I’ve only been a declared unionist for a very short while and already I’m a Lundy.

Published: 12 April 2022

Most recently this accusation has been levelled at me over a tweet I wrote the other day in response to the defaced poster of Doug Beattie showing him with a noose around his neck.

“Watching hard-liners attacking Beattie,” I wrote, “who is winning over people no unionists have ever reached, I remember hard-liners destroying Trimble — who had comprehensively outwitted republicans — and replacing him as first minister by Ian Paisley, who was outwitted by Martin McGuinness.”

However I should point out in my defence that there are many worse names that republicans have been calling me for the almost three decades in which I have been describing them in newspapers throughout our two islands as a cancer.

I understand why many people who, like me, deplore the Northern Ireland Protocol, think it treasonable to speak of any compromise, but I think they’re misguided.

I genuinely believe that it can be changed in a way that keeps its advantages (there are some) and gets rid of most of the disadvantages, but I don’t think that’s going to come about by any actions that destabilise the province.

Unionism needs to be clever.

It needs to out-smart Sinn Fein, not respond predictably to provocation.

It needs wholeheartedly to seek respect and friendship in Dublin, in London, in Brussels, in Washington and anywhere else where there are people that can influence events in these two islands. Learn from Sinn Fein, who have successfully presented the murderers, torturers and other criminals of the IRA as heroic freedom fighters, while demonising their victims.

Dale Carnegie published How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1936. It is still selling strongly. I’d be surprised if any unionist politicians ever read it, but you can bet that republican leaders – at least in the years before they hired communications consultants — had well-thumbed copies.

It was not in the short or long-term interests of unionists that ‘Not an inch’ intransigence wrecked the Sunningdale agreement in 1974, that they looked like fools when vast protest meetings got them nowhere with the Anglo-Irish Agreement or that marching into republican traps over Drumcree made them appear like thugs on international TV.

Wooed by John Hume — and later by Gerry Adams — nationalists were seen as the good guys in the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, to some extent in London, in Washington and on the continent.

With no support from the DUP, David Trimble had a terrible hand during the peace process, but because of his intelligence, his courage and his tenacity, he managed to copper-fasten the principle of consent into the agreement.

And there it still is.

Although I passionately believe that staying in the United Kingdom is good for the union and for Northern Ireland, I think there is far too much paranoia about the province’s constitutional status, which seems to me to be rock solid. Let’s just look at recent evidence since it began to dawn on people in the Republic that a united Ireland would require financial and political sacrifices of the kind that the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement imposed on Northern Ireland.

Polls showed, for instance, that only a third of NI voters much cared about unity, that faced with the prospect of changing the national anthem and flag and giving almost a million Ulster Protestants special protection including positive discrimination, the numbers in the Republic in favour of unity suddenly halved.

Now among the qualities Mary Lou McDonald lacks is a sense of humour, but she certainly made a lot of people laugh in March when she explained in her party’s ‘European Newsletter’ that went to all foreign diplomats in Dublin, that unification had never been so widely discussed before. “It is being talked about in every town and city in Ireland,” she said, ”not in aspirational tones but as a realistic, achievable and necessary future.”

Any nationalist friend I’ve mentioned that to just sniggered incredulously.

There was the Sunday Independent poll the other week asking which were the two most important priorities for government? Cost of living 65%, housing 37%, Ukraine war 20% and healthcare 25%, topped the list of 17. Northern Ireland/Brexit came in 16th at 1%.

I don’t get excited about who will become first or deputy first minister: they are, as Sinn Fein kept reminding us, equals. What matters in the May elections is that unionists’ votes outweigh nationalists’, which will massively strengthen the hands of those protocol negotiators.

The DUP’s strategic brain, Richard Bullick, has published a series of tweets on how to achieve it, showing how the most effective approach for unionists is to vote for all unionist candidates and then on to parties most likely to beat Sinn Fein.

Transfers are the key.

In the meantime, it would help if unionists concentrated on stressing the positives of the union (including, for instance, the exceptional growth in cyber security and creative industries) and lay off attacking each other.

Let those who want to, hold (peaceful) protests about the protocol, and let the UUP follow its strategy of showing non-unionists that they have a unifying vision that was so eloquently expressed by David Trimble in his brilliant and visionary Nobel Speech in 1998.

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