Queen's Policy Engagement

Conservatism of Unionist Parties alienating younger unionist voters, but from them, not the Union

Professor John Barry looks at the results of the 2017 Northern Ireland General Election study by the University of Liverpool in the context of recent events in Northern Ireland.

Conservatism of Unionist Parties alienating younger unionist voters, but from them, not the Union

So you’re a pro-union younger voter in Northern Ireland, with progressive views on issues like equal marriage for same sex couples and a woman’s right to choose.  So how do such voters who #trustwomen and support #equalmarriage vote?  Well, according to a recent study from the University of Liverpool – the 2017 Northern Ireland General Election Survey – they do not vote at all…well not for local Unionist parties…though they may be counted upon to come to reject any referendum on a United Ireland to maintain Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as an integral part of the UK.

The publication of this new report could not have been better timed. The release of the report on Friday 4th August was followed by the new Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadker, Ireland’s first openly gay leader and son of an Indian immigrant, attending Belfast Pride on Saturday, as well as speaking at Queen’s University on Brexit.  Then we had the following tale of the two DUPs in relation to contrasting statements on social media about Belfast Pride from DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly and DUP MLA Jim Wells.

On Saturday, while the Belfast Pride event was taking place, she wrote, “Best wishes to all my friends and constituents celebrating today – all should be able to live a proud life free from hate, abuse or persecution.”

In contrast, on discovering that the National Trust had taken part in the Pride march and had initiated a ‘Pride and Prejudice’ celebration of LGBTQ heritage, Jim Wells tweeted

“I have worked for the National Trust for a decade and have been a member for 19 years. I have resigned and will now support other charities.”

As an aside, the PSNI along with the Irish Gardaí also marched in uniform in the Pride parade. This lead a local pastor to call on Christians to withdraw their support for the PSNI, thereby underlying the religious/theological underpinnings of Jim Well’s position somewhat, though its hard to think that the DUP would go so far as the Pastor though.

Or what about the British Army’s support for Pride? As the Ministry of Defence website stated:

“London Pride Week takes place from 3 – 8 July, and to underline the Army’s support for our LGBT Personnel, all Army units are flying the Rainbow flag. In addition, about 200 personnel from the Royal Navy, Army and the Royal Air Force will be marching at London Pride”.

So does Emma Little-Pengelly’s tweet suggest that there are some within the DUP who are less conservative on these social issues that the popular media presentation of the party or how other parties view them – here I am thinking of Green Party MP Caroline Lucas’ description of the DUP as ‘dinosaurs’ during a debate in the House of Commons in June this year. Does the tweet – but no subsequent public statements on the topic or interviews from her – mean, as local journalist Lyra McKee has suggested, that ‘LGBT people may finally have a friend within the DUP’? Who knows!  But it is an indication of how conservative the DUP is that a tweet not directly supporting the LGBTQ community and Belfast Pride (neither are mentioned in the tweet) is taken as evidence of ‘progressiveness’.

Having said that, more explicit public statements of support, the condemnation of homophobia, and policy changes and resources to support the LGBTQ community are the actions that this community demands, not least from the DUP party who, when Jim Wells was Minister for Health, went against scientific advice and maintained a ban on gay men donating blood.

In the wake of these two contrasting reactions from within the largest and most conservative Unionist party, it would be interesting for the University of Liverpool researchers to go back to their interviewees for reaction.  Does Little-Pengelly’s tweet give them, like Lyra McKee, grounds for hope that they could, one day, vote for the DUP?  One can only think that given the numbers of people within the DUP and their supporters that there are those who are in favour of equal marriage and maybe some who support a woman’s right to choose.

And will a tweet (really the most modest of ‘dipping one’s toes in the water’) lead to more such tentative steps? And equally, perhaps more importantly, will it lead to groups and organisations pursuing such progressive policy changes engaging rather than condemning the DUP?   And if the young pro-union voters in the report were to vote in another election, why wouldn’t they vote for the UUP who have been more progressive on such issues? After all, they explicitly supported equal marriage in advance of this year’s Assembly elections.

Is there an opportunity for the UUP to reach out to these pro-union younger but disengaged voters, given the current low ebb of the party’s fortunes (with no MPs and the 4th largest part in the Assembly behind the SDLP with 10 MLAs)?  However, while early days, there is little sign that the new Party leader, Robin Swann, will take them in that direction.   However, though he voted against same sex marriage in 2015, as leader in 2017 he has publicly said he will not sign a petition of concern to prevent it. And UUP MLA Steve Aiken was the only unionist party representative at the most recent Pride Talks Back discussion.

Perhaps the DUP is following the UUP’s lead here if we agree with the analysis of the report’s author, Jon Tonge, who has said that given 42% of DUP supporters agree with equal marriage (as opposed to 44% against it, and support is greater amongst younger DUP voters), it is only a matter of time before the DUP will ‘acquiesce’ to it. Just like the UUP, the DUP in his view will not block as opposed to positively support it. This is what progressive unionism looks like, just as a non-committal tweet also represents ‘progress’.  (But here the 2017 Northern Ireland General Election study notes that on the subject of abortion, 41% of DUP supporters and only 32% of Sinn Féin backers are outright in favour, which demonstrates that socially conservatives are not confined to unionist voters).

So, is this report good news for the Alliance Party?   Maybe not. On the one hand the report seems to indicate that such pro-union voters do not vote for the Alliance party – sometimes (perhaps now waning) viewed as ‘soft unionists’.  So either they don’t think Alliance is ‘soft unionist’ or unionist at all, seeing that Party’s neutrality on the constitution future for Northern Ireland as outweighing its more progressive stance on these social issues.  That is, even these socially progressive unionist voters seem to prefer a ‘hard’, unambiguously non-neutral unionist party to a socially progressive one such as Alliance (or the Green Party and People before Profit perhaps). Being strongly in favour of the 1998 Agreement and framing a political narrative around wanting a ‘United Northern Ireland’ (as opposed to a united Ireland or strong support for the Union) may not be enough for these younger unionist voters, the report suggests.

To paraphrase a comment attributed to Arlene Foster when she said ‘I am a unionist first and a woman second’, these younger unionist voters seem to be ‘unionist first and progressive second’, or maintaining the union between Northern Ireland and the UK is more important than promoting progressive politics within Northern Ireland.  It is indeed a curious position that these voters present.  It is hard to think that for these younger voters to support Alliance or the Greens and People before Profit would somehow undermine the union or compromise their belief in the Union.  Yet, even for these progressive unionists, the Union comes first. And more than that.  These progressive unionists do not support the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP).

These voters do not support the one pro-union, socially progressive Unionist party, namely the Progressive Unionist Party.  Here despite the PUP’s hard pro-union stance, together with its support for equal marriage and an extension of the 1967 Abortion act to Northern Ireland (which is did as far back as 1999) way before all other Northern Ireland parties, these are not PUP voters.  Other factors, the connection with the UVF, or the PUP’s involvement in the 2012/13 flags protest, or that they only have a couple of councillors, are perhaps the reasons for the lack of support for, other things being equal, this hard pro-union, socially progressive unionist party.

Should we call these socially progressive, pro-Unionist younger voters ‘Generation Referendum’, in that they seem to mostly decide not to vote for the DUP, UUP or TUV (or as indicated above, the PUP)? But they probably will come out for any referendum on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland in support of the Union.  But only if it’s Emma Little-Pengelly or Steve Aiken who asks them.



Professor John Barry
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John Barry is a Professor in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen's University Belfast. His research interests include: green political theory, politics and political economy of sustainability, greening the economy, environmental and sustainable development policy-making, environmental ethics, transition to a low-carbon/renewable energy economy.

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