A century ago, Northern Ireland’s pro-Union community found their political backs against the wall as the fledgling Unionist-dominated Government in Belfast faced a potential invasion from soon-to-be murdered by his own kind, Michael Collins, the IRA terrorist turned senior commander of the Free State Army.
In 1921, it was the challenges of partition, but for Unionism in 2021, it now faces the challenges of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Can Unionism unite to get it axed, or can Unionists throw so many political spanners in the mix so that any existing Protocol is effectively neutered?
In spite of extensive pro-Union opposition to the Protocol, it has also sparked a massive realignment within Unionism, which has witnessed the DUP ‘dump’ Arlene Foster and hold an unprecedented leadership contest for the first time in the party’s 50-year history.
Albeit by two votes, the founding Paisleyite ethos based at Stormont won the day over the Westminster contingent headed by MPs Jeffrey Donaldson and Gregory Campbell.
The challenge for the new DUP leadership is to rebrand modern-day Paisleyism and sell it to the pro-union community as a modern, progressive movement.
And how will the Ulster Unionist Party - the movement which for so many years has played second fiddle to the DUP - develop under yet another leader, the veteran ex-Army officer and Upper Bann MLA Doug Beattie.
The jockeying for position on the pro-Union spectrum reminds me of how Unionism aligned itself in 1973. The then power-sharing Sunningdale Executive between liberal Unionists headed by former Northern Ireland Prime Minister Brian Faulkner and Gerry Fitt, the moderate nationalist and committed socialist leader of the SDLP is almost a mirror image of what is needed in the modern day Stormont Executive.
But in 1973, ‘power-sharing’ was a dirty word in the Unionist political vocabulary and Unionism’s Right-wing under the banner of the United Ulster Unionist Council (The so-called Treble UC) mobilised their forces under an anti-Sunningdale campaign.
The Treble UC, also known as the Unionist Coalition, brought four rival Unionist parties under one roof in a degree of unity which has been rarely witnessed since. They were the DUP, UUP, Vanguard Unionist Party and United Ulster Unionist Party.
Such was the degree of unity at that time, the Unionist Coalition fielded agreed candidates in the February 1974 Westminster General Election, winning 11 of the 12 seats available; the exception being Fitt’s West Belfast bolthole.
But what Faulkner and Fitt could not politically outgun was the 1974 Ulster Workers’ Council strike when the Unionist Coalition ‘enlisted’ the help of the Loyalist paramilitaries - especially the legal Ulster Defence Association - to bring down the Executive.
1973 was also to see the launch of the UDA’s so-called ‘military wing’, the Ulster Freedom Fighters.
Faulkner tried to sell his political brand of power-sharing liberal Unionism under the banner of Pro-Assembly Unionists, but the various opponent parties in the UUUC defeated his candidates at every turn.
Faulkner even tried to relaunch his brand of power-sharing devolution with the short-lived Unionist Party of Northern Ireland (UPNI), which effectively folded after Faulkner’s death in a horse riding incident in the late Seventies. Most of his followers went to the middle of the road Alliance Party.
Unionism unfortunately took the view that it could always rely on the weight of numbers at the ballot box and was in no rush to put forward workable alternatives to Sunningdale. Unionists had plenty of ideas, but none would work practically.
The challenge for Beattie is to ensure the continued existence of his party. In 1998, the UUP dominated the fledgling Northern Ireland Assembly established under the Good Friday Agreement. If the decline in the past three elections in Northern Ireland would be replicated again in the May 2022 Stormont poll, the UUP could be reduced to around six MLAs.
But Beattie has an ace card - he’s not Poots! Already social media is awash with rumours that many who left the UUP for the DUP are seeking to return to the Ulster Unionist fold.
Poots’ challenge is to encourage DUP voters who plumped for Alliance as a protest to return to the DUP. The rival Traditional Unionist Voice party headed by ex-DUP MEP Jim Allister is viewed as a ‘one man band’ which would struggle to get enough candidates to contest all 18 Stormont constituencies in Northern Ireland to make it a significant numerical presence in Parliament Buildings.
And given that Poots only won the election for leader by two votes, he has to avoid the scenario that the Donaldson camp becomes a ‘fifth columnist’ group within the DUP in the same way as the anti-Agreement Union First pressure group agitated within the UUP, or Spirit of Drumcree agitated within the mainstream Orange Order.
The key battle for Beattie will be to mobilise all sections of the pro-Union vote to actually register and come out to vote. Pro-Union apathy, not policy, is perhaps his greatest challenge.
The UUP also has to brand itself so that pro-union voters who opted for Alliance, come to the UUP. How many of the three voters the DUP lost to Alliance were protest votes rather than an ideological desire to be liberal?
For years since its formation, Alliance was always viewed as a soft u Unionist party, but to make its gains west of the Bann in traditionally nationalist seats it had to rebrand itself as a soft r republican party.
If Beattie adopts the strategy of Faulkner, and presents the UUP as a new millennium version of the old UPNI, could he pull the political rug from under the feet of Alliance and soak up much of the pro-Union protest vote?
Another situation which the UUP and DUP now face is how to re-engage with the loyalist community, many of whom feel the mainstream Unionist parties have largely abandoned working class Protestants.
Likewise, how do the UUP and DUP present themselves as liberal, progressive and secular - whilst keeping the Christian Churches on board? In this battle, the issue of abortion services will be to the fore.
The Unionist parties need to keep the loyalists in the loop otherwise support for a violent dissident loyalist movement could emerge.
Street protests did not defeat the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, so if Unionism wants to get the Protocol scrapped or diluted so much that it is economically and constitutionally meaningless, it will have to box clever and work from the inside of the political establishment.
With all this talk of progressive policies, what future is there in Northern Ireland for Right-wing Unionism? Could we see a re-emergence of the once influential Ulster Monday Club within the UUP?
The trick of the trade politically for Right-wing Unionists is to give the impression they have become progressive whilst at the same time filtering in a Right-wing agenda.
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.