – one faith, one party, one Commonwealth. That faith is the Christian faith as defined by the Biblical New Testament text of St John 3, verse 16.
I want one single movement, The Unionist Party, to represent all shades of pro-Union opinion. And my aspiration is for the Occupied Twenty-Six Counties to rejoin the British Commonwealth. The South becoming a member of the influential Commonwealth Parliamentary Association would be a welcome start.
Yes, there was some form of unionist partnership in 1974 with the Unionist Coalition and the United Unionist Action Committee in 1986 to combat the Hillsborough Agreement … but neither lasted.
There has to be a short, sharp shock which will bring the unionist family to its senses. I fear a united Ireland or Sinn Fein domination at Stormont may well be that treatment.