'Ulster stands at the crossroads,' Northern Ireland's prime minister Terence O'Neill famously declared in 1968 as the Troubles began to take hold. A crossroads moment is once again looming into view. If current polling is to be believed, Sinn Fein will be returned as the largest party following Thursday’s assembly election. Such a victory would pose an existential problem for Northern Ireland’s unionists – and the governments in London and Dublin.
Unionists only have themselves to blame for this crisis. While what they stand for – the preservation of the Union – is obvious, the means by which they want to achieve it is anything but. The critical question for the movement is how they will hold things together in Northern Ireland, and it is one it has failed to convince voters it has the answer to. As a result, it risks playing a key role in delivering Sinn Fein the role of First Minister.
The unionist campaign has not been a happy one. Defined by a series of rallies against the Northern Ireland Protocol, they have been part of a broader revival of ideologically pure, rally round the flag unionism – the opprobrium rained down upon the Ulster Unionists for pulling out of the rallies and claiming there is a more constructive way to deal with the Protocol has been almost McCarthyite in tone.
The DUP, cowed and fearful of losing votes, have tacked to the right. Jeffrey Donaldson has said there will be no return to the Executive until Protocol is dealt with by the UK Government. Subcontracting the party’s strategic direction to an assortment of revanchist loyalist activists – and Jim Allister of the Traditional Unionist Voice – smacks of desperation.
The Protocol has aggravated many and the resulting electoral plurality it has caused within unionism will, if the polling is correct, deny it the role of First Minister. But we also shouldn't ignore the downward spiral unionism has been trapped in since May 2016. That month, unionist parties won 49 per cent of the vote; the latest polling suggests unionist support could lie anywhere between 41 and 35 cent.
In just a few years, unionism has lost its majority at Stormont and at Westminster. This election should have been fought on a strategy of winning those people back and broadening unionism’s electoral reach. But instead of self-reflection – with the honourable exception of the Ulster Unionists – and providing a vision of what Ulster they would like to see, political unionism has instead turned in on itself; it is small wonder that a sizeable amount might stay at home or vote Alliance on Thursday.
Some unionists struggle to stomach the notion of playing second fiddle to a Sinn Fein First Minister. Many will likely endorse having nothing to do with the Executive in that eventually. If Sinn Fein becomes the largest party – but the unionist parties collectively have more seats – various groups that have been pulling the DUP’s strings in recent months have said the party should not participate in the Executive. This is somewhat ironic given that it was changes pushed through by the DUP in the first place that meant the largest party alone would win the right to nominate a First Minister.
Whoever ends up triumphing come Thursday night, there are any number of reasons not to support devolved government in Northern Ireland: its non-existent record of achievement, suffocating mandatory coalition, sub-standard political class and even worse civil service being among them. But refusing to participate because the system you designed does not deliver the result you want would be an invidious place for the DUP and unionism to end up in.
Political unionism is in a strategic and intellectual dwam. Sinn Fein becoming the largest party at Stormont does not mean that a border poll will happen anytime soon or indeed, that when it comes, nationalists will win. However, to give itself a fighting chance, unionism needs to stop feeling sorry for itself and start thinking strategically again. A Sinn Fein victory on Thursday could be the movement's final warning.