In this centenary year of the foundation of the northern six-county state, the crisis within unionism appears to increase almost weekly. Standing out above the rest was the messy defenestration of the DUP leader Arlene Foster, because, difficult as it may be to believe, she was considered too liberal.
The gloss was taken off Edwin Poots’s victory, however, when his treatment of Mrs Foster was criticised by the former DUP leader Peter Robinson in a scathing article in the Belfast Newsletter, a setback compounded shortly thereafter by a Lucid Talks opinion poll for the Belfast Telegraph indicating that Poots did not enjoy the support of a majority of the party’s grass roots. Most notable in this regard was a motion passed by Fermanagh and Tyrone branch of the DUP expressing “disgust” at how Mrs Foster was treated.
Over in East Belfast at the Ulster Unionist Party offices there was an almost unnoticed change of leader when the former British navy submariner Steve Aiken was replaced by the former Royal Irish Ranger Doug Beattie. The UUP is struggling to square the circle posed by attempting to modernise its image without alienating its aged and essentially right-wing support base. Traditional supporters of the party were undoubtedly bewildered recently when Beattie introduced progressive pro-LGBT legislation in Stormont while simultaneously excoriating the chief constable of the PSNI.
Not far away, the Loyalist Community Council was making a right shambles of a rare opportunity to impress when it was invited to address the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on Brexit and the Irish Sea border. When asked about the possibility of a return to violence if the Northern Ireland protocol remained, a youthful member of the council replied: “I am saying that I would not rule it off the table.” His frankness was matched only by his political naïveté.
Moreover, although a minority, there is now a significant section of pro-union people prepared to take a more pragmatic view of relinquishing the connection with Britain while simultaneously holding little outright hostility towards the Republic. Often voting Alliance, this cohort is sometimes considered a greater threat to traditional unionism than is the presence of Sinn Féin.
There is a tendency in some quarters to interpret the continuing series of difficulties in the wider unionist family simply as a result of ineptitude and incompetence. This is the view that believes that a more media-savvy leadership possessed of a large dose of political “cuteness” would restore unionist fortunes. If only they could find an Orange version of Charlie Haughey all would be well again.
The problem for unionism, however, runs much deeper than anything that might be fixed by employing a firm of clever PR consultants. Unionism faces deep structural problems, which are reflected in, rather than caused by, the manoeuvrings of its political representatives.
Factors and circumstances are affecting Northern Ireland that are beyond the control of political unionism, a reality that many supporters of the union are either unable or unwilling to recognise. With Britain no longer a global superpower, the North is not now seen by London as of crucial military-strategic or economic importance. At a stroke, this removes an important unionist asset, the unconditional support of British imperialism. As a consequence, the British government is no longer as indulgent towards its difficult-to-manage supporters in the Six Counties as it once was.
Although sometimes taken for granted nowadays, several developments over recent decades have further eroded unionist confidence, such as the Anglo-Irish Agreement, stopping Orange marches along the Garvaghy Road, the Belfast Agreement involving mandatory power-sharing with Sinn Féin, and now the Northern Ireland protocol, all implemented by the British government in the face of unionist opposition. Against this disturbing background of diminishing unionist power and influence there is the alarming possibility of a referendum on partition and the seemingly inexorable change to the demographic make-up of the Six Counties.
For a political ideology long used to exercising authoritarian power over, rather than governing with the consent of, its critics and political opponents, this situation has caused confusion and an anxious search for answers. The problem, however, is that there is no one answer that satisfies all sections of unionist society. There are those nevertheless who still believe it possible to return to the pre-1969 glory days of an all-powerful, monolithic Unionist Party along with absolute control over its own all-encompassing machinery of state.
This, in effect, is the vision proposed by Edwin Poots when, during his acceptance speech on being elected party leader, he vowed to unite unionism and end the bickering. At the same time he also promised to defeat the Northern Ireland protocol. Taken together, we can see not only his strategy but also its inherent weakness and indeed the desperation afflicting unionism.
As described above, unionism is no longer the monolithic entity it once was. Therefore, to whip the largest number into line it becomes necessary to generate a sense of panic. An alarm has to be raised. The enemy is at the gate, or, with apologies to Alice Milligan, we must all come together or the Fenians will get us. The bogeyman picked by Poots is the protocol, allegedly crafted by a ruthless Dublin government hell-bent on separating loyal Ulster from Britain.
The dilemma this strategy throws up is that on the one hand it creates anxiety and panic among the most reactionary elements of unionism. It then becomes extremely difficult if not impossible to persuade them to make strategic concessions to the nationalist/republican electorate. By thus polarising the situation, the Poots option makes it highly unlikely that significant nationalist support can be won over for maintaining the status quo as and when demographics change.
On the other hand, by employing such aggressive tactics and raising the spectre of street violence Poots drives another section of potential pro-union voters into the arms of the constitutionally neutral Alliance Party. In a nutshell, there is no way to square this circle, and therefore, over the coming decades, unionism faces an existential crisis.
The question then arises of how socialist republicans might respond to this situation. For a start, it is important to rule out juvenile analyses and to avoid making crude economistic attempts to find answers. As always and everywhere, the class composition of unionist society is important, but in the North it is complex. Furthermore, hard-line Northern unionism will not be easily tempted by promises of financial improvement or incentives.
A way must be found to convince unionists, and particularly working-class unionists, that change is becoming virtually inevitable and, thereafter, that it is in their self-interest to influence positively how this change takes place and where it leads.
How to open that debate requires serious reflection and consideration. At the risk of being found guilty of avoiding the issue, this is another day’s work, or indeed many days’ work. It is a huge challenge, but we’re up for it.
Tommy McKearney is a left wing and trade union activist.
He is author of The Provisional IRA: From Insurrection to Parliament.
Follow on Twitter @Tommymckearney