From the day in 1970 when I served sandwiches in Clough Presbyterian Manse near Ballymena to an ashen-faced (soon to be defeated) Henry Clark, the UUP’s then North Antrim Westminster MP, I have always suspected other agendas are at play in the various Unionist opposition campaigns over the decades.
And so that suspicious alarm bell has continued ringing concerning Unionist opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol. Rallies are being held across Northern Ireland in the run-up to this May’s Stormont General Election with the opinion polls predicting that Sinn Fein will emerge as the largest party in the Assembly.
What is notable about some of these anti-Protocol rallies is the level of heckling or difficult questions from rank and file Unionists against the politicians on the platforms, especially at the DUP and UUP.
1998 saw one of the biggest realignments in Unionism since Rev Ian Paisley’s 1970 elections victories in firstly the Stormont Bannside constituency and then a few months later in the North Antrim Westminster constituency, leading to the launch of the DUP in 1971.
The Good Friday Agreement of April 10, 1998, saw Unionism divide into the Yes and No camps with the Yes camp holding the upper hand in Unionism until the No camp - fronted by the DUP - took over the reigns of Unionism in the 2003 Assembly election.
Perhaps in 2022, it is a case that Unionism privately has come to terms with the fact that it cannot get rid of the Protocol, so it will settle for the real target - getting rid of the Good Friday Agreement.
Even liberal elements within the UUP recognise that the original 1998 Belfast Agreement needs a massive adjustment if it is to remain relevant over two decades later.
The DUP made a huge tactical error in 2006 when it negotiated the St Andrews Agreement, which changed the appointment of the First Minister from the largest designation to the largest party.
In its thirst for power, the DUP never considered the option that one day Sinn Fein would eat so much into the middle class Catholic vote that it would now be on the cusp of becoming the largest party in the Assembly; the DUP also did not see the so-called ‘Alliance Bounce’ coming under Naomi Long, or indeed, that the UUP could ever make a comeback in a post-Trimble era.
The alarm bells for the future of Stormont as an institution are being sounded by the DUP’s delay in getting its latest leader - Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP - to quit Westminster and take up a seat in the Assembly.
In recent months, there have been three occasions for Sir Jeffrey to enter the Assembly - as a replacement for former First Minister Arlene Foster when she quit frontline politics; in South Belfast following the sudden passing of DUP MLA Christopher Stalford, and lately when another former DUP leader Edwin Poots moved from Lagan Valley to South Belfast.
Rumour even has it that should Sir Jeffrey clinch one of the two expected seats for the DUP in Lagan Valley in the 5 May poll, he may co-op another DUP person while the DUP leader remains at Westminster.
That would leave the DUP’s Westminster team - led by Sir Jeffrey - to be in a prime position to still have some influence in London should they press the political nuclear button and permanently collapse, not just a power-sharing Executive, but also the entire Stormont institution.
Would that herald a return of 1972-style Direct Rule from Westminster, or Joint Authority of Northern Ireland by Westminster and the Dail in Dublin, especially if Sinn Fein is on course to become the largest party not just in Stormont, but also in Dublin in a future Dail General Election.
Unionist fears are that the potential of Sinn Fein in government on both sides of the Irish border would inevitably trigger the much-heralded Border Poll, which Unionism cannot be rock solid sure of winning.
So how can Unionism realistically scupper the Sinn Fein bandwagon given that any ‘SDLP Bounce’ across Northern Ireland is clearly a political myth?
Sinn Fein has one severe Achilles heel - the party has never successfully served as the main government partner in Ireland since its formation in 1905.
In the 1918 Westminster General Election after the Great War when all of Ireland was still part of the British Empire, Sinn Fein won around 70 of the 105 Commons seats available. But instead of a democratic solution, it could not prevent the IRA inflicting the War of Independence on the island the following year. And even when the Treaty was signed, it could not hold Irish republicanism together, unleashing a bloody Irish Civil War between pro and anti-Treaty factions which saw more IRA personnel executed by the Free State forces than were killed in the War of Independence.
Put bluntly, Sinn Fein is always a party of opposition and lacks the maturity to be an effective party of government. Even in the Northern Ireland Assembly, it has always played second fiddle to the DUP since 2007.
Such is the distrust among constitutional republicans in the Irish Republic that the last Dail General Election - in spite of substantial Sinn Fein gains - saw an historic coalition between bitter rivals Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to keep Sinn Fein out of government.
Put bluntly again, after 5 May, how stable would a Sinn Fein-led power-sharing Stormont Executive be if the republican party emerged as the largest party in the Assembly?
Could the real gamble for Unionism be - form a power-sharing Executive with Unionism in the deputy First Minister’s post and show the people of Northern Ireland what a ‘buck daft’ party of government Sinn Fein really is!
Perhaps the real avenue to gaining long-term and lasting Unionist unity is the bitter medicine of a four-year Assembly term with Sinn Fein in the First Minister’s post?
Whatever the spin, Sinn Fein is an integral part of the republican movement which is controlled by the Provisional IRA’s ruling Army Council.
Yet again put bluntly, what do those who sit on that Army Council know about running a country democratically? If Unionism wants to wreck Sinn Fein, put the party in the driving seat. Sinn Fein’s economic policy will make the prospect of Irish Unity so financially unpalatable to even Irish nationalists, Northern Ireland will remain within the Union for another century.
Then again, the key question is - does Unionism have the political brains to implement this policy? Unionism does not seem to have learned the lesson that every time it walks out of an institution, Unionism returns to the next political experiment that wee bit weaker.
If Unionism lets Sinn Fein off the hook after 5 May by walking away from devolution and collapsing Stormont, that will be the route to a united Ireland.
If Unionism wants to scupper any prospect of Irish Unity for the foreseeable future, give Sinn Fein governmental responsibility. Face reality Unionism, Sinn Fein doesn’t do democracy!
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.