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Unionist parties are not about to merge – it’s hard enough holding them together individually

A choice of parties may be essential for unionism’s long-term health; the implosion of the Scottish National Party is a warning about putting all your eggs in one basket

Any crisis within unionism provokes talk of “unionist realignment”, and the resignation of Jeffrey Donaldson as DUP leader has been no exception.

Many unionist voters appear to picture this as a merger of the DUP and the UUP. Representatives from both parties will confirm they are often asked about it on the doorsteps, or pressed about it. They can hardly explain why this is unrealistic: it is difficult enough holding each party’s factions together without combining them all into one.

Hence the subtler term “realignment”, favoured by those in politics. The DUP and UUP are both essentially conservative parties trying to be more liberal, with haphazard results, while Alliance and the TUV pick off disappointed voters either side. It would make sense for the DUP and the UUP to become one proper conservative and one proper liberal party.

Ironically, Donaldson was central to both occasions when something like this might have transpired. In 2003, he defected from the UUP to the DUP, bringing an anti-agreement faction with him.

In 2021, after he was narrowly beaten to the DUP leadership by Edwin Poots, he had a private meeting with UUP leader Doug Beattie. When this fact emerged the following year, both men’s accounts of it differed.

Beattie said he had invited Donaldson to discuss defecting back to the UUP and was left with the impression those discussions would continue. Donaldson said he attended “out of courtesy” but only to discuss “the future of unionism and need for closer unionist co-operation”.

He replaced Poots as DUP leader weeks later. Had Donaldson defected, he could have brought a liberal DUP faction with him, given the fractured state of the party at the time.

The DUP now seems determined to put on a united front, rallying behind a moderate new leader, Gavin Robinson, with reports Poots might become his deputy. Robinson could end up taking his party further towards the UUP’s presumed role of a slightly more liberal broad church.

The unusual circumstances of 2021 were almost ideal to force unionist realignment, yet it did not happen, revealing how unlikely it is ever to happen. Certainly, neither main unionist party will arrange mass defections to the other.

Co-operation between them is more plausible, but it is complicated by the two electoral systems operating in Northern Ireland: first-past-the-post for Westminster; PR-STV for Stormont and councils. Electoral pacts appear to work at Westminster, driving much of the grassroots interest in a single unionist party. Unionism has previously regained the ultra-marginal seat of Fermanagh and South Tyrone by running an agreed candidate. A pact could also regain North Down and secure seats elsewhere.

Pacts are counterproductive in PR-STV elections, however. While it is possible for the unionist vote to be split at decisive stages of the count, a greater choice of parties should bring out more voters who transfer to other unionist parties, increasing seats and votes overall. Maintaining the total unionist vote has become critical, as it is effectively neck-and-neck with nationalism.

Beyond that crude numerical contest, a choice of parties may be essential for unionism’s long-term health. The implosion of the Scottish National Party is a warning to any movement that puts all its eggs in one basket.

Beattie has made a point of ruling out pacts, believing they destroy the smaller party. The DUP makes this decision easy by clearly expecting the UUP would always stand aside.

Unionism’s latest crisis comes with a Westminster election on the horizon, sharpening demands for a pact.

Robinson may be a good choice as leader but his east Belfast constituency is the DUP’s most marginal seat, at risk to Alliance. Donaldson’s Lagan Valley seat is also at risk to Alliance. A pact with the UUP would secure both for unionism, but the UUP’s price would have to be Lagan Valley – inconceivable to the DUP.

Beattie’s party, which currently has no MPs, has a chance of returning to Westminster by taking a DUP seat in South Antrim. This ensures a gloves-off election within unionism, frustrating those voters who want co-operation.

The logical solution to the realignment dilemma is for unionists to become like Canadians, with largely separate party systems at the regional and national levels.

More realistically, there could be pacts for Westminster and competition for Stormont if the DUP was prepared to give some ground. But in a place as small as Northern Ireland this would still create the stultifying impression of a merger, with voter alienation filtering down to Stormont and council contests.

While the DUP and UUP try to shove each other off the same narrowing ground, opinion surveys suggest the unionist population is finding its own form of realignment by gradually dissociating the concepts of being pro-union and being a unionist voter.

Donaldson’s resignation must have given that ratchet several more near-irreversible turns.

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