Unionism is at a crossroads. But that crossroads has a clear signpost. The signpost was the 2017 Assembly election.
Make no mistake, 2017 was a bad election, indeed a terrible election for Unionism. Of the 18-seat reduction caused by the 2016 Act, 16 were lost by Unionists.
But look at why those seats were lost. They were lost because Sinn Fein were able to tap into an angry Nationalist pool of voters, stirred up by the intemperate language of Arlene Foster and others within the DUP. The DUP leadership goaded the Nationalist voters to the polls.
The Ulster Unionist Party lost four seats because of the reduction in overall seat numbers. Additionally, it lost seats in West Tyrone, Mid Ulster and Newry and Armagh because of Arlene Foster and where the party was directly in competition with the DUP in East Antrim it gained a seat.
The DUP lost out largely because they were in such a dominant position. They were looking to hold three seats in a large number of constituencies and failed to do so in all but Strangford. They additionally lost seats in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and Belfast South largely because they are a party which struggles to win over high preference transfers from smaller parties.
Vote transfers are a hot topic at the moment. But the voting system is not going to be changed any time soon. Instead of railing against the system, we have to work with it.
Which is why the call for a single, united Unionist party is crazy. It could have some limited and temporary success in Westminster elections but Nis Westminster MPs are lost in a sea of English ones. They can occasionally hold a whip hand over a government, but with Corbyn determined on a course towards oblivion for Labour, it’s unlikely that NI’s MPs will be needed by anyone for a while.
So the STV-based Assembly maths is crucial. For Unionism as a whole to seek to coalesce around the most transfer-toxic of all the political parties in Northern Ireland would be lunacy. The Ulster Unionist Party has clearly made itself more transfer friendly in recent years. In a decent number of seats, it is within shouting distance of either a first or a second seat. Seats that could at least keep the Unionist bloc ahead or on a par with the Nationalist one for a decent period of time.
If the two current larger parties again fail, there is the obvious possibility of a move to the centre. A Unionist party has to be holding ground there for that not to be a total disaster for the Unionist electoral position. So the UUP disbanding and being folded into the DUP would be an abrogation of responsibility.
It also totally ignores the fact that a number of UUP members are not unionists to the detriment of all else. Many would feel more comfortable in Alliance than in the DUP. A number of their voters would feel the same way. The crude maths that DUP+UUP = Win is moonshine.
Arlene Foster has presented herself as the vision of a strong Unionist leader. She is nothing of the sort. She has led Unionism to the edge of the cliff. It is up to the members of the unionist parties to decide which way they go down from there.
The UUP will be choosing a new leader soon. I will post again once the candidates are revealed and we get Paddy’s odds (assuming a market is opened).
One small point on the politics of the ‘other side’ in the NI equation. The SDLP recovery was based almost entirely on being transfer friendly and piggybacking on a Nationalist surge. Their vote share actually fell. While they have a talented team, they hold a number of seats narrowly.
Lucian Fletcher is a long standing contributor to PB who lives in Northern Ireland.