During a year in which a global pandemic has eclipsed all other matters in Northern Ireland, Unionism still managed to have an extremely troubled 365 days which has left it in a damaged and weakened position. As it is the time of year for year-end reviews, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at how Unionism has performed in 2020.
The major talking point is the Northern Ireland Protocol which has come about as a result of Brexit. This protocol certainly changes the relationship Northern Ireland has with Great Britain, and we will soon see the realisation of a border in the Irish sea. Whilst from a Unionist perspective this is incredibly damaging, the actuality is that this impacts everyone across Northern Ireland. Unionism has failed to address this problem in a meaningful manner, the need to form alliances with different bodies is what politics is all about, however, Unionism and specifically, the DUP has inextricably welded themselves to the Conservatives and more worryingly to the European Research Group (ERG) which has resulted in DUP being cast aside by both. Unfortunately, the lessons from this episode have not been learned, and since December of 2019, the DUP have sought to blame everyone else for their negotiating failures. This leads me to begin the 2020 review of Unionism with the DUP themselves.
The DUP took a pounding in the December 2019 General Elections, losing three seats, one being that of their deputy leader and the person whom many feel was the power behind the throne, Nigel Dodds. I have said three seats as the DUP should have won North Down too, but the sheer anger amongst Unionism made this impossible. The DUP needed to use 2020 to take stock, realign their objectives, bring in new blood, and with it a new leader. In a very weakened position and without any time to evaluate the 2019 elections, the DUP entered negotiations which ultimately resulted in Stormont operating again. As the DUP was desperate for the Executive to reform and suffering from their general election wounds, they were unable to secure any meaningful reform in how the Executive would function; they also had to row back on their opposition to the Irish Language Act which was always untenable. A spoonful of sugar was offered to the DUP in the form of a “cultural framework” that would include Ulster-Scots, something few Unionists have any interest in.
The Executive has been hampered by dealing with the pandemic since its return; however, during this time, it would be difficult to sell the DUP’s performance as satisfactory. At the beginning of the pandemic, Arlene Foster was threatening to reassert herself as the leader of the DUP and as the First Minister of Northern Ireland. Ms. Foster performed very strongly and showed genuine leadership when the Bobby Storey funeral controversy arose; she managed to completely isolate Sinn Fein, such was the public anger across Northern Ireland at Sinn Fein’s disregard for the COVID regulations that they helped form.
However, Ms. Foster was quickly undermined by her own party, the Westminster team have gone on innumerable solo runs that have undermined Foster’s stance, Sammy Wilson on at least five occasions has flouted mask guidelines and openly opposed lockdowns. Furthermore, Sammy Wilson took to social media to attack the health Minister and even on one occasion attempted to troll him, such was the lack of self-awareness in these actions, Sammy Wilson was unable to realise that these attacks were making the Health Minister more popular and Sammy himself less popular.
Further financial irregularities have come to light regarding Ian Paisley who also inadvertently sent an open email exclaiming how he wouldn’t let the Northern Ireland Executive track and trace him, not ideal when his leader is promoting the scheme. Edwin Poots has sought to undermine Arlene Foster within the Executive, again undermining lockdown regulations and blaming COVID spikes on Nationalist areas – something that was very quickly debunked. In recent times Alderman John Carson made false assertions about the vaccine that his own leader and First Minister was promoting and advised he would not be taking it. Further to this, early on in the pandemic, Alderman Carson blamed the pandemic on the homosexual community. Ian McCrea who has been rejected by the electorate at Westminster, Stormont, and Council level has attained a role on a North/South body and was paid £9k despite having not attended a meeting in two years. The list could go on concerning these types of breaches in both standards and party discipline; however, the most notable aspect is that the DUP has not disciplined any of its members this year. This is something that is not playing out well with the electorate.
Performance-wise, the DUP is certainly not causing their rivals any great concern, the Executive team looks weak and frequently appear to be out of their depth – there is a wider discussion needed on who gets Executive positions and what qualifications and experiences do they have to justify their involvement? I have spoken before about how the Westminster team has become an embarrassment with particular emphasis on the behaviour of Sammy Wilson. Not only is this team proving to be ineffective within their role, but they are also always ripe for lampooning – it’s disconcerting that in hindsight this is the team that was key to the most significant constitutional change to the UK in a generation. Jim Shannon is probably the best DUP performer in Westminster; he has the actual ability to form relationships with people outside of his party, is very involved in the role of an MP, and has at times taken a more pragmatic position to the COVID regulations.
The DUP leader was again accused of misunderstanding legislation, this time concerning the Function’s Bill” which resulted in 11 members of her Stormont team abstaining from the vote – a hugely unprecedented move within the DUP. Hugely significant in that it also involved former SPAD Richard Bullick speaking out against the bill, whilst another former DUP special advisor Tim Cairns called it his moment of the year, to be fair I may not have deemed it quite as significant as Tim does.
The DUP’s strategic failure to avoid the sea border will go down as a huge own goal, the constitutional position of Northern Ireland has been weakened and the economic implications will be damaging for everyone in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, the DUP is failing to sell Northern Ireland’s membership of the Union, one could also say that via their words and actions they are undermining it. A lack a self-reflection and accountability coupled with arrogance and incompetence is driving voters further away from the DUP, the biggest issue for the DUP is that they seem incapable or unwilling to do anything to redress these issues.
The DUP’s problems should be an opportune time for the UUP to capitalise and prepare to be a party in waiting. The unfortunate reality is that the UUP is not seen as a credible alternative and they are predicted to return with an even smaller team after the next Stormont election. Their main problem is that nobody is clear on what they stand for, they are a grouping of decent individual members but lacking in a collective sense of purpose or drive. Their standout performer is continually Doug Beattie and Doug remains for me the only viable leader within Unionism. Steve Aiken has not put his stamp on the party, it’s unclear what his vision is and he seems to have been completely neutered since standing the UUP aside in North Belfast. Robin Swann has been one of the most important political figures within Northern Ireland in 2020 and he is someone who took his role as Health Minister extremely seriously. At no point did Minster Swann bring party or constitutional points into his remit and at all times he has provided sombre and realistic leadership. The portfolio he undertook is not one anybody would have liked (remember it was the second from last to be picked) but during a pandemic year, it was a frankly unpleasant role.
It would be wrong to overlook issues that arose during Minister Swann’s tenure such as not granting care homes adequate protection, slow to action in other areas, and significantly serious non-COVID illnesses that have been put on the shelf with no plan in place on how to deal with these. However, like many of the positions that we have in the Executive we have to be realistic on our expectations when someone unqualified is given such a significant portfolio, also could a different MLA have performed better? Minster Swann will certainly want to close out this pandemic with the vaccine being rolled out, however, is he the person to drive forward the necessary change within the health service? There will be huge difficulties in 2021 and people will want hope, a vision, and a plan. The Minister having been thrown in at the deep end will know himself if he is capable of driving through this change. Regardless of what the Minister decides, the template that he has set for professionalism within an Executive position is something that should be replicated by all departments. I think few can question Minister Swann’s integrity in a very difficult ministerial position.
Polls are predicting that the TUV will see some additional support as a result of problems within the DUP. It is still very difficult to see the TUV increasing their current number of seats within Stormont from one. The TUV brand is increasingly out of step with a changing Northern Ireland, and their continued refusal to accept Sinn Fein in government is unrealistic. People suggesting the TUV as an alternative are in some ways expecting someone of Jim Allister’s ability to stand in all of the constituencies, whereas the reality will be candidates of varying levels of ability, all of whom are unlikely to gain any traction. Jim Allister in 2020 has continued to be an important voice in the Assembly, scrutinising policy and providing an articulate voice. The problem for Jim Allister and indeed Unionism is that he opposes almost everything and does not have a realistic vision of a Northern Ireland that can genuinely work in the modern era. The TUV might feel they’ve had a decent year in terms of potentially picking up some slippage from the DUP in terms of votes, however, turning this into more seats still seems to be beyond them.
Two former UUP stalwarts and current Lords within the House of Lords have made the news this year for all of the wrong reasons. Lord Kilclooney is very active on social media. However, many felt that due to some of the bizarre tweets coming from his handle that it was perhaps a parody account. Unfortunately, the account has proven to be valid, and following up on a racial reference concerning Leo Varadkar some years ago, recently Lord Kilclooney referenced “the Indian” again, this time about Kamala Harris. The backlash was so extreme that it made it into newspapers in the United States and Lord Kilclooney was trending on Twitter in the UK at the time. Lord Maginnis has had a heavy suspension imposed on him from the House of Lords for bullying, aggressive behaviour, and homophobic language used against security staff which was witnessed by several MP’s. In an interview with William Crawley that was nothing short of a car crash, Lord Maginnis appeared oblivious to his behaviour and almost attempted to explain his actions on being a diabetic. Earlier in the year there was the case of David Vance, formerly of the TUV also trending on Twitter for racist comments against Marcus Rashford. Vance’s account was sailing close to the wind up until this point and this tweet about Rashford resulted in Vance’s permanent removal from Twitter.
These three cases of quite high-profile Unionists (Vance boasted the highest online following of any Unionist) granted exposure to Unionism beyond Northern Ireland and each case depicted an unpleasant image to the world, an image we must remember that has never been extremely positive to an external audience.
Brexit – The biggest issue is the fallout from Brexit and the impact this will have on Northern Ireland. The immediate plan for Unionism should be in building up a cross-party working group to mitigate against the implications of a sea border. It’s difficult to fathom why the DUP when they had the balance of power in Westminster did not make unfettered access to and from GB an absolute red line and flag this point with both the Irish government and the EU, building up an alliance with the ERG was very short-sighted and ultimately ineffective.
What does Unionism stand for? – This is something that we in Unionism need to review and from this review, a clear set of values can be developed that a broad group of people can sign up to. In today’s Newsletter, Ben Lowry argues that Liberal Unionism has been damaging for Unionism. I don’t agree with this assessment and besides Unionism should be a comfortable home for liberals, conservatives, and everyone in between. The problem now is that political Unionism almost solely reflects a conservative ideology with liberals often unable to align with the confused messaging that is coming from Unionism.
Leadership – As mentioned in a previous article, the leadership vacuum within Unionism is resulting in its unravelling, the is an area for immediate redress in the new year, the current situation is unsustainable.
Discipline and Scandal – Until these matters begin to be addressed in a manner the public expects, then Unionism cannot expect to provide moral leadership of any kind. Inaction on breaches of discipline and general scandal is hurting Unionism and will continue to do so until it is addressed consistently.
New blood, young blood, and females – Whilst people wanting to get involved in political Unionism is declining, it’s noticeable that with the remaining crop they are older and more often than not male. With Unionism at present being such an unattractive beast to many, it’s very difficult to see it being able to attract new blood until or unless internal reform occurs. If we look at the SDLP which appears to be a party in the ascendancy, they were able to recruit Matthew O’Toole and as a result, he now appears to be a rising star within the party. Such an acquisition for Unionism would very much be out of the question and the contrary appears to be the case at the moment with talent leaving political Unionism.
Messaging – Many of us in Unionism at times cringe when a Unionist appears on TV or the radio as we know that a horror show is likely to ensue. Even with the previously assured politicians such as Jeffrey Donaldson and Nigel Dodds who are now tied in knots and often left humiliated by the interviewer. Much was made of a recent debate involving Nigel Dodds in which he invoked concessions to Sinn Fein in 1998 by the UUP as a response to the DUP’s failed handling of Brexit, the Nigel Dodds of old would never have succumbed to this type of nonsense. Many Unionists are also critical of those brought onto panel shows to represent the Unionist cause, it’s generally someone uninformed or perhaps the same person continuously. It was therefore hugely refreshing on ‘The View’ to listen to Newton Emerson, Alex Kane, and Sarah Creighton talking informatively and passionately about Unionism under the assured stewardship of Mark Carruthers, more of this, please!
Online Footprint – Unionism has often been lampooned and indeed trolled for some of its online content, whether that be social media accounts or online blogs etc. Sometimes we do ourselves absolutely no favours by setting out spurious arguments, making shortsighted points, or failing to engage constructively, accurately, or indeed informatively with someone with an opposing point of view. Whether we like it or not, online political communication is becoming as important as anything that happens in the “real world”, therefore we need to up our game in terms of both engagement and the accuracy of our content. There are so many “Unionist” accounts on social media that make very little attempt to promote Unionism and often seem intent on offending people outside of their own viewpoint, this ironically does a disservice to the cause they claim to be defending.
On a positive note, there are signs of Unionist accounts engaging more online and engaging in good discussions. Brian John Spencer has also embarked on an interesting and useful project aimed at creating podcasts featuring discussions with Unionists of different shades, very often they are Unionists we hear very little about.
Senate – I know that some Unionists will be heavily critical of me for highlighting this, however, I feel losing Ian Marshall from the Senate was unfortunate. Unionism has precious few friends outside of Northern Ireland, therefore having a Unionist ally in the Senate to argue our case and to provide a positive image of Unionism seems like a no brainer. I am hoping that Ian will be returned in the near future and it would be of great benefit to Unionism if he receives more support from the Unionist family.
Selling the Union – Still Unionisms biggest shortcoming, in fact, political Unionism is undermining the Union all too often. One of the key benefits of the Union is the NHS, it’s not perfect and it needs to be reformed here in Northern Ireland but it’s still a wonderful service. Therefore, I cannot fathom how it was the second last position to be selected within the Executive and I cannot understand how a DUP MP was allowed to attack and troll the Health Minister online. There are the financial benefits of the Union as well and the continuity that it can offer. Opponents will criticise the NHS and its shortcomings, the impacts of Brexit, Northern Ireland’s overreliance on grants, and our inefficient use of finances received from Westminster. It’s worthwhile taking onboard these criticisms and addressing them now whilst we’re still apart of the Union rather than making promises to address them during a referendum.
Unfortunately, 2020 was a bad year for Unionism with almost all of our problems self-inflicted. However, Unionism seems incapable of meaningful self-reflection and then from this taking corrective action. The public is beginning to get tired of Unionism, no longer a significant political force, it’s now reduced to an entity ripe for lampooning that is made up of various individuals, some of questionable ability whom we place our faith in and are more often than not let down by. If death is by 1000 cuts then the Union has passed 900 and realistically a Unity referendum is unavoidable, we now need to begin preparing for that.
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Choyaa is a Fermanagh Orangeman