I’ll be 61 this year, God Willing, and I’ve been a card-carrying member of the Ulster Unionist Party since I was 18 when I joined the North Antrim Young Unionists as an A Level student at Ballymena Academy.
My parents and grandparents all had long associations with the Party, with my late father, Rev Dr Robert Coulter MBE, being a former UUP Councillor and Mayor in Ballymena, UUP Chief Whip in the Northern Ireland Forum, and a former Assembly member and Stormont Commissioner between 1998 and 2011.
Even as a primary school pupil, I recall serving sandwiches to UUP Westminster candidate Henry Clark during the 1970 Westminster election campaign when he lost the supposed safe Ulster Unionist Commons seat to a certain Rev Ian Paisley.
One element has always struck me about the Unionist ideology - we never seem to have a Plan B when things go wrong! Today, Monday 13 January, is a D-Day for the Stormont Assembly; either the power-sharing Executive is on the road to clear restoration, or Northern Ireland faces another Assembly poll, or the Boris Government imposes Direct Rule from Westminster.
In the past, many Unionist leaders have deluded themselves into thinking that a Conservative Government really politically ‘loves’ Northern Ireland. Unionists, in reality, need to waken up politically and smell the coffee on offer from the Tories.
It was Ted Heath who shafted the original Stormont Parliament in 1972; it was Maggie Thatcher who stabbed Unionism in the back with the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement; it was John Major who agreed the Downing Street Declaration in 1993 which set the wheels in motion for Sinn Fein in government in Northern Ireland, and the eventual disbanding of the RUC; and it was Boris Johnston who has thrown the DUP ‘under a bus’ concerning the Brexit deal.
Have you got the message in Northern Ireland, Unionists? You may be able to trust individual Tories, but you cannot trust a Conservative party in Government. Get with the programme!
So if things go ‘pear shaped’ for the Assembly today, and the Northern Ireland economy goes equally ‘pear shaped’ after Brexit on 31 January, what is Unionism’s Plan B for the Six Counties of political Ulster?
Alliance, the SDLP and Sinn Fein all have their Plan B’s ready to implement - Irish unity. Even liberal Unionism wants a discussion on the possibility of a Unionist role in a united Ireland.
Unionism’s Plan B should be an Independent Ulster within the European Union, forming a Celtic Alliance with the Irish Republic and an equally Independent Scotland.
The key question which Unionists must ask; given that Boris Johnston threw the DUP ‘under the bus’ regarding his Brexit deal, he is equally capable of driving that bus over Northern Ireland several times economically so that the Province becomes a financially crippled wasteland.
Yes, you can point to the fact that Johnston has chucked a bucket of politically freezing water over Scottish National Party calls for a second independence referendum, but even with his massive Commons majority, even Boris cannot ignore the latest surge in support for the SNP in December’s Westminster General Election.
I’ve made mention of the solution of Ulster Independence in my writing in the past. Indeed, for the past five years, since 2015, I have been advocating the need for Unionists to consider the merits of an economic Celtic Alliance.
The one pitfall which a Celtic Alliance must avoid is that the European Union fails to fund the new political arrangement. This may sound politically hypocritical coming from myself as an ardent Brexiteer.
I have not switched sides. I am recognising that while in a national UK vote, the electorate in 2016 opted to leave the EU, but Scotland and Northern Ireland voted ‘Remain’.
What Unionists need to understand is the brutally honest question - which is the better situation? To be in an Independent Ulster which is milking the EU cow for all that it is worth, or to be a minority partner in a UK in which the Tory Government is punishing Northern Ireland with massive austerity for the DUP pre-Christmas voting habits?
A key plank of the SNP’s independence programme is that it would rejoin the EU, but Scots take note - you need to avoid the scenario that you become nothing more than a third rate banana republic.
The ‘Independence’ Plan B involving Ulster, Scotland and the Irish Republic will only work if the EU can guarantee funding for the new Celtic Alliance, especially if the economic price tag for the UK leaving the EU under a Boris Brexit Deal is financial austerity in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but an economic boost for England and Wales.
In the meantime, Unionists must not hang around their Orange Halls with wee meetings hoping that Johnston and his massive Commons majority will change their minds on Tory austerity for Northern Ireland.
Unionists need to some time in early 2020 establish a Unionist Embassy in Dublin’s Leinster House. It is something which I have campaigned for since 2014:
Unionism made a fatal tactical error in 1985 after Thatcher signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Unionists should have reciprocated the Republic establishing the Maryfield Secretariat by setting up a Unionist Embassy at the very heart of the Dublin parliament and demanding a say in the running of Southern affairs.
Maryfield gave the Dublin government its first real say in the running of Northern Ireland since partition in the 1920s. As we near the centenary of the original Anglo Irish Treaty which paved the way for partition, Unionism needs to box clever and get its Unionist Embassy in Dublin off the ground and up and running politically.
In 1985 and 1986, while Unionism tramped the streets of Northern Ireland with its ‘Ulster Says No’ and ‘Ulster Still Says No’ campaigns, Dublin Nationalism made strides politically using Maryfield.
Such a Unionist Embassy would lay the foundations for a Celtic Alliance and could also act as a springboard to defuse the emergence of a dissident loyalist movement; the latter aiming to repeat the Dublin and Monaghan atrocities of 1974 in the event that Irish unity becomes a reality in a post Brexit British Isles.
Whatever decisions emerge on 13 January, there can be no doubting that Unionism must begin thinking with its head rather than marching with its feet in 2020. Unionism requires a Plan B if the Stormont Plan A flops - like it or not, the Celtic Alliance is that Plan B.
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online at www.thisissunshine.com