Last week Arlene Foster told an election rally in Derry that a poll on Irish unity should not be allowed because it would destabilise the North. Do you think she was at all conscious of the huge irony in making that comment in a city that suffered more than most under unionism? I suspect not. The leader of political unionism is blind to its faults and to its role in creating and sustaining decades of political instability, injustice, poverty and conflict.
Talk to most unionist representatives about the deep rooted religious and political discrimination that prevailed in Unionism’s apartheid state and they dismiss it out of hand as propaganda. No senior unionist leader has ever accepted any culpability on the part of the state for creating the conditions for years of inter-communal conflict.
What they do instead is frighten their supporters with dire warnings of what equality for nationalists would mean for them. The loss of privilege. The end of dominance. The boot on the other foot. This has been the tried and tested strategy of unionist leaders from the latter part of the nineteenth century. Then as now British Conservatives allied themselves with northern unionists and the Orange Order. At that time it was about opposing a Home Rule Bill being introduced into the British Parliament by Gladstone. Now it’s about pushing through Brexit.
In 1885 the Tories, unionist business class, landed aristocracy, and the Orange Order working together stirred up memories of the conflict resulting from the plantation centuries earlier. They claimed that Home Rule would mean domination by the Catholic Church. It would also bring about, they said, the loss of industrial jobs in Belfast at a time when the northern economy was booming.
This so-called ‘constitutional issue’ – the constitutional connection or Union with Britain - has dominated northern politics since. Every election fought before and since partition has been dominated by this single overriding issue. Rarely do bread and butter matters get raised in northern elections by unionist candidates, except as side issues. The big question is where you stand on the Union. Are you for or against it? And if you are a unionist which party do you believe is more able to protect your interests. Fear of change is exploited mercilessly.
As a political strategy it has proven to be an effective weapon for unionist parties in mobilising and maximising their vote. This week the DUP leader rolled it out again. She told the media launch of her candidates, “At this election, we will seek a mandate for the union that really matters – the union with Great Britain… In recent months, there has been increased noise about the possibility of a united Ireland. Rather than be concerned about that debate we need to seize the moment and positively present the case for the union that matters most to the future prosperity and well being of Northern Ireland – the union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.”
However, the Brexit referendum vote last year, the Assembly results in March, and the census conclusions from 2011, are evidence of a shifting demographic and political dynamic in northern politics. Those who defined themselves as ‘British’ in the census were for the first time in almost 100 years a minority in the northern state. The Assembly election saw the hardline unionism of the DUP and UUP lose its majority in the Assembly. The DUP and UUP leaders are mindful of all of this. For that reason they are engaged in a degree of co-operation in several constituencies in the June 8th election.
For the rest of us the Westminster election is an opportunity to challenge the folly of Brexit and demand that the North be designated a special status within the EU. And an opportunity to win more support for the objective of Irish unity.
The contradiction in Arlene Foster’s position now stands exposed. You can’t claim, as the DUP leader does, that she is confident in the pro-union position in the event of a poll on Irish reunification and then deny citizens the opportunity to make a choice. While I would not claim that last June’s remain was a vote for Irish unity, nonetheless 56% of citizens voted to remain within the EU. The figures indicate that a significant section of unionist opinion voted to stay in the EU. The economic arguments warning of the disastrous consequences of Brexit on the northern economy and society obviously had an impact. In this context the decision last week by the EU Council, that in the event of Irish reunification all of Ireland will automatically be in the EU, substantially changes the political dynamic around the question of Irish unity.
There is now a powerful argument, as a result of the threat Brexit poses to communities, to jobs and the economy, which if properly articulated can persuade more and more people that our economic self-interest is best served by an all island approach.
This election is an opportunity to put forward our alternative Republican vision and policy proposals. The outcome will be closely scrutinised. It will shape the talks to re-establish the Executive. It will be seen as another measure of support for the potential of Irish unity.
Sinn Féin currently holds 4 of the 18 seats in the North. There is real potential to increase this. And to build on the Assembly election result. Every vote will count. The deadline for postal and proxy votes is 18 May. The deadline for registration is 22 May.