Whilst perusing the 'Elsewhere' section of Unionist Lite, I came across this interesting piece. It describes how the pro-Union vote in Northern Ireland is currently suffering a five-way split, and how the Republicans could take advantage of this to claim the First Ministry. Generally, this ties in with those who bemoan the lack of 'unionist unity' as the beginning of the end, or symptomatic of some kind of failure. I draw the opposite conclusion.
Before I begin, I have to take issue with the tone of his conclusion. If Sinn Féin become the largest party in the Assembly due to 300,000+ unionists not voting (and that isn't including the 25-30% of Catholics who are pro-Union) and a five-way split in the pro-Union vote, then that does not equate to Northern Ireland having a 'nationalist majority'. Sinn Féin could hold the First Ministry and still get roundly defeated in a border referendum. I think most people know this.
And this is why I think that the current turmoil on the pro-Union side is not necessarily a bad thing. Back when the Unionist Party completely dominated politics in Northern Ireland, it was a sign of insecurity. General Elections were called to coincide with threats to the border, the Republic maintained an irredentist claim on the province and various armed Republican groups waged a long, urban, guerilla war against the United Kingdom's presence. Unionism had to remain united in the face of constant, daily threats to its position.
Not anymore: the position of the Union is secure; the need for a border referendum is now guaranteed by both the governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic; and the Union remains the choice that a substantial majority of Northern Irish citizens would vote for in a border referendum.
With this bedrock of security in place, unionism no longer needs to be a monolithic force fighting, day in, day out, against the possibility of a united Ireland. Instead, the unionist electorate have begun to behave like their compatriots on the mainland - they have become political consumers. Being 'unionist' is no longer enough to bring some 300,000 voters out at all. Yes, they say. You're pro-Union. That's fine. But what about my taxes/public services/neighbourhood/school.
Unionist politics has been slow to adapt to this new environment. Those arguing for unionist unity are looking back at the previous dominance of the OUP and learning the wrong lessons. It wasn't so huge and dominant because it represented some kind of triumph: it was such because unionists did not feel secure enough in the future of the union to campaign on their very real differences of opinion on economic and social issues. Far from being a sign of weakness or defeat, the fragmentation of the pro-union vote represents a very real triumph. It says that unionists can now afford to start being different, to start disagreeing, to start being Labour or Conservative or Liberal Democrat or suchlike. More than unity ever could, it says we've won.
And every attempted murder by dissident republicans signposts their realisation of that fact.