Unionist unity almost came up in secret negotiations, but the Tories refused – now it could happen suddenly

Early on a cold Sunday morning in January 2010, two groups of senior politicians set off from Belfast. They traveled separately, but their goal was a historic union reunion.

Delegations of the DUP and Ulster Unionists arrived at Hatfield House, the Hertfordshire mansion of one of Britain’s leading political families.

Their host, Lord Salisbury, was a staunch ally of the unions throughout the 1980s and 1990s. During this time, as Viscount Cranborne, he was Leader of the House of Lords and a member of the Cabinet Committee on Northern Ireland, which played a key role in the nascent peace process.

What took place in a mansion north of London was a combination of theatrics and a hard-nosed business of making political deals.

Lord Salisbury took his guests to see some of his family’s archival treasures – everything from the original plans for the plantation of Ulster by Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury to the draft death warrant for Mary, Queen of Scots. .

The group of Ulstermen viewing these items included DUP leader Peter Robinson, his deputy Nigel Dodds and MP Sammy Wilson, as well as UUP minister Danny Kennedy, chairman David Campbell, treasurer Mark Cosgrove and MLA Tom Elliott.

It wasn’t just some local business. The talks were chaired by Northern Ireland Conservative Shadow Secretary Owen Paterson and the discussion was about a trade union union which, as was historically the case under the old Official Unionist Party, would see Northern Ireland MPs take the Tory whip at Westminster.

David Cameron has already entered into an alliance with the UUP – this will expand it to include most of the Ulster trade union movement.

Close

Former Prime Minister David Cameron

Even now, many of those present are watching what they say; the secrecy agreement pretty much lasted for more than a decade. But it is clear that those present have come much closer to the restructuring of the trade union movement than most people imagined.

This, and the reasons why it failed, now matter because there is a growing buzz in the DUP, UUP and other wings of unionism, where discussions about moving towards either a DUP-UUP merger or a solid alliance become more serious.

This eagerness to explore a new form of trade union politics is driven largely by desperation; The Brexit reaction showed union leaders were unhappy, while the extent of the division means many unions fear that Sinn Féin will be Northern Ireland’s biggest party for years to come.

In 2010, as now, the crisis was the catalyst for the search for radical options. A few days earlier, it was revealed that Iris Robinson was having an affair with a much younger man. The sexual facts of the scandal horrified DUP traditionalists, while those who weren’t bothered by the aspect were worried that it exposed the scandal of how she got tens of thousands of pounds from real estate developers.

Mr. Robinson’s leadership was the most vulnerable, and Sinn Féin threatened to withdraw unless he agreed to hand over police and justice powers. In such a difficult situation, an idea was born.

Mr. Paterson expected to meet with Mr. Robinson at Stormont more than a week before the Hatfield talks.

Instead, he was asked to meet the DUP veteran at his home in east Belfast.

It was clear that the pale-faced DUP leader was in trouble. The next day in the House of Commons, DUP MPs approached Mr Paterson and told him the party was over and was in desperate need of help.

Realizing that it was possible to provide the Tories with votes in the House of Commons, Mr. Paterson suggested that the Shadow Cabinet negotiate to explore the possibility of creating an alliance.

Approval was given, and Cameron’s chief of staff, Ed Llewelyn, along with Paterson’s adviser Jonathan Kane, were originally to join the talks.

Mr. Cameron chickened out just before the start of negotiations, canceling Mr. Llewellyn’s participation. However, many participants agree that the deal was surprisingly close.

Members worked on joint principles for a new electoral machine, and there was discussion that William McCree and David Simpson were being sacrificed by the DUP—not only because they were in the seats that the UUP wanted, but because they represented the old paisley shape. unionism, from which the party wanted to get away.

One of the UUP representatives present said, “We had a deal that weekend and the Conservatives chickened out,” and Cameron feared “poison around Robinson” because of the scandal that filled the Sunday papers that morning.

Close

Former DUP leader Peter Robinson

Two other UUP and DUP representatives confirmed that the Conservatives were the main stumbling block. This is important because it means that the DUP and UUP are generally in agreement.

The previous month, the Orange Order convened the two main trade union parties for tacit rapprochement talks.

However, one of those present said: “Negotiations with Orange were not as serious as Hatfield House.”

But within 48 hours of the participants flying back to Belfast that Monday, news of the secret meeting was leaked to journalist Eamonn Malley.

“The leak killed him,” said one of those who knew what had happened.

Hatfield’s deal appears to have centered on the two parties first cooperating in an alliance, agreeing on candidates but with the possibility of an eventual merger.

Two years later, another attempt was made with members of the DUP and UUP to discuss commissioning a professional survey on how the public would perceive such a move.

As the news leaked again, former UUP MP David Burnside, a key figure in the talks, told BBC Spotlight that they considered “a completely unified union party”. This, he said, would include “one party, one membership, one leadership, one manifesto, one parliamentary party in Westminster, one parliamentary party in the executive branch, one party in Europe.”

After that flurry of attempts to create union unity about a decade ago, the appetite for unionization waned.

Both DUP and UUP saw big drawbacks to the merger; not only did they realize that this would be a clumsy compromise, but they also feared that part of the electorate would perceive it as sectarian numbers pushing even more moderate Unionist voters towards the Alliance.

It is understood that an attempt was made to nominate at least one candidate from unity before the May election, but UUP leader Doug Beatty blocked the move.

Recent events seem to be changing the minds of some.

Many of those who shared Unionism have already left. One of the few remaining high-profile figures in the early 2000s controversy is Sir Geoffrey Donaldson, and he is so accepted by the current UUP that he was invited back to join last year.

One UUP staffer said of Sir Geoffrey and Doug Beatty, “They are really friends.”

After Lord Trimble’s funeral on Monday, a veteran Ulster Unionist, who is a secular pragmatist and one-party skeptic, said bluntly that something serious had to be done to stem the decline of Unionism.

They pointed out what the UUP had tried – an alliance with the Tories, an alliance with the SDLP, a semi-alliance with the DUP, a move to the right, a move to the left – and it all failed.

At the heart of their attraction to unity research was the chance to shift the DUP more firmly towards a Trimblist trade union movement. This man said: “Now everyone is for the Agreement. There is one politician in Unionism who opposes the Agreement – Jim Allister.

Another Ulster Unionist, a longtime traditionalist for unity, said there was a growing desire to explore it.

But they said there was deep animosity between the parties, and some behind-the-scenes figures in the DUP would be unacceptable in such a situation.

Another influential trade unionist said: “In my opinion, this is our salvation or our ruin, depending on whether they go for it.”

He added: “There is talk, but unless the people are ready to overthrow the current leadership of the Ulster Unionists, I don’t think it will happen.”

In terms of politics, there is little now that separates the two parties. The DUP is moving towards a conscious vote on social issues, removing old debates about gay rights or abortion.

The DUP is increasingly citing the Belfast Agreement approvingly.

Of the DUP’s key objections to the Agreement, most are now either impossible to eliminate (prisoners cannot be returned to prison, RUC cannot be resurrected) or have already arisen (Sinn Féin police support).

The only important issue that could still be negotiated is the dismantling of the mandatory coalition form envisaged by the Agreement. And yet, at the very moment when other parties, especially the Alliance, begin to speak out loudly in support of the revision of these aspects of the Agreement, the UL is silent on them.

Some in the DUP now fear that ending the mandatory coalition is not in its best interests and will remove it from power forever.

Although Trimble denied that he negotiated these arrangements with a view to future union decline and insisted that he believed the Agreement would normalize politics and bolster support for the Union, the fact that the DUP is now beginning to cling to a structure it is so long condemned is an implicit endorsement of Trimble’s work.

All this means that any unity cannot logically include TUV.

Thus, it would be incomplete trade union unity; anti-agreement sentiment in unionism rose in response to the protocol at precisely the moment that the party that once defined itself in those terms abandoned its earlier opposition to the 1998 deal.

But perhaps the most important aspect of any such grand deal will be how it is responded to within nationalism.

If a unionist mega-party emerges, it will most likely attract even more votes in favor of Sinn Féin and lead to the collapse of the SDLP.

Some pro-unity trade unionists are optimistic about this prospect. One said bluntly: “We are moving towards two dominant parties.”

But history points to a clear danger to Unionism.

Protestants and Unionists are known to think independently and are prone to disagreement.

Those who want to unite trade unionists can do so for a little while before it splits again and still be able to secure stronger nationalist unity around Sinn Féin.