Unionists, as ever, instantly misdiagnosed the cause of their calamity last Thursday, suggesting it was due to Unionists “not coming out”.
Actually, more people voted Unionist first preference than in any election since the first Assembly Election in 1998. What happened was not that Unionists did not come out, but that non-Unionists did.
Only ten months ago, non-Unionists saw no real issue with the constitutional status quo. It was possible to live in Northern Ireland with the benefit of the UK subvention and UK-standard public services while, if you so choose, living an all-island life (trading freely across the border, accessing Dublin Airport, playing GAA or whatever). From June to December, all that changed. Suddenly, the all-island life came under threat – it may no longer be straightforward to trade or travel freely across the island; your identity was openly abused by DUP Ministers; and on top of that DUP Leaders were blatantly taking money from your public services (at best through incredible incompetence).
The DUP was primarily responsible but it had been backed to nearly every intent and purpose by other Unionists. They had been involved in pacts not just to unseat abstentionist MPs but also perfectly capable and hard-working ones such as Naomi Long; Mike Nesbitt’s sudden attempt at moderation on issues ranging from same-sex marriage to Europe was rejected by most of his colleagues and most of his voters; and Unionism as a whole suddenly looked not just unattractive but outright dangerous. The UK itself, with its obsession with Trump-like figures such as Nigel Farage, also became much less attractive.
Therefore, on Thursday, the voters decided to remind Unionism that it is a minority.
Still, Unionists are in denial about that. At the last census, fully six years ago, the number of people ticking “British” was 48% and the number of people ticking “Protestant background” was 48% – noting that Alliance voters like me were among that number! Thus “Unionism” was a minority interest even back then, shielded from this reality at elections only by the low Nationalist turnout.
Going by census trends, it is now almost certain than there are more people of Catholic background than Protestant background in Northern Ireland. If the Union were such a brilliant idea, this would not be a problem for Unionists; but Unionism presents itself consistently as a Protestant and socially conservative front. There is zero chance, with the DUP to the fore, that that will change. It is therefore a minority and declining interest.
The inevitable response to this will be to deny it is true, but also to recognise at some level that it is. It is the heritage of Unionists that the response will, more than ever, be appeals towards “unity”, even though this unity will not appeal to any more than 45% of the population (and, given its likely social stances, probably rather less).
Unionist Unity is now a matter of when, not if. Yet it is not Unionists who will decide Northern Ireland’s constitutional future.