David Shiels is a PhD student at Peterhouse, Cambridge and is writing his thesis on post-War Conservatism. He is Secretary of the Cambridge Group for Irish Studies and is an occasional commentator on Northern Ireland politics.
Ever since David Cameron and Sir Reg Empey announced last July that the Conservative Party and Ulster Unionist Party had entered into talks to establish a ‘new political force’ in Northern Ireland, there has been vigorous debate in the Northern Ireland press about the future of Unionism in the province. Over the past few weeks that debate has taken an interesting turn, with politicians from the two Unionist parties – the Democratic Unionists and the Ulster Unionists - debating the merits of something known as ‘Unionist unity’.
The plea for ‘Unionist unity’ is not new, and it would involve an agreement between the DUP and UUP – probably in the form of an electoral pact – to work together to ‘maximise’ the Unionist vote. Traditionally, the call for unity was made by politicians from the Ulster Unionist Party, fearful of never-ending splits within their ranks, at a time when the DUP were interested only in dividing Unionism.
Since topping the polls at the 2003 Assembly Elections, the DUP have realised that uniting Unionism would work to their advantage. During the 2005 General Election the DUP made much of its offer of a ‘deal’ with the UUP which was designed to keep two constituencies with narrow Unionist majorities in Unionist hands. The DUP offered not to field a candidate against the UUP in one constituency on the understanding that the UUP would agree to a reciprocal arrangement in another; but the UUP, sensing that this was an attempt to carve up the Northern Ireland electorate on sectarian lines, sensibly rejected the proposal. Both seats in question fell to Nationalists – one to the abstentionist Sinn Fein – and since then the DUP have frequently peddled the myth that the UUP cost Unionism two seats in the Commons.