Unionist unity was at the forefront of a number of campaigns during this election and will no doubt be raised as an issue in advance of the forthcoming assembly elections. This throws up a number of questions, what is meant by unity and, in the context of what has been the attitude of the parties in this election, what now is the definition of UK unionism and what is our role within it?
From a position at Hatfield of seeking a form of pan-unionism involving the Conservatives and Ulster Unionists the DUP moved quickly to undermine the Conservative and Unionist project once it became clear they could not meet the terms of joining such a movement. Their focus on unity as defined by William McCrea is that there should only be one unionist party. Whether that should be the DUP on its own or the creation of a new unionist political party both options will require the final demise of Ulster Unionism
Alternatively a desire for unity based simply on short term political expediency and the delivery of a number of seats whether at Westminster or Stormont can only truly deliver in rare circumstances. While the agreement of all three parties to step aside in Fermanagh and South Tyrone was rightly based on the desire to end the misrepresentation of the constituency by Sinn Fein, the DUP sought to use that agreement to undermine the Conservative and Unionist project in other areas. Their desire to have candidates from the Conservatives and Unionists step aside in favour of unaligned independents in other areas such as South Belfast was motivated not by the interests of the electorate but by their own ruthless need to prevent any candidates raising their profile who would later pose a threat to DUP elected members. Any proposal in future which has at its heart the exclusion of the best new talent that unionism can offer cannot be considered.
The choice for Ulster Unionism in the next few days seems clear, to forsake the ideology of pan-UK unionism and greater involvement in UK politics and seek short term political representation based on subservience to a party that has demonstrated that its new attitude to the union is based on the two words most feared by true unionists namely “ourselves alone” or continue the path already chosen in the interests of the union. The greatest threat to the union is not that Nationalism will drag us kicking and screaming into a united Ireland but that we by our carelessness and petulance turn our back on the thing we hold most dear.
Of course things can always change, after all the DUP have over the past number of years specialised in ruthlessly attacking the UUP for any policy initiative we have taken only to immediately adopt such a position once they have gained electoral advantage. This time they have been quick off the mark even for them. The DUP having spent the past 6 weeks attacking the very idea of pan-UK unionism as weakening Northern Ireland’s position and themselves becoming the embodiment of Ulster Nationalism have taken yet another new position. Jeffrey Donaldson speaking only two days after the election has said in Liverpool,
“As we struggle to recover from the impact of recession, we are stronger together than we would ever be apart. Yet despite the strength that comes from unity, there are nationalist elements that seek to dismember the Kingdom and destroy the Union. Surely the time has come for unionists to come together to mount a strong defence of the Union. We must not allow nationalism or indeed extremism to hold the stage on this debate.
The case for the Union is a powerful one but it is often unspoken. I advocate the creation of a UK - wide movement that will draw together political and civic unionism in a campaign to promote the maintenance of the Union and to defend the integrity of the United Kingdom.”