Today is supposed to be an occasion for extending love and affection to those we have strong feelings for, but there certainly seems to be a lack of love among the pro-Union parties as the crucial May 5th Stormont showdown looms.
Whilst the DUP has supposedly pushed the nuclear button on the power-sharing Executive, new legislation at Westminster has guaranteed the Assembly will keep functioning, albeit in shadow form, and Executive ministers will continue to keep their Stormont departments ‘ticking over.’
Many Unionists may be pondering – how does pulling DUP MLA Paul Givan out of the post of First Minister, effectively also meaning deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Fein loses her post, actually scupper the Northern Ireland Protocol?
More importantly, if we reach the next Stormont election and the Protocol is in no way politically or economically dented, let alone axed, will voters punish the DUP at the polls? Put bluntly, is Project Fear (namely vote DUP or you’ll get a Shinner as First Minister!) a realistic political runner?
Or are we looking at another realignment within Unionism. Instead of the Yes and No camps on the Belfast Agreement as happened in 1998, are the new Yes and No camps those Unionists who believe the Protocol can be politically castrated from within the Assembly and Executive, and those No Unionists who are convinced the only way to politically neuter the Protocol is to pull down the institutions?
One Lucid Talk poll in 2020 had the pro-Union electorate almost on an even split between the DUP, the UUP and TUV – with Sinn Fein still tipped to be the largest party in Stormont, thereby laying claim to the First Minister’s job.
The dilemma facing Unionists is, do they play along with the DUP’s Project Fear strategy and vote for whatever brand of Unionism is best placed to give the Shinners a political bloody nose by preventing Sinn Fein from becoming the largest Stormont party?
However, a three-way split in Unionism could hand Sinn Fein the First Minister’s portfolio by default. And to add to the confusion, what happens to Unionism if the so-called Alliance ‘Bounce’ continues and that party ends up as the second largest party, not one of the three Unionist parties?
The essential problem facing Unionism is the mess created by the 2006 St Andrews Agreement which changed the rules on appointing the First Minister from the largest designation to the largest party in the Assembly.
At the time, the DUP never imagined the UUP would ever make a comeback and the TUV would never get off the ground electorally.
The UUP will be banking that the so-called ‘Beattie Bounce’ will net the party a net return of MLAs well into the upper teens.
And the TUV will be hoping that Unionist disillusionment with the DUP over the Protocol will see it expand to more than a ‘one hit wonder’ party in the chamber.
Could the TUV gain in popularity to such an extent that it copies the success in 1998 of the anti-Agreement United Kingdom Unionist Party, which got five MLAs elected, or the equally anti-Agreement United Unionist Assembly Party, which got three MLAs. But all this was in an era when each constituency had six seats, not five as at present.
Perhaps the TUV would have had a bigger influence within Unionism if it had launched itself as a Right-wing pressure group, like Ulster Vanguard in the 1970s, rather than as yet another Unionist party. Indeed, it was Vanguard’s decision to launch as a separate political party which eventually led to its demise.
If the TUV returned with only a couple of seats, would the party line be for Direct Rule from Westminster to prevent Sinn Fein having a say in the running of Northern Ireland?
For the ‘Beattie Bounce’ to become an effective reality, the UUP needs to put clear blue ideological sky between it and the Alliance Party. In terms of liberalism, what’s the difference between the UUP and Alliance?
The real question must be for the UUP – how much of the so-called ‘Alliance Bounce’ is a protest vote by the pro-Union community either against the DUP or Brexit, and how much is due to leader Naomi Long converting Alliance from a ‘wine and cheese supper brigade’ into a genuine liberal progressive movement?
Then again, if there are doubts over the political ‘clear blue sky’ between the liberal progressive policies of the UUP and Alliance, does this make both parties more ‘vote transfer friendly’ between each other?
Likewise, the pro-Union and constitutional nationalist communities always had a strong socially conservative church-based voter base, especially on issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion and divorce.
If there is a dash by many parties for the liberal progressive centre or middle ground at the election, where will the Christian vote go? Would it go to specific parties, or to individual candidates?
If Alliance wants to become the second largest party in the Assembly, it will not only have to retain its gains in traditionally Unionist constituencies east of the River Bann, but will have to also rebrand itself as a ‘soft r’ republican party west of that river in traditionally nationalist constituencies.
So could the final realignment in May be – Alliance becomes a 2022 version of the defunct constitutional nationalist movement, the Irish Independence Party of the late 1970s; the UUP becomes the new Alliance; the DUP becomes UUP1998, and the TUV becomes the DUP1971, leaving the SDLP to become a Northern version of Fianna Fail (which already exists in Northern Ireland) and the Shinners become the new all-island Marxist-Leninist communist party.
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.