The lead-up to this year's Westminster election is becoming hijacked, on the unionist side, by increasingly bitter proposals, rebuffs and recriminations over unionist unity.
All of the unionist parties seem to be obsessed with the possibilities of making electoral gains – or the risks of failing to make such gains – that the issue of unionist unity raises. The DUP have been trying for six months to entice the UUP into some form of unionist pact, particularly in two constituencies that they consider winnable – South Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone. It used to be just Nigel Dodds (for obvious selfish reasons) who obsessed about unionist unity, but as time has passed other DUP members have joined in:
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A few days ago the DUP even added a 'countdown' calendar to their website, created a dedicated page on unionist unity (with six Youtube videos), set up a Unionist Unity group on Facebook, and an on-line petition.
The UUP has been tempted by the DUP's siren songs, though recently it has turned against the idea of electoral pacts – in public at least (Fermanagh and South Tyrone is another story) – apparently confident that its shaky links to the English Tories will give it a sufficient electoral boost.
The TUV – the epitome of unionist splitters – has even joined in. On 11 March Jim Allister called on the other parties to "Stop the Grandstanding and Get Real About Unity in Marginal Seats".
The media is carrying more and more stories about the issue, and as the election gets inexorably closer the temperature just gets higher and higher.
What does it matter – in real terms – if any particular seat is held by unionists or nationalists? Northern Ireland has precisely 18 seats at Westminster – a tiny fraction of the total, and completely irrelevant except in the unusual case of hung parliament. Even then, though the seats are of limited use, as any attempt to use them to extract preferential treatment would be avenged later by either the beneficiary party (who was thus blackmailed), or the losing party (who was excluded from power by the Northern Irish block).
The 18 seats do not have any real decision-making power. Even if one party held them all it would still not hold UK-wide governmental power. They are merely tokens, or trophies. Westminster elections are not elections to a constitutional convention, nor are they a sort of First-past-the-post border-poll. Northern Ireland's MPs are, despite their pretentions, largely irrelevant at Westminster.
In Northern Ireland, however, with its infantile and obsolete political culture, the gain or loss of seats is accorded an importance far beyond their worth. If unionism wins in Fermanagh and South Tyrone or South Belfast they will greet this with wild jubilation despite the practical irrelevance of the win. If it wins either seat through an electoral pact (open or concealed) the irrelevance will be multiplied. The seats are merely symbolic, but in a retarded political culture like Northern Ireland's these symbols seem to count in the medieval minds of the parties. Snatching possession of the seats is similar to the capturing of Standards in medieval warfare – irrelevant in itself, but symbolic of victory or defeat. The fact that one has to go as far back as medieval warfare to find an analogy is, in itself, telling.
What is relevant, both in this election and in others, is the number of votes that a party or a block receives. The real future of Northern Ireland will be decided by its electorate, not by its Westminster MPs. Unionism could win 17 out of the 18 Westminster seats and still not command a majority of the votes. Northern Ireland could be put out of its existence even with a dozen unionist MPs at Westminster.
If unionism achieves its ambition and wins both Fermanagh and South Tyrone and South Belfast it will be overjoyed, but it should look more closely at the votes it receives, at the proportion of the vote it receives, and at the trend of that proportion over time. Seats can come and seats can go, but if the trend is still one of nationalist advance and unionist retreat then the trophies are ultimately pointless.
Nationalists should not be influenced by the unionist frenzy and by their obsession to capture trophy seats. Nationalists should look at the longer-term picture, and work towards increasing the nationalist proportion of the vote. The loss of Fermanagh and South Tyrone – which would be almost inevitable if there is a single unionist candidate – should not be seen as a defeat, as long as the combined nationalist vote, and proportion of the total vote, do not decline. South Belfast was always a 'borrowed' seat (even in 2005 unionism got 10% more than nationalism here), and its loss would not be surprising.
The vote in numerical terms, but more importantly in proportional terms, is what counts, both in the short and the long-term. Westminster, elected through the less-than-fully-democratic First-past-the-post system is not representative of popular opinion – the Assembly is more representative, and since it is elected by proportional representation there is far less opportunity for 'trophy'-seeking. The Assembly also has some powers, and these are exercised entirely by Northern Irish members, unlike Westminster.
Nationalism should therefore treat the Westminster election as what it is – a loud but essentially irrelevant show as far as Northern Ireland is concerned. When it is over and the votes are all counted, what will matter is not whether a unionist celebrity can claim to 'represent' Fermanagh and South Tyrone, but whether the evolution of the nationalist proportion of the vote continues to give hope that the very entity of Northern Ireland can be consigned to history in the relatively near future.