Unlike the Trimble era in the Ulster Unionists in the years after the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the so-called No camp with the UUP was exceptionally vocal at meetings of the Ulster Unionist Council is expressing its displeasure at the party leadership’s direction.
Unlike the UUP in the late Nineties and early Noughties, the DUP carefully managed to give the public impression of a totally united party.
There was no ‘Banter at the Bus’ style confrontation between the DUP and UUP for the media. The UUP’s internal battles between the No camp pressure group Union First and the Yes camp pressure group Re:Union were not laid bare for the media to lap up.
If DUP boss Sir Jeffrey Donaldson had got his way, the party’s MLAs would have been marching up Stormont steps this morning to kick-start the power-sharing Executive.
His leader’s speech was clearly a back-slapping exercise in DUP party unity, with a clear emphasis that the Windsor Framework did not meet the party’s seven tests and although talks with the British Government were “making progress”, more laws were needed to secure a return of the Assembly.
But the reality must be faced - the hardliners in the DUP’s Westminster cabal have a firm grip on the party. Yes, Sir Jeffrey could have kick-started Stormont this morning, but that could have triggered a Sinn Fein-style walkout of hardliners at the party conference.
Remember the 1986 Ard Fheis to vote on whether Sinn Fein elected TDs should end their boycott of the Dail? When Northern modernisers Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness won the vote, out walked the hardliners who still backed abstentionism under the leadership of Rory O’Brady to form the fringe Republican Sinn Fein party.
Sir Jeffrey could have called the DUP hardliners’ bluff, but that would have sparked a major re-alignment in political Unionism again. In one camp, would have been Doug Beattie’s UUP along with Sir Jeffrey’s wing of the DUP under a ‘Start Stormont’ banner.
In the rival camp, would have been the DUP hardliners, Jim Allister’s TUV and the unelected voices within loyalism under their banner of ‘Shaft Stormont’.
Electorally, within Unionism at next year’s expected Westminster General Election, we would have witnessed a re-run of the February and October 1974 Westminster General Elections when pro-Assembly Unionists (who supported the old Sunningdale Executive) squared off against the hardliners in the so-called ‘Treble-UC’ - a coalition of four Unionist parties opposed to Sunningdale; the UUP, DUP, Vanguard Unionist, and United Ulster Unionist Party.
In spite of split Unionist votes in many constituencies, pro-Union candidates still held the majority of Northern Ireland’s Commons seats in 1974.
A split Unionist ballot paper in 2024 may not yield the same result with many nationalists silently, but tactically, voting for the best Pan Nationalist Front (Sinn Fein, the SDLP, or Alliance) candidate to unseat a Unionist.
This could see Commons seats, such as East Antrim, East Londonderry and Lagan Valley, which have been Unionist of one shade since their formation in 1983, fall to either Sinn Fein or Alliance.
Unionism is already a minority ideology in Stormont and across Northern Ireland’s 11 super councils in terms of seat numbers. A split Unionist vote, or indeed, increasing pro-Union voter apathy, could see this result replicated at Westminster with the majority of Northern Ireland’s Commons seat being some shade of nationalist green.
The bitter medicine which Unionism must now swallow is that the only way to curb the Windsor Framework is to internally implode it from inside the Stormont Chamber. Unionism has not learned the tactical lessons of 1974 and 1985. You cannot alter the game by shouting from the sidelines - it can only be done on the pitch! In this case, the pitch is inside the Stormont Assembly.
In 1974, when the might of Unionism and loyalism forced the collapse of the then Sunningdale power-sharing Executive, the pro-Union community had no workable Plan B to replace Sunningdale.
In 1985 following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement which gave Dublin its first real say in the running of Northern Ireland since partition in the 1920s, the Ulster Says No and Ulster Still Says No rallies across the Province had no impact on Dublin interference.
The Donaldson camp has clearly put party unity ahead of political progress and opted for the ‘long game’ - waiting for the outcome of the next General Election in the hope Tory rule comes to an end and Unionism gets a more favourable reception from a Labour Government under Sir Keir Starmer.
In the meantime, the people of Northern Ireland will continue to suffer the cost of living crisis with no functioning Stormont Executive in place. The gamble for the DUP then becomes not just the hope that Labour will win the General Election, but that pro-Union voters will stay loyal to the DUP/UUP ‘Save Stormont’ agenda.
Would a combination of hardline DUP, the TUV and street-protesting loyalism create enough electoral havoc for the ‘Save Stormont’ DUP that it results in Donaldson being toppled as DUP boss after the election?
The biggest threat to Donaldson, especially in his own Lagan Valley stronghold, is not the street protests, but unionist voter apathy or anti-Stormont loyalist candidates splitting the vote.
Likewise, what happens if the anti-Stormont brigade within loyalism turn its attention away from the streets and onto the ballot box, not just by putting up candidates, but by either organising a mass boycott of the election or a mass vote spoiling exercise?
The other high wire political agenda could be to allow certain seats to be lost to the Pan Nationalist Front to get rid of anti-Stormont Unionist MPs, in the hope that the seats could be won back at a future General Election with more moderate agreed Unionist candidates?
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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.