As the pro-Union community begins the post mortem as to how in the space of two Westminster General Elections it has gone from being the majority ideology to the minority ideology in Northern Ireland, Unionists from both the DUP and UUP must face the reality that so-called Unionist Unity is now a ‘must have’.
If the process, culminating in the merger of the DUP and UUP to form a single movement simply known as The Unionist Party, is not taken seriously, the political ‘greening’ of Ulster will continue and the supposed centenary of the Northern Ireland state will see the Six Counties in an unofficial united Ireland by default.
The autopsy on Unionism is startling - of the 18 seats, the DUP could only hold eight, and non-Unionist candidates snatched the other 10 - seven to Sinn Fein, two to the SDLP, and one to Alliance. That’s a far cry from the state which Unionism went into the General Election - boasting 10 DUP seats and one Independent Unionist, against seven Sinn Fein abstentionists.
The Alliance ‘bounce’ scored a hat trick of successes this year, following on from May’s local government and European victories. Alliance can no longer be dismissed as it was in the years of the Troubles as ‘the wine and cheese supper brigade’.
DUP fortresses, such as Lagan Valley and East Antrim, are now potential Alliance targets in future House of Commons showdowns. Right across Ulster, supposedly ‘safe’ DUP seats produced the political equivalent of ‘squeaky bum time’ as its representation in Belfast alone was reduced from three solid MPs to one marginal.
The Ulster Unionist Party, once the dominant force in Northern Ireland politics since 1905, must swallow another very bitter dose of medicine after none of its candidates got elected.
As with the disastrous flirtation with the Tories in an earlier General Election in the so-called UCUNF project, the UUP’s meddling with progressive liberal and secular politics has ended in failure.
The UUP has got to swing to the Right-wing to give it a new identity. It needs a clearly defined message and must stop messing about with its convenient mixed message ‘conscience clause’.
It is not a case that the so-called ‘middle ground’ is now the dominant platform in Northern Ireland; its just that Alliance has been a superb propaganda tool in selling itself as the main protest voice against the stagnation at Stormont.
Sinn Fein and the DUP have both been quite happy to sit back and enjoy their respective majority voices in their communities. The DUP indulged itself in the ‘confidence and supply arrangement’ with the outgoing Conservative Government, while Sinn Fein held firm on demanding a stand alone Irish Language Act as well as basking in its historical abstentionist policy since it was formed in 1905.
Victories for Sinn Fein in Fermanagh South Tyrone and North Belfast and for the SDLP in South Belfast emphasis the success of Irish nationalism in rebranding the past Pan Nationalist Front (PNF) as the Pan Remain Pact (PNP). The unofficial PNP has even got Remain Unionists sucked into its propaganda using Alliance as the springboard in North Down.
The DUP needs to realise that with newly re-elected Prime Minister Boris Johnston’s very strong majority in the House of Commons, he no longer needs to rely on DUP MPs to get legislation passed. It should not be forgotten that Boris is a huge fan of Winston Churchill, the wartime British Prime Minister who wanted to ditch Northern Ireland into an all-Ireland arrangement in exchange for the then Free State dumping neutrality in the war against Hitler.
Just as Scottish nationalism has triumphed north of the English border, Ulster Unionists must not dismiss the impact of English nationalism in the next House of Commons. In short, Northern Ireland is up for sale in any post Brexit deal.
Unionism needs to form a united front. At the very least, it could reform the United Ulster Unionist Council - the Unionist Coalition, or Treble UC - which existed in the early Seventies and saw agreed candidates from four different Unionist parties take 11 of the 12 Westminster seats in the February 1974 General Election.
If merger between the DUP, UUP, TUV, PUP, UKIP and NI Tories is too much of a ‘political ask’ with another potential Assembly poll looming in early 2020, then a Unionist Coalition of agreed candidates is a priority.
As a starting point, there needs to be a reforming of the Ulster Monday Club pressure group to get much closer co-operation between the DUP and UUP.
The UMC was once one of the most influential pressure groups during the Jim Molyneaux era of UUP political domination. As another starting point, Unionists need to realise that supposed progressive liberal Unionism as a realistic ideology is now a damp squib. It is time for the Unionist Right to step up to the mark.
Unionism, too, needs to re-engage with its traditional voter bases - the Christian Churches, loyalist working class, the Loyal Orders, and the marching band scene.
Moreover, Unionism needs to get the message across that everyone who believes in the Union with the UK needs to both become registered as a voter, and equally importantly, vote on polling day.
For the UUP and DUP to consider rebranding themselves as another liberal version of Alliance is doomed to fail. The Alliance ‘bounce’ must be recognised for what it genuinely is - a protest movement against the Stormont stalemate and the fear that Brexit could deliver a united Ireland.
Take liberal Remain unionists out of the Alliance equation, and Alliance reverts to its pre-1994 ceasefire status as a fringe movement.
The next club Unionism has to juggle with is how to keep the growing dissident loyalist movement on board. Unlike the post Belfast Agreement era, the 2020 dissident loyalist movement should not be dismissed as those from the UDA or UVF who are making their living from criminality and drug pushing.
This is a new movement which recognises that history is repeating itself when it comes to a Conservative Government with a strong Commons majority.
In 1985, two years after then British Tory PM Maggie Thatcher scored her landslide Westminster General Election victory in 1983, she signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement which gave the Republic its first meaningful say in the running of Northern Ireland since partition in the 1920s.
Unionists should be quite rightly afraid of what Boris will implement, not just agree to, to get the UK out of the European Union on 31 January 2020.
While Thatcher denied the impact of the Republic’s role in running Northern Ireland in 1985, the Maryfield Secretariat staffed by Southern civil servants was a different matter.
Boris can boast all of the UK is leaving the EU in January ‘on paper’, but the practical outworking of the his unique deal could be a different ball park altogether.
Unionists must, therefore, prioritise which unity is more important - European unity, Irish unity, or Unionist unity? Time is ticking!
Listen to Dr John Coulter’s religious show, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM, or listen online at www.thisissunshine.com