This is a re-post of a guest post I wrote for O'Neill over at Unionist Lite.
As O’Neill invites me to write this, we stand in the aftermath of a general election that was not a good one for unionism – every model it had going suffered defeat. The dominant party was decapitated in Belfast East; Unionist Unity failed to break through in Fermanagh & South Tyrone; this led to a nationalist counter-move that delivered in South Belfast, and attempts to integrate the province into mainstream British politics floundered in North Down and South Antrim. A string of disappointing results but, if we learn from them, potentially useful lessons. What unionism does now will be crucial, and it is my view that there is only one route that offers a positive, long-term hope for a unionist triumph.
It is time for unionists, of all stripes and none, to join the mainstream political parties of the United Kingdom. Unionist MPs can no longer afford to be a caste apart in Westminster, sidelined and relevant only in coalition negotiations where their regionalist influence is resented. More broadly, unionism can no longer afford both to compete within itself and to come across as a cultural expression with a limited reach. All that will lead to is more split votes, more disaffection and a continued erosion of the pro-union electorate. Instead, unionists should opt for real unionist unity: with their fellow British citizens on the mainland.
Only normalised mainland politics in Northern Ireland will ever represent a final victory for unionists. As long as a completely separate six-party system is maintained in Northern Ireland, the union will never be normalised - if the SNP or Plaid could have completely separate party systems in their respective countries would they not jump at it? Without normalised politics the ‘us and them’ will always remain, and support for the union amidst Catholics will remain untapped, wasted on the neutral Alliance or the SDLP. Catholics are not automatically nationalists: crude population projections and headcounts mask support for the union within sections of the Catholic population that mainland political parties, untainted by their histories, can tap. A wholesale transfer of MPs, MLAs and Councillors into the mainland parties (all of which organise in NI) would force them to take Northern Ireland seriously. What better way to ensure a unionist –sympathetic government in Westminster than to provide it with an electoral stake in the province?
The alternative, an orange-hued monolithic approach to ‘unionist unity’ that attempts to turn Shankill Road into some form of Maginot Line, is doomed. Unionist Unity is postponed surrender: an admittance that unionism is sapped of courage and hope, forced into a deeply unappealing rearguard action that will only serve to further alienate moderate Protestants and Catholics alike. The path that offers salvation is the path that offers perhaps the greatest short-term courage: unionists must decisively reject the trappings of an isolated and sectarian past, and embrace fully the politics of the United Kingdom. To win, unionists must come home.