Unionism cannot expect Sinn Féin to keep saving the Union…

Phelim Grant and Charles McCann were members of the IRA who died when a bomb they were placing exploded prematurely. At the beginning of February, some Republicans, including members of Sinn Féin marked their death by holding a commemorative event. During the commemoration, Sinn Féin’s ‘Unionist Outreach Officer’, Declan Kearney, gave a speech talking about the inevitability of a United Ireland, part of the speech was aimed at “Protestants and Unionists”, Kearney’s message to them was that “we want you in managing the change” and then went on to outline how “political Unionism” would not be allowed to use vetoes to get its way. The reception from Unionists (and many non-Unionists) was of horror that such a commemoration would be used as a platform to reach out to them. However, as much as there was revulsion, it also gave Unionists another opportunity to dismiss a United Ireland with Sinn Féin at the helm, citing their unsuitability and contradictory nature. This strategy that many Unionists have of using Sinn Féin to in some ways defend the Union is problematic as Unionism has almost become dependent on Sinn Féin for both its survival and the survival of the Union. If Sinn Féin disappeared in the morning, Unionism would have a huge problem.

On almost every topic under the sun, from what Unionism wants or, more specifically, what it doesn’t want, to its vision for the future – the answer will almost always include at least one reference to Sinn Féin. Many within Unionism (and even outside of Unionism) feel that the party is so toxified due to its association with and justification of IRA violence that this will be enough to repel a United Ireland. Others will outline the contradictory nature of Sinn Féin’s “partitionist” policies and how they differ north and south of the border, economic arguments that don’t add up, a sketchy history of being in government that some Unionists wish upon their southern neighbours. However, on Sinn Féin raison d’être, Irish Unification, their blueprint or lack of raises questions on how serious they are about it.

Those serious about Irish Unification are acutely aware of the problems of such a project being led by Sinn Féin and subsequently, there have been moves to relegate Sinn Féin’s role in the movement. This being said, many of the discussions are still heavily populated with people linked to the party but some of the leading figureheads, such as Neale Richmond, are not only outside of Sinn Féin but are also quite critical of them.

The problem for Unionism is that by building its platform heavily on being against Sinn Féin is that there is a diminishing return as Sinn Féin gets bigger and elected Unionism gets smaller. It also underlines a critical problem for Unionism, it is clear about what it doesn’t want; however, what does it want? Voters are unenthused at best about Unionism, and many are put off it and this is to say nothing of the Union itself. Many reading this will be pointing out that elected Unionism itself has done more than anybody to undermine the Union, this is a fact that cannot be ignored and indeed needs to be addressed. If a referendum was held in the morning, as much as the Unity campaign would be sidelining Sinn Féin, the Union side would be sidelining many from the TUV, DUP, and UUP, this begs the question, what is the point of these parties if they undermine the Union?

Many within Unionism are dismissive of the United Ireland discussions that are taking place, such criticism will be amplified when an Alliance party member joins the discussion. I have noticed party members from all of the main Unionist parties ask if Alliance and others would join a “Strengthing the Union” discussion? Such a query is nonsensical as no such discussions exist and there has been to date no attempt to form such discussions. In typical Unionist tradition, “Strengthening the Union” discussions would only happen around a referendum by which time they would be too late.

Unionism is incapable of making an argument in favour of the Union that doesn’t revolve around Sinn Féin. Again, it is clear about what it doesn’t want but it struggles to articulate what it does want. Some lip service will be given to the NHS but as has been well documented the health service in Northern Ireland is in a critical condition and needs complete reform. Northern Ireland is the worst performing health service within the UK with the longest waiting lists, Health Minster Robin Swann cited the need for more funding, however, Northern Ireland already receives more funding for health per head than any other region of the UK.

Unionists will also reference the benefits of being associated with the world’s 6th biggest economy. Northern Ireland currently receives around £15 billion per year from the UK government. This is one of the strongest arguments for membership of the UK, however, it also has its pitfalls. People within Northern Ireland are not feeling the benefits of these annual cash injections and there has been ample evidence down through the years of local politicians mismanaging and downright wasting public money. Furthermore, the grants create an economy of dependence which has allowed some public sectors to become bloated.

Reforming the Northern Ireland Health service, growing the economy, and becoming less reliant on government funding are all things that will save the Union, but it is evident that at present Unionism is not in a position to tackle these key issues.

Sammy Wilson was booed whilst appearing at an anti-Protocol rally in Markethill. This was a physical manifestation of growing discontent amongst Unionism with their elected representatives. Jim Allister stepped in to stop the booing, but even though Allister is a popular figure amongst many within Unionism, his party is unlikely to grow beyond one seat. This leaves Unionism forced to throw its lot in with the DUP despite many misgivings, some will say it’s the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and expecting different results. Interestingly the UUP was absent from the rally, their reception would likely have been much worse than what Wilson received as many Unionists feel the party is disconnected, ultimately leaving the DUP as their only viable option. This is the underlying problem with Unionism, it’s divided, overcome with infighting, and cannot move forward with any coherent plan for fear of a backlash. No Unionist party has put forward any realistic proposals on the Northern Ireland Protocol that commands the support of the majority of Unionists and this is before non-Unionists voice their views. However, this is nothing new within Unionism, division and infighting have plagued it since the inception of Northern Ireland, and if the Union is to survive this is a problem that will have to be addressed. Unionism is not ready to have meetings on “Strengthening the Union” or on doing some much-needed networking across Northern Ireland as well as building allies on a more global scale, Unionism needs to have wide-ranging discussions with itself. There needs to be a clear consensus of what 21st century Unionism should look like, key principles agreed upon that underpin the Union such as functioning health service, growing economy, reducing waste and demonstrating the Union works. Cultural aspects should be addressed too, Unionism embracing its Irishness and toning back on the flags and emblems that are littered across many lampposts. Northern Ireland doesn’t need to be as British as Finchley, it should be as British as Northern Ireland, encompassing the unique attributes of both Irish and Northern Irish underpinned with a sense of Britishness. These are difficult conversations that Unionism must have with itself across Northern Ireland because if it doesn’t have them it will forever be looking over its shoulder and a Unionism that cannot bring its base along can never hope to lead or sell the Union.

In the final analysis, elected Unionism is as much of a hindrance to the Union as Sinn Féin is to Irish Unity. It has never had to sell the Union before and at present is divided and incapable of selling even the most basic concept. People in Northern Ireland don’t want to hear about stopping Sinn Féin or “Never, Never, Never”, the mantras of old and new such as “Ulster say No” or “Union of People” are meaningless and irrelevant. Unionism cannot keep relying on Sinn Féin to save the Union, what is needed is a Union that works because that is the only thing that can save Northern Ireland.

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