Like it or not, Unionism will have to organise itself as an ideology on an all-island basis if Northern Ireland is to remain part of the United Kingdom for the next 100 years.
We Unionists of 2021 do not enjoy the same numerical luxury as our forefathers were given in 1921 after partition and the formation of the state.
The fledgling Northern Ireland survived through the 1920s mainly thanks to the Irish Civil War in which republican butchered republican in a manner which made the Black and Tans look like a well-respected British Army unit.
Had it not been for republican disunity over the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the narrow vote in the Dail in favour of that Treaty, Michael Collins’ first act as Commander of the Free State forces would have been to announce an invasion of the six Northern counties and risked a bloody civil war with Unionists.
A century later, and according to election results, Unionism as an ideology has lost the numbers game. The days of the Ulster Unionist Party boasting Westminster majorities in constituencies like South Antrim in terms of 30,000 plus votes are over.
Unionism, as an ideology, will have to box clever. Gone are the days, too, when a Unionist elected representative would be disciplined by their party hierarchy for travelling across the Irish border to attend a function in Southern Ireland.
And neither can Unionism rely that Southern Irish voters will ditch their support for Sinn Fein in future Dail elections. It took an historic compromise between traditional political enemies - Fianna Fail and Fine Gael - to keep the Shinners out of government in Leinster House.
Indeed, the only mistake Sinn Fein made in the 2019 Dail General Election was not running enough candidates.
If it had secured another dozen TDs, there’s no way either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael could have kept the Shinners out of a role in coalition. Sinn Fein will lick its electoral wounds from that mistake; a mistake the republican movement will not repeat.
And in Northern Ireland, how is Unionism going to stem the flow of support - taking the last three elections into account - from Unionist parties to Alliance? That so-called ‘Alliance Bounce’ will continue as long as Naomi Long is leader.
It would be easy to dismiss Alliance’s current support as merely a protest vote against Brexit and RHI. However, Mrs Long has transformed the party into a serious liberal movement and has laid to rest the perception that Alliance was merely a ‘wine and cheese supper club’ in the same way as the UUP used to be portrayed as ‘the Fur Coat and No Knickers Brigade’.
For many years, I have argued that Unionism needs to mobilise on an all-island basis. I have developed that ideology as Revolutionary Unionism as it will require radical thinking from my fellow Unionists - and revolutionary practical action on the ground electorally if it is to work in practice.
The politics of ‘Not An Inch’ and ‘No Surrender’ worked in 1974 in bringing down the power-sharing Sunningdale Executive. But the then Unionist leadership of the UUP, DUP, Vanguard and UUUP which formed the Unionist Coalition had no workable alternative to put in its place.
We Unionists also made a huge error of judgement in 1985 when the then Tory Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, giving Southern Ireland its first real say in the running of Northern Ireland since partition.
While we Unionists tramped the wet, cold streets of Northern Ireland with our Ulster Says No and Ulster Still Says No rallies, the Dublin government quietly established the Maryfield Secretariat near Belfast and began the agenda of the Pan Nationalist Front in Northern Ireland.
In reality, what Unionists should have done in 1985 was to open a Unionist Embassy in Dublin’s Leinster House and demanded a say in the running of Southern Ireland. Unionists missed a golden opportunity to have a significant say in the running of the entire island.
Given the furore over Brexit, Unionists must be glad there will not be any Assembly elections in Northern Ireland until at least May 2022.
Unionists can play the blame game as to who is responsible for the Northern Ireland protocol until the ‘cows come home’, but they need to face the reality that Brexit has happened, and Covid is an island-wide pandemic which does not respect borders.
Unionism needs to face the real possibility that after the next Stormont poll, the two biggest parties in Northern Ireland could well be Sinn Fein and Alliance - not Sinn Fein and the DUP.
That’ll never happen, the mockers may say. Don’t forget that Mrs Long comfortably snatched the UUP’s European seat; that Alliance took the North Down Westminster seat from under the noses of the DUP; slashed majorities in many so-called ‘safe’ Unionist constituencies and pushed the UUP into third place in others, and has made significant gains west of the River Bann and in councils across Northern Ireland.
The Unionist parties face two major challenges between now and 2022 - how does it win votes back from Alliance, and how does it combat voter apathy among the pro-Union community?
Ironically, Appeasement Unionism is now first out of the ideological starting blocks under the banner of so-called ‘civic Unionism’ or liberal Unionism. Meanwhile, the Protestant Loyal Orders and evangelical churches remain silent with their childish attitude of ‘among ye be it!’
In 1994, I established a small think tank to discuss the ideology of Revolutionary Unionism - the Revolutionary Unionist Convention. Its main goals were to organise on an all-island basis; a single Unionist Party to cater for all shades of pro-Union opinion and agreed candidates; the defence of the Christian faith, and the development of the influence of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association throughout Ireland as an island.
It has been a tough journey as mention the phrase ‘all-island’ and political Puritanical supporters come down on my head like a Cromwellian axe.
Now the time has come for Revolutionary Unionism to take on a practical dimension south of the Irish border. In Northern Ireland, Revolutionary Unionism will campaign for greater co-operation between the various shades of pro-Union thinking and encourage extensive voter registration and turnout at elections - until the day comes, if ever, that we can have a single movement simply known as The Unionist Party.
In Southern Ireland, Revolutionary Unionism will organise the launch of an Irish Unionist Party to contest all elections in the 26 Counties, campaigning on a platform of encouraging greater co-operation in health between the UK and Southern Ireland, Southern Ireland to rejoin the CPA, and eventually to persuade Southern Ireland to follow the UK out of the European Union.
The starting point for the IUP will be the border counties where the Loyal Orders have a significant influence. Taking the Orange Order as a benchmark, the organisation has county lodges in Donegal, Cavan, Monaghan, and Leitrim - could there be enough voter mobilisation to get two TDs elected from constituencies in each county?
It can’t be done, say critics. Remember when Sinn Fein only had one TD in the Dail. Half a dozen IUP TDs could be enough to become junior partners in a future Dail coalition government.
Among my personal family mementos are some of my late father’s election posters and leaflets bearing the slogan ‘Vote Coulter 1 Ulster Unionist’.
Dad spent many happy years preaching in Presbyterian churches in County Donegal. I wonder what he would make of his son standing for the Dail in the county with election posters ‘Vote Coulter 1 Irish Unionist Party’?
People may joke and mock at my idea of an Irish Unionist Party in Southern Ireland. But there is one option and luxury that Unionism can no longer afford - to sit on its ideological backside and reminisce about the ‘Gud Auld Dayes’ of Unionist majority rule in Northern Ireland. Time is most certainly not on Unionism’s side.
|Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
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