THE Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson has been writing in his blog about the dread prospects for unionism if unionist unity is not achieved ahead of next May’s Westminster General Election.
His words are worth considering carefully, because while Mr Donaldson, like most politicians, has had his intemperate moments, he’s generally considered to be one of the more thoughtful figures in a party that’s increasingly dominated by more strident voices, as evidenced by the crass decision this week to welsh on a solemnly delivered assurance that Willie Hay’s successor as Stormont Speaker would be from Sinn Féin.
“A divided unionism presents the greatest threat to the union today,” he writes, going on to predict: “If the results of next year’s elections are repeated at the General Election in 2015, then Gerry Kelly could win North Belfast, Naomi Long could hold East Belfast and Máirtín Ó Muilleoir is in with a chance of taking South Belfast from the SDLP.” He then tacks on a sentence designed to make every true-blue supporter of the status quo tremble in their shoes: “For the first time in our history, our capital city of Belfast may not have a single unionist MP representing it.”
Mr Donaldson is, of course, outlining a Stalingrad vision of the future in starkly monochrome terms for a very particular audience – the increasing number of unionists who are open to the blandishments of the Alliance Party. And when it comes to any discussion of next May’s elections there two words which occupy the DUP strategists to the point of obsession: East Belfast.
Oh, sure – Nigel Dodds can feel the hot breath of Gerry Kelly on his neck in North Belfast and there are desperate attempts being made to delay the inevitable – we can see that grim drama being enacted on the streets every day. But in reality the relentless shift in the demography of North Belfast makes it only a matter of time before it becomes a nationalist seat – whether it happens in 2015 or 2020, the fact remains that the party knows that Dodds is the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke.
East Belfast – now that’s a horse of an entirely different colour. The loss of the seat in 2011 was a massive blow to the ego of party leader Peter Robinson and, as we’ve seen over the past four years, to his authority, which has drained away down the imposing hill at Stormont and into the gutters of the streets below. But more crucially, for a party sheathed in a carapace of arrogant self-belief after four decades of virtually unhindered electoral progress, the loss of East Belfast was an eye-wateringly painful blow; because if that seat could be lost – home of the shipyard and the seat of government – then the very foundations on which their Ulster was built might be starting to crumble.
East Belfast is often viewed by outsiders as a gritty working-class constituency because of its historic connections with the smokestack industries of the past and the huddled modest homes built to house the workers. But in fact it is replete with leafy streets lined with desirable homes in which reside a large Protestant middle- and upper-middle-class, many of whose vision of the future is not one of endless confrontation and rancour. It is that bloc which switched allegiance in 2011, and it is that bloc which the DUP hopes will be swayed by this harsh warning in a soft voice.
Vote for unionism or unionism is doomed: a grim manifesto indeed.