There is a story told of a man whose house was sinking in a flood and who had to seek refuge in the upper rooms of his home. 

When a boat came along and offered to carry him to safety, he refused, explaining that he had prayed for salvation and was confident the Lord would save him.

As the waters rose, he had to retreat to the roof where a helicopter spotted him and passed down a rope ladder. Again, he waved the would-be-rescuers away safe in the knowledge that the Lord would provide.

Shortly afterwards, he drowned and appeared before St Peter at the Gates of Heaven. “How did you die,” asked the guardian of the pearly gates. “I was drowned in a flood,” replied the recently deceased. “Despite all my prayers, God did not come to my rescue.” 

Peeved, St Peter responded: “Come to your rescue? Sure Our Lord sent a motorboat and a helicopter to save you and you turned both away.”

So it is with unionism today.

In the years since, unionism has continued to retreat in the city where only one of the four MPs returned to Westminster is now a unionist. 

Despite the mounting evidence that their beloved province is taking on water, they are praying that everything is well and that the tide of a United Ireland can be held back. 

But while unionists refuse to change, all around them society is moving on, leaving the diehards with nothing to cling to but their red, white and blue flags and their Orange parades. It’s doubtful whether there was ever a political grouping who could embrace such vibrant colours and yet make of them a monochrome political landscape.

But that is the achievement of unionism 101 years after the establishment of the state of Northern Ireland.

The DUP party, the flagship of unionism, is holed below the waterline.

In 1997, unionists lost their grip on Belfast City Council as the first representative from the Catholic community was elected as Lord Mayor — after a wait of a mere 384 years! 

In the years since, unionism has continued to retreat in the city where only one of the four MPs returned to Westminster is now a unionist. 

In 2017, unionists lost their majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly and held just 40 out of 90 seats in the last parliament.

In 2019, for the first time since the UK entered the EU, unionists saw their number of seats in the European Parliament reduced from two-out-of-three to one-out-of-three.

Similarly, at the Westminster elections in 2019, unionists won only a minority of the 18 seats up for grabs, losing their North Belfast bastion in the process. 

Can unionism hope for a revival in the Assembly elections tomorrow Thursday, 5 May? It’s hard to see any evidence that they have taken steps to reverse the flow of events – unless you count praying for salvation. 

OUTSTRETCHED HAND

And it’s not that unionism didn’t have many opportunities to save itself. They could have treated the defeated republicans post-1921 as equal citizens; they could have granted civil rights protesters their demands rather than batter them off the streets; they could have heeded rather than harried the hunger strikers; they could have rolled out the red carpet for Sinn Féin as the party entered the political process rather than try to steamroller their first representatives. Most of all, they could have shaken the outstretched hand of Martin McGuinness in friendship rather than spurned yet another olive branch. 

Instead of doing any of that, they prayed for victory and cursed their enemies. Even as the waters rose, they turned away those who might have been sympathetic to their pro-Union cause. 

The new minority communities: Of all the parties in the North, the DUP is most opposed to migrants. Indeed, its support for Brexit has alienated EU citizens who made their home here. 

The burgeoning gay community: The DUP's denigration of the LGBT sector has left it hopelessly out-of-step with our progressive youth. Belfast is the third youngest city in Europe after Dublin and Lyon and the Pride Parade each summer its biggest parade. Praying for 'conversion' isn't the best strategy for those who wish to grow unionism.

Women: Alone among European regions, abortion remains effectively banned in the North due, again, to unionism’s failure to move with the times. 

As if all that isn’t enough to send unionism into a cul-de-sac, its support for a hard Brexit has lost it the business class and infuriated well-off nationalists who now accept that a United Ireland is the only solution which can deliver peace and prosperity in our shared future. 

'GOLDEN YEARS'

In the 'golden years', unionists didn't have to worry too much about aggrieved nationalists – after all they could simply deny them 'one-man-one-vote'. Today, sadly for the DUP and co, all the constituencies above can vote and transfer!

In light of this changing dynamics, the unionist response: To pray for a victory for the politics of the past.

But when the counts conclude, it’s highly likely that Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill will command the highest number of seats and claim the position of First Minister — a milestone, for sure, on the long walk to freedom. 

How will unionism respond then? No doubt by blaming God but one wonders if unionist leaders would have been better employed at any time over the past century in seizing any one of the opportunities that came their way to love their neighbours.