Unionism Needs To Form A Single Party

Political commentator John Coulter analyses the impact of the Stormont poll on politics throughout Ireland.

Northern Ireland’s second Stormont poll within a year has produced Sinn Fein’s best election result since the 1918 Westminster General Election since it scooped up most of Ireland’s seats when the entire island was under British rule. 

In the new-look 90-seat Assembly, the Democratic Unionists ended up with 28 seats – one more than Sinn Fein, emphasising the stereotype that the two ‘supposed extremes’ in unionism and nationalism reign supreme and the big winner in voting trends is the Orange/Green sectarian polarisation.

Talks to try and save Stormont begin during the incoming weeks and the new MLAs have around three weeks to agree a new devolved administration, otherwise the spotlight shifts firmly onto Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire.

He has a series of choices – extend the timeframe for talks; call yet another Stormont poll; a return to Direct Rule from London, and in a worst case scenario for Unionism – joint authority of Northern Ireland by both the Dail in Dublin and Westminster. 

More dangerously for Unionists, the outcome has seen more nationalists at the polling booths for the first time since the state was formed in the 1920s. 

The Ulster Unionist Party – which dominated Unionist politics since its formation in 1905 until 2003 when it was beaten by the DUP – has seen its representation reduced to fringe status in the Assembly.

Down from 16 seats to 10 in less than a year, the result forced leader Mike Nesbitt to resign the helm. His cross-community policy of urging UUP voters to transfer to the moderate nationalist SDLP backfired dramatically with significant people losing their seats.

The talks to save Stormont will focus around devolution, equality issues – especially same sex marriage – and the legacy of the conflict which claimed some 3,000 lives. 

If there was Direct Rule, these issues would be solved overnight as Westminster would impose a legislative solution – and that would include biting austerity cuts in health and education. 

The Stormont outcome also has serious electoral implications for the Republic. Sinn Fein has got to power on the back of a snap poll; while it is a minority party in Dublin’s Leinster House, could it benefit from a Northern ‘bounce’ factor by forcing a snap Dail poll?

Given the pressure on the Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s majority coalition Fine Gael party, such a snap election could leave Sinn Fein as the minority partner in a new Southern government with the main opposition party, Fianna Fail. 

As for Unionism, it needs to face the bitter medicine of what a generation of internecine fighting has thrown up. Structurally, it will need to form a single Unionist party to represent all shades of pro-Union opinion.

A start may be an electoral pact between the UUP and DUP, leading to the formation of the successful Unionist Coalition of the early 1970s which represented up to five different Unionist parties. 

The centre ground held firm with Alliance retaining its eight seats and the Green Party holding its two. 

Structurally, while unionism and nationalism expands their appeal to voters, it will mean the emergence of pressure groups within Sinn Fein and the DUP to take account of those views. 

That could see those parties develop along mainland Britain lines where Tory and Labour contains various pressure groups. 

As for the moderate nationalist SDLP with its 12 seats, perhaps a merger with Fianna Fail is the way forward?

Follow John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter


  1. Why is the Alliance party not considered to be a unionist party? It wants to maintain the union just like the UUP/DUP -only difference is that the Alliance accepts that there are Catholics who are not Nationlists and it will not exclude them on sectarian grounds.

    Rather than advocating for a single sectarian lump why not write an article trying to entice more nationalists into becoming unionists? One could construe John's article as advocating for a return to sectarian supremacy.

  2. Sums up the neanderthal inability of unionism to look forward and embrace rather than exclude. As the unionist majority is officially consigned to the dustbin of history John boy Coulter harks back to a one party unionist state. Delusional.

  3. There are loads of calls on social media for one party and it looks a distinct possibility. What really is the difference between the UUP right and the DUP? Anytime any UUP leader tries to do anything liberal or reasonable the party right go mad and start defecting to the DUP anyway. It would be a disaster for unionism though if it did happen. Why can't they see that the union requires thousands of middle class catholics to maintain it? Yet they act like unrepentant neatherthals alienating the very people we need. In my short time in NI21 I was amazed by how many catholics joined the party rejoicing that finally there was a unionist party that didn't care what church or school they went to. The only demographic that didn't increase its turnout in the recent election was working class prods. No surprise there. With the PUP a non starter and the DUP/UUP not caring about them, why should they vote. Its time for the PUP to disband and a new liberal unionist party to emerge without the baggage of the past.

  4. Peter,

    the PUP might not have much success but if it dissolved and its activists went elsewhere a vacuum might be created. If it was nothing other than a sectarian mouthpiece for an equally sectarian UVF, your advice would be sound. I just think things are a bit more complex.

    SF knows it has to seize what it can now while the tide is in. For as sure as god does not exist, the gap between the DUP and SF will widen in the DUP favour next election. These things are swings and roundabouts. There has been no significant demographic change since the last election that would account for the swing. The natural gap is considerably bigger than the seats gap would have us believe.

    If a singly unionist party is to form and carries on in the mindset of the tiny town blinkered and bigoted lawyer then it will be a disaster, not just for unionism but for Northern society. But if it is a broad church then things might be different. Still, I would not hold my breath waiting on the latter.

    Even reading some social media today about reports of McGuinness going into hospital, the bile and hatred expressed by the god botherers, hoping he burns in hell and suffers forever - hatred runs so very deep. But then we saw it in relation to Paisley and Thatcher on the other side of the coin.

    Make you despair.

  5. AM
    I think you are wrong about the PUP unfortunately. They will never make the breakthrough in my community due to its UVF baggage. They are even hated in UDA areas where they refuse to vote for them. No matter how good some of them are, and I think they have a strong cadre of young women, they will never break through. Time to think again for liberal/left unionism in my opinion.

    You are right about the tide being in for a short while for SF. Social media is full of comments rallying the DUP faithful to the cause. The DUP have been taught their lesson, at the next election expect a massive mobilisation. As you say, enough to make you despair.

  6. Peter,

    my point about the PUP is that they should not be judged in terms of breakthrough but in terms of the outlet they provide and the manner in which they articulate their grievance. I think by their very existence and activism they prevent people going off in a different direction. It is not beyond them to make more progress. They had two MLAs at one time. But it is a big ask. A you point out, they have some solid young women activists who in my view don't do sectarian attitudinising.

  7. AM and Peter,
    The gap may widen as you say but who can say for sure in who's favour. I think that Nationalists in general were as astonished as the SF leadership in the turn out and the fact that they now perceive themselves through their votes with the ability to affect real politics here. Their tails are up. What is really interesting is that they really believe now that they hold the power. Its as if a sleeping giant has been awakened. A loyalist told me that they can feel there is definitely major changes coming and that it won't be in their favour.
    On the ground the responses I'm getting is that they are well and truely up and spoiling for another fight....there is the chance of the momentum being lost and as you say AM, SF need to keep the momentum going or they will lose in the long run...
    The croppy wants major change and more hospital beds just isn't going to cut it anymore.
    On another note do you think SF were using this election as a test bed for their change in leadership and the inevitable change of Adams for Mary Lou in the South?
    O'Neill proved her popularity and perchance so will Mary Lou!

  8. I think that whilst the election result was a boost to nationalism and an unwelcome lesson to unionism, the fat lady is far from clearing her throat. Unionists will rally at the next election.


    In the fantasy land of a border poll succeeding on unification do you believe loyalists would resort to violence and would the PSNI be up to dealing with it?

  9. From the outside looking in on Unionism, it has always been pretty difficult to tell the difference between the DUP and UUP and the others that have come and gone - when the 12th comes around they pretty much all seem to march to the beat of the same drum (pun intended).

    Their divisions have clearly cannibalized their vote and it will likely continue - I guess when cannibals start eating their own, eventually the food runs out.

  10. Larry
    There isn't going to be a UI and if there is it will be the biggest fudge in history. Unification nearly bankrupted Germany, who's going to pay for the North, the lost jobs, the restructuring, benefits, the NHS? Are the Southerners willing to pay for all this? To take on our share of the national debt? Are they willing to fight against any insurgency? I've said on here many times that if there is a UI it will in no way resemble a 32 county Irish republic. The Republic has too much to lose, they will only take on the north with a load of guarantees, a return wholly or partly to the commonwealth and a move closer to Westminister's orbit.

    If SF are spoiling for a fight and play it wrong they will end up with direct rule. If they push the DUP too much forcing another election expect a massive unionist turnout. They will have to play their hand very astutely.

  11. Peter

    I think there is a bit of a paper tiger where unionism is concerned.

  12. You can dig deep in any argument and appear to have made a conclusive reasoning to support your view be it pro Union or pro Unification but the momentum is traveling towards an "agreed" Unification, the clauses of which we will debate as the defeat of Republicanism and Unionism equally.

    Let's watch some history repeat itself when many of the Protestant asscendancy as in the formation of the free state in 1922 play founding parts in the new "agreed" Unified Ireland".

    We can then see the subsequent redefining of the establishment being FF FG Ulster Unionist Group Sinn Fein and Labour and then various Left Groups who can attempt to bring fairness to the worker Once the National question is settled all improvements can be made there On without British involvement.

    What odds on a future coalition of Fine Gael and Unionist Party, a conservative marriage made in heaven.. Or hell!

  13. Peter,
    Interesting comparison that of Germany....I disagree with your economic analysis of the economic impact of unification....but, if you are correct, they still went ahead and Germany today is an economic power house....the cost didn't put them off and I'm sure it won't here either.
    Funny that you mention the threat of violence...yesterday's Democrat is tomorrow's terrorist....odd that isn't it when we consider what went before! Just out of curiosity, if England doesn't want you then what exactly would you be fighting to retain?
    Rhodesia and Ian Smith would have provided a better analogy!

  14. Given the level of MI6 and MI5 penetration of the Republics Government in the South, a UI just seems like more of the same to me!!

  15. Peter

    You have mentioned the NHS twice recently as an asset in the 6 counties compared to the 26. This is silly. Unemployed and low income families / people here have a medical card which covers all treatment. The NHS is being deliberately ran into the ground in the UK in preparation for being privatised by the Tory party which I believe you also said given a binary choice between it and Corbyn, you would vote for. Paddy Mooney has a valid point, FG DUP coalition in an all Ireland. Sure didn't some FG female TD recently say nationalist murder victims in the north brought it upon themselves? Gregory Campbell would feel right at home on the FG benches. I think it will come about. Perhaps with the north retaining the PSNI as a Basque type police force. When it does finally arrive, and it will, it won't be so noticeable a change. Probably save a fortune on fireworks it will be so bland and glacial a drift.

  16. Peter,

    is it possible, in the midst of all the uncertainty around Brexit, that some sort of unification may be closer than many of us may have anticipated or even wanted?

    Is it possible that the Union will hold regardless of circumstances? Is it going to hold if the Scots get theirs tails up? Is it probable that the Ulster farmer is going to give up the 75% of income that comes from EU coffers? Where is the funding going to come from for an equivalent farming subsidy in a Brexit situation where the Union holds?

    Isn't possible that the six counties could come under some sort of joint authority allowing Northern Ireland to remain within the EU?

    And finally is it possible or even probable that the inevitable and limited insurgency that a runt of militant Loyalism will present will do any better than the Republican disso's?

    When unification comes Peter it will be, as you say, a complete fudge ... a complete mishmash as when compared to what previous generations of militant republicanism envisaged.
    And, as Paddy Mooney suggests, hard core Republicans and hard core Loyalists will be equal in their disappointments ... equal in their distaste for the new arrangements which, in great likelihood, are coming for the island.
    Most reasonable and decent people though will manage to live with those minorities' discomfiture.

  17. Niall
    Germany is a powerhouse because it manipulated the Euro to its massive advantage. Google it. It was also extremely rich at the time of unification. The RoI has a massive debt and cannot afford unification without a lot of help and guarantees. You say the English don't want us? I don't think the southerners are mad keen on us either. Also I don't like your pronoun "you". I won't be fighting for anything. As I said I don't think there will be a UI in our lifetime and if there is it won't be a 32 county republic.

  18. Larry
    The NHS being ran into the ground? Now that is just silly. Spending has increased year on year for the last decade or more. The NHS is much superior to the system in the south and the thought of having to pay for a GP appointment is a serious turn off for anyone voting in a border poll. If a border poll was to happen and the people of both countries are forced to confront the cost and risk of a British withdrawal, they will vote no to a UI. I am convinced that any form of unity will be one massive fudge with Dublin averse to taking on such a cost and risk.

  19. Peter,
    I wasn't referring to you personally as I know you wouldn't think of lifting a weapon just a you did during the conflict in the back of your UDR landrover. No, 'You' was in reference to Unionists in general.
    You're correct, the Southerners aren't that fond of Unionists but with unification comes the baggage and not all of it of the asset variety, there will be some liabilities too, but ce la vie.
    The times are changing Peter and be it DUP, UUP TUV or NI21 for that matter, Irish Nationalism has been rejuvinated....hard to stop that even with a single Unionist voice.
    Recall the past election, Unionists topped the votes poll over all, but they had called out all their voters, there was no buffer zone for them to work with in the future, Nationalist/Republicans came a very, very close second but still had a lot of ground to play with which Unionism doesn't have....it's going to come down to a head count Peter and as for the big percentage of Nationalists that didn't bother voting because they believed that nothing would change....can you imagine what they are thinking now and if there was another election!!!!!!
    Trying to convince Nationalists that their best interests lies in the hands of Unionism through the Union is just incredibly arse...would that offer apply to Nationalists who speak Gaelic? Such arrogance when you consider the inbred bigotry of Unionism....

  20. Peter,

    is it possible, in the midst of all the uncertainty around Brexit, that some sort of unification may be closer than many of us may have anticipated or even wanted?

    Is it possible that the Union will hold regardless of circumstances? Is it probable its going to hold if the Scots get their tails up? Is it probable that the Ulster farmer is going to give up the 75% of income that comes from EU coffers? Where is the funding going to come from for an equivalent farming subsidy in a Brexit situation if the Union holds?

    Isn't it also possible that the six counties could come under some sort of joint authority thus allowing Northern Ireland to remain within the EU?

    And finally isn't it possible too or even probable that the inevitable and limited insurgency, that a runt of militant Loyalism will present, will do no better than the Republican disso's efforts?

    When unification comes Peter it will be, as you say, a complete fudge ... a complete mishmash, especially so when compared to what previous generations of militant republicanism envisaged.

    And, as Paddy Mooney suggests, hard core Republicans and hard core Loyalists will be equal in their disappointments ... equal in their distaste for the new arrangements, which in great likelihood, are coming to the island.
    In such events unfolding, most reasonable and decent people I'm fairly convinced, will manage to live with such minorities' discomfiture.

    Uncertainty abounds! And a creative location between chaos and order will allow a solution to emerge. Its time for sensible people to step into that chaordic space and embrace new and creative solutions as they unfold.

  21. Peter I am a southern citizen and I certainly do want a reunified Ireland including all the children of Ireland Catholic Protestant and the dissenter and especially those who identify as Unionist or loyalist for the same reason as the three colors in our flag because you were always seen as a part of the vision of a Unified Ireland. We are all part of shared history on this island and together we will prosper peacefully with all respect to your history and tradition as ours. Economics will push Unity eventually rather than idealism but once it happens integration will flourish.
    I regularly visit Old bridge in county meath which is a shrine to the birth of the Orange order in Ireland this is a metric to the respect to tradition that can be expected from us. I am not saying that you have or have not any interest in the Orange order I'm just giving an Indictator. It is long accepted that Britain is no longer interested in Northern Ireland other than its historic ties to Unionism with very few of the general UK population sharing that either.

  22. Niall,

    we know with a great deal of certainty what way unionism will go and wish being father to the thought will not change that. It is nationalism that we can be much less certain about. Sinn Fein don't represent a major push towards a united Ireland but a lowest common denominator against unionist bigotry and which is much more hostile to unionism than it is to Britain. After all the years of watching nationalism why would republicans suddenly start thinking it might row in behind a republican vision? Not one person who fought in the ranks of the Provisional IRA will live to see a united Ireland, myself included. I have also reached the point where the thought of that does not tax me.

  23. HJ
    I think the UK will do well enough out of Brexit. The govt has already said that subsidies from Europe will be continued using the monies saved from the annual contribution. We will see soon enough if they keep to their word. I don't think the Scots will go for another ref, I think there will be a devomax fudge there. And as I said above the south can't afford the north without a lot of help and guarantees. For all the uncertainty I think that at the end of the day little will change.
    As for an insurgency, if it is a rump loyalist one then it won't come to much. I can't see the govts pushing anything on us that would risk a bigger one. There are too many ex-service men with combat experience and connections in mercenary groups that fought in Afghan. That's why I think it will be a massive fudge. The costs and risks to the south mean it can't be anything other.

    For all nationalisms rise in the polls it was still only 39% of the vote and in a border poll would be less. Nothing is going to happen soon and if and when it does it will be slow and nothing like what the IRA fought for. Don't be getting your hopes up just be thankful that the Troubles are over and our young people have a better Ireland than we had.

  24. AM,
    Much to my surprise quite a lot of Republicans that I know who left the mothership threw their vote back in behind them again as they felt a change coming from grass roots in this election and such was the turnout. The public change of leadership to O'Neill was one reason and it has been made very clear to her what is expected. She is answerable to her grass roots irrespective who pulls the strings in Belfast..Tyrone people are very unforgiving when it comes to being let down. She is fully aware of this and realises that she can't spin the rhetoric that kept the sheep on board for years and expect the same from the strays....they're too wise to that now and she as the new face of SF needs them more than they need her. What ever comes out of the talks will be passed by her grass roots and if she can't spin it then she knows that she is in trouble. Actually as i say she clearly knows what not to propose. The resurgence of SF in Tyrone is solely based on this. As she is quite distant from West Belfast her centre of influence has shifted.
    As you rightly stated it is now up to SF, who have got themselves in a pickle of a situation now over their popularity to produce something substantial that will keep that momentum going and the strays on board which they need to in order to stay at the top. The sheep didnt win the election for them it was the strays who wondered back for one last try. If SF don't produce the licence so to speak the disaster waiting on them would be their end and the people are now wise to what is at stake here. The tail is now wagging the dog and they have to produce something and as I say something substantial....Brexit is the key and FG and FF are only too aware that Europe is calling the shots...there are a lot of variables in this equation now and the outcome is very uncertain....from talking to Nationalist about this they don't see Stormont as the problem but Unionism and it's intrasigent position of never changing.....SF is aware that their past rhetoric and spin just will not cut it anymore...they have to deliver but what is not certain but there is a lot riding on Ms O'Neill and she damn well knows it.

  25. When it comes down to it this is still an election in a British frame, put in context this is Sinn Fein celebrating an electoral improvement within NI. This is not a border poll.

    One thing that is for sure is that Unionism is now spooked as it's hegemony is no longer, one wonders what the outcome of another election would show.

    But speaking hypothetically about a UI via a border poll, Unionism needs to take a long hard look at itself and consider the possibility rather than mire itself down in its own siege mentality. If a border poll did favour a UI, there can be NO complaints from the Unionist community as it by necessity must respect the democratic wishes of the people.

    It's not the 60's-70's-80's and even the early 90's, petty sectarian discrimination is no longer going to fly. You may get the odd arseh*le trying to restart the conflict but by and large the vast majority of people just want to live in piece, have a few beers and watch the footy (still laughing at Arsenal).

    Still in the hypothetical (as along with Peter I can't see a UI happening anytime soon least of all because of the triple lock), what a bloody nightmare it would be landing in the lap of Dail! And I'm not talking the potential of violence either, just the ordinary everyday to day stuff. Given what some Southern friends have told me the Government in the south 'F*cked up their own election and still won, though shouldn't be in charge of a school sports day'.

    When it comes down to it would people really vote for the unknown?


    "Not one person who fought in the ranks of the Provisional IRA will live to see a united Ireland, myself included. I have also reached the point where the thought of that does not tax me."

    That is a pretty powerful statement. But is it apathy or resentment at where the Republican movement allowed itself to be maneuvered into that causes you to say it?

  26. Niall,

    I was talking about that very thing this evening on the way back from Dublin. Many of them did throw their vote back in. More fool them. One of the reasons that SF imploded any semblance of republicanism is that many in Tyrone facilitated them. Michelle is not there because she might oppose she is there because she won't. I wish people with years of experience would get away from this wishful thinking. It spurs more delusions. It seems all reason is lost the minute the DUP annoy them.

  27. AM,
    Ah you're right of course....we do tend to get caught up in the excitement...I was talking to a fella the other day who hadn't voted in years and said something interesting,
    Foster is now publicly portraying herself in as nice a face as possible, DUP affable and conciliatory in the meetings and using all the right cliches to imply that she adn the DUP are co-operating as much as possible and as much as expected of her/them but what if in 3 weeks she nominates herself and SF/SDLP reject her nomination, what if Brokenshire were to call another election...she could very simply resort back to Arlene the bigot and say, didn't I tell you what would happen if you didn't vote DUP, look, they've brought it down again, you'd better vote us if you want to restore Unionism to its rightful position, this is your chance to do so............now wouldn't SF be in serious trouble then?!?!?!!??

  28. Steve,

    well said, respect for doing your best to overcome you confirmation biases and to see things for what they are rather than how one might like them to be. In the outworking of our histories, in the outworkings of what's been conditioned in we need to bring a painful honesty and a burdensome pragmatism to our considerations. Those are the challenges which continually face us.

    None of us can accurately predict the future. Yet in times of evolving uncertainty it beholds all thinking people to explore what heretofore would have appeared unpalatable options. Unfortunately the more aroused people become the less the capacity people have to think straight. Situational logic, a term I first heard AM use, kicks in. What would previously have been considered irrational then becomes 'reasonable' and then becomes normalised. The simple life-style of a few beers and watching the footer becomes a thing of the past and more ugly norms become embedded once again!

    I agree with you, that to avoid such future chaos a moderating and pragmatic leadership must evolve quickly in the DUP. Irony of ironies could a man called Paisley do that job?

    (Regarding your question of AM: I've heard him make similar statements before as you've drawn attention to. In the context of all he's been through I'd just frame it as the efforts of a courageous man ... a courageous man who for the greater part brings a painful honesty to his deliberation and as a rule doesn't shun burdensome pragmatism when situations or positions require it. Sure he has feet of clay like the rest of us yet in the round, in terms of critical thinking and clarifying discussion he's a fine exemplar to us too).

  29. Steve R,

    the part about no UI has been something I have thought and openly discussed for quite some time.

    The part about not being taxed - passing of time, my misgivings about all forms of nationalism and while I retain a strong preference for it over unionism, I don't believe in obligatory nationalism any more than I do in obligatory Catholicism; a view that it is not worth seeing lives lost in pursuit of it; and my personal situation of not having the Reverend Arlene thrust in my face - no one reason I guess.

  30. Niall,

    agree about the excitement but best not to get caught up in our own hype. I remember talking to a guy in jail when I was in the cages and I made the point to him that Denis Faul had made: when the numbers on the blanket reach 500, that will be one in ever five Northern Catholics on the protest. He looked at me and said "what about the 499 that are not?"

    I have long since learned to temper my enthusiasm. People easily led are people who will easily commit atrocity.

  31. HJ/AM,

    Thanks, and I agree HJ, Anthony is someone with considerable testicular fortitude!

  32. you all must be on the drink or something - being so generous to me!

    Critical thinking is a social exercise. We draw on the strengths of each other

  33. There's a Francie Brady in each of us ... currently you're just meeting 'HJ the not so bad bastard' ^_^

    Totally agree with your comments on critical thinking AM.
    If the 'Quill' were to become a mere echo-chamber it'd be time to say goodbye!

  34. I know what the bould HJ can be like on an off day LOL