Too many at the party?
At the last council election Unionism - DUP, UUP, TUV, PUP and UKIP combined — lost a total of thirty — two elected representatives. Not to each other, as so often had been the case, but rather to parties that are not defined by the constitutional question. Parties that designate as other. The middle ground.
And so begs the question; why? To dismiss it as indisputable evidence of too many parties competing for the unionist vote both insults our own intelligence and neglects our lived experience. The Ulster Unionist Party, the oldest amongst us was founded in 1905, the Democratic Unionist in 1971, Progressive Unionist in 1979 and the youngest, Traditional Unionist, in 2007. These parties have co-existed and competed for decades whilst enjoying a Unionist majority on a number of councils the length and breadth of Northern Ireland.
Some would argue that it were perhaps a result of changing demographics. Now whilst it is indisputable — the demographics are changing — the results of the election do not support this theory. Sinn Fein balanced its numbers country wide — take from that what you will — whereas the Social Democratic and Labour Party lost a total of seven seats. The majority of which were lost to the middle ground.
Unsurprisingly, others would argue that voter apathy was the most likely cause. Admittedly on the surface it is the most probable. Scratch beneath it however and I’m not so sure. Besides it is household knowledge that voter turn out has been circling the drain post 98 yet Unionism, as I have said before, has enjoyed a comfortable majority in the time that has passed.
Instead I think people — people who have experienced loss through suicide, a depleted social housing market, an NHS under crushing pressure, in-work poverty, job loss or benefit cuts — have grown tired of the same old war cry; “vote us to keep them out!”. I think people have cottoned on to the truth.
The truth of course is that a vote for an aggressive, excessive or progressive Unionism does not in itself copper-fasten the Union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. That Sinn Fein and their ‘New Ireland’ language or the positions of responsibility they might acquire is not a threat to our union but rather deprivation and inequality are.
Which brings me to a conclusion. I believe Unionism and Nationalism will continue to loose voters to the middle ground. But rather than pessimistic I feel optimistic for the Union in any such case.