There are many lessons to be learned by Ulster Unionism arising from the council elections, many internal issues need to be resolved but there is one lesson that all of unionism needs to learn, based on this election the Union is at a real and tangible risk of being brought to an end.
Before anyone suggests that this is an attempt to lump the Alliance party or its electorate into a pan-nationalist front let me assure them it is not. Recent attacks on the Alliance party for its voting record were atrocious and self-defeating, though the defeats did not fall on those making the statements.
This is simply an assessment of the implications of the social change we are witnessing in Northern Ireland. As we move further from the history of conflict the definition of what passes for “normal” is changing and with it peoples aspirations. The vote for the Alliance party reflects that.
So why does this put the union at risk.
The DUP do not have veto on when a referendum will be called, voting for them will not stop it happening. After Brexit no government will call such a referendum and work out what it means after the result is known, instead in this case there will be, probably, years of negotiation covering every conceivable issue, pensions, welfare, citizenship, health, social care and all the rest. What people will vote on will be an agreement far more detailed and complex than anything produced for Brexit. And do not believe that the British Government will not contribute for many years to subsidise a United Ireland. Of course they will.
Within that agreement will be the vision of a new society, which will appeal to many not bound by the binary choice of the past. Unionism simply saying no will not save the union, wrapping the flag more tightly around our shoulders will not save the union.
To defend the union we must first define the union, not as it exists now but as an inclusive majority will want it to exist in the future. We must present an alternative to the United Ireland vision and we must recognise that the next generations have different priorities. Many of the social issues where people want change are part of Irish society, they are also part of British society yet ironically by remaining in the UK that change is denied to them in our wee country.
Having power in the short term and defining unionism in narrow terms across all aspects of people’s lives will eventually lead to the end of the union. An open unionism, embracing all faiths and aspirations, defining civil and religious liberty in its broadest terms, committed to delivering the new society that people want and guaranteeing that being British means being an equal citizen within the UK represents the best chance of maintaining the union. Ulster once stood at the crossroads, unionism stands there now.