Unionist Realignment, Battles (unionist and sea) and Fantasy Creatures

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The current episode of the Hatfield House talks along with the recent Irisgate travails of the DUP have again put the intra unionist battle and the possibilities of realignment back in the spotlight (pun intended). There is a distinct possibility that all this is nonsense, talked up by those with agendas which are not always exactly pro unionist (pointing directly at certain much more senior bloggers than myself). However, it is a sensible time to look at intra unionist battles and what could conceivably come of them.

The battle between the UUP and DUP has been going on for years. It must be remembered that forty years ago Dr. Paisley was a marginal figure and when the unionist monolith began to fracture the likes of Bill Craig were actually much more senior and significant figures within unionism than the Big Man. However, the DUP prospered more than any of the other pretenders to the UUP throne of lead unionist party. Any attempt by the UUP to move “leftwards” (as an aside I find the designation of hard line unionism as right wing and its opposite left wing irritating and inaccurate but it is a useful shorthand) resulted in segments of unionism moving towards the DUP or else the UUP splitting and moving back rightwards.

To digress for a moment: One of if not the greatest admiral Britain ever produced was Horatio Nelson. His most famous victory was Trafalgar; however, another stunning, arguably greater victory was that of the Battle of the Nile. In that battle the British divided their ships into two columns and attacked the French from both sides.
Although comparisons with Nelson are spectacularly inapt, the unionist leader who managed to do a Battle of the Nile on the DUP, was of course Jim Molyneaux. Molyneaux used to say that he had contained Dr. Paisley because he had “out righted” him. That was not, however, entirely accurate; rather what Molyneaux achieved was to have a broad church party which managed simultaneously to be more right wing than the DUP (e.g. Willie Ross) but had many members much more liberal to hoover up the more moderate unionist vote (Ken Maginnis). It also appealed to the Orange vote (Rev. Martin Smith) and had proper fundamentalists (Nelson McCausland); yet had a few Catholics (John Gorman); was right wing (Enoch Powell) and yet socialist (Chris McGimpsey) and even with working class roots (Harold McCusker). This eclectic mix allowed Molyneaux to offer a party which had members who could resonate with practically all unionists and for a significant time he reaped the electorate rewards, steadily eroding the DUP vote in all save the European elections where Dr. Paisley gained a huge personality vote.

Molyneaux of course never did much other than hold his party together: he certainly absolutely minimised any risk taking. After him Trimble, after having been elected by the hard liners, (I was there that September night at the Ulster Hall) promptly became a sort of moderate and also managed almost completely to destroy Molyneaux’s creation, ceding huge swathes of the party to the DUP.

Since that the UUP have largely tried to regain their position by being more moderate than the DUP and have gone on a long, largely fruitless quest for that mythical beast: the garden centre Prod along with the apparently equally unicorn like unionist Catholic. By the tie up with the Conservatives they seem to think that they had created a formula which would attract both sorts of unicorn and tame them to become the white chargers they needed to reclaim their rightful place as lead unionist party. To be fair they have gained some Catholic members and increased their profile. However, at their first outing in the European election, they owed their relative defeat of the DUP more to the TUV’s slicing off approaching a half of the DUP’s vote than to any huge increase in their own support. The ogres of the TUV had had more effect on the victory than the unicorns.

There have also been some signs recently of the UUP trying to do a Battle of the Nile and also out right the DUP over P&J. Reg Empey’s suggestion that they would not agree to P&J devolution even if the DUP wanted it seemed a fairly clever wheeze. In addition the antipathy many TUV members held for the DUP made realistic an appeal to them for second preference votes or their only vote in first past the post elections with no TUV candidate. Maybe the honest Lundies could be more hard line than the dishonest ones.

To all this now has been added another strand. I am extremely sceptical that in one day of talks anything remotely approaching an agreement on unionist unity was achieved. Pretending for a moment such an agreement had been achieved: any putative unity post Irisgate and the European election, would be less the DUP swallowing up the UUP than once seemed likely. Indeed in a UUP fantasy it could even be the UUP swallowing the UUP rather like an amoeba swallows its prey (likening Reg’s UUP to an amoeba seems somehow apt: sorry UUPers).

Of course the possibility of a united UUUC seems utterly pie in the sky. It would be a strategically significant error by the UUP, not merely because of the loss of some conservative talents as may (and again only may) have happened. The major problem with the UUP taking over the DUP is the UUP’s own lack of political talent. The UUP has some talent at senior levels: Danny Kennedy has some, Alan McFarland a bit, McNarry just possibly. However, compared to the cadre of senior DUP politicians there is no one. For the UUP to swallow the DUP would be for them a little like the previously mentioned amoeba engulfing a large quantity of metronidazole. Any merger of the DUP and UUP would be extremely likely to see the DUP’s leaders rapidly come to leadership roles in the united party, marginalising the UUP’s old leadership.

Much as a putative UUP DUP merger might be strategically inept; a UUP DUP electoral understanding might be tactically very sound. At Westminster it would instantly hand South Belfast back to unionism; though I agree with the thesis that Alasdair McDonnell is insufficiently obnoxious to unionist sensibilities, necessarily to justify destroying the UUP’s new post sectarian credentials, over his defeat. Still the lamenting from him about sectarianism is a sure sign of how rattled he is by this possibility (and quite amusing in itself). On the other hand any joint enterprise which could unseat the non member of parliament for Fermanagh / South Tyrone, a unionist hate figure who honours assorted terrorists and has suggested that a future generation of republicans might have to go back to violence, is much more easily justified. It would be the more so if a non party civic unionist could be found who would take the Tory whip.

At the assembly level, however, is where the tactical brilliance of even talking about joint candidates, merger etc. really lies. The recent thesis is that in any assembly election Sinn Fein will end up the largest party and, hence, thanks entirely to the DUP’s negotiations at St. Andrews, there will be a Sinn Fein First Minister. Of course we know that the First and Deputy First Minister are coequal: however, the psychological blow would be not inconsiderable for unionists and if they could not stomach the medicine (so carefully prepared for them by Peter Robinson himself), it would be unionists and not republicans who might be blamed for devolution’s collapse.

The idea of a pact / merger instantly changes that dread possibility. In a post merger / pact scenario if SF collapse the agreement and there are elections, it is practically inevitable that the largest party will be a unionist party and the First Minister will be a unionist. Therefore Sinn Fein, although they might gain a few seats (or lose a few over the paedophile scandals etc.) would end up essentially back where they started: the gun they have held to the DUP’s head would have exploded in their hands, possibly blowing off a few of their fingers. Worse there would probably also be a cadre of TUV members to cause trouble and in any further negotiations, the TUV would be there. If that happened, the governments might well be concerned that forcing concessions onto the united unionists would simply strengthen the anti agreement TUV.

I stated at the start that I was unconvinced that we are about to see unionist realignment. In addition there are very considerable dangers for the UUP if by chance the idea of a merger is real. However, one of the objectives of a political party is to increase the options open to it and reduce the options open to its opponents. The talk about unionist pacts and even realignment opens up additional options for the DUP and UUP (though I still suggest it is a long term toxin for the UUP). It also reduces options for Sinn Fein. It might make them think more carefully before they consider collapsing the assembly. In that maybe those who have been talking up the idea are actually using extremely Machiavellian tactics to try to keep the assembly going. That is probably an even more fanciful idea than unicorns.

  • slug

    Turgon – interesting, nicely written, blog piece.

    Thank you.

  • Banjaxed

    Interesting piece of analysis, Turgon. Fair play to you. I can’t really comment on it as it’s your opinion from a unionist viewpoint on the state of unionism and I’m not a unionist. However, while your comment on Alaister MacDonnell might also be justified (and true!) from a similar point of view that ‘… McDonnell is insufficiently obnoxious to unionist sensibilities’, I can tell you that, in the opinion of many of my friends in South Belfast of a greenish hue, he is looked upon as nothing more than an opportunistic gob***te. A true Mé Féiner, ie, not ‘Ourselves Alone’ (as in SF) but ‘Me, me, me, me, me, me!’

  • Dewi

    A Unionist pact /merger (don’t the rules mean it would gave to be a merger?)at Assembly level would require a degree of negotiation skills that have not been recently apparent IMHO.

  • http://redfellow.blogspot.com Malcolm Redfellow

    Regarding Turgon-the-Wise @ 10:50 PM:

    Umm.

    I have long respected the utterances of the Elven king of the Noldor, second son of Fingolfin, brother to Fingon, Aredhel and Argon, and ruler of the hidden city of Gondolin. I may disagree, but I respect … Now, I question …

    His personal account of the later years of the Ulster Unionist collapse is of great interest. It ignores one key point: all successful splits among unionists have been to the (political) Right. Yet, somehow, there has always been a need to devise a basis of ideology, though that thinly disguised core prejudices.

    My own epiphany was witnessing David Trimble at the opening of an Orange Hall. As I heard him on the loudspeaker, I could also hear the commentary behind me:

    – What’s he?
    — Ah, he’s Church of Ireland!
    — Church of Ireland! They’re halfway to Rome!

    If the Hatfield House concordat is what it may seem, we have explicitly entered an era beyond ideology, beyond local identity. It is become a new age of blatant political opportunism.

    Equally, Turgon-the-Wise assumes that the position among nationalists (and, yes, I would admit to identifying best with the southern, protestant, nationalists) is somehow (unlike that in the six counties) fixed and implacable. Yet: with a single stride, a hero can be free. Here are the magic words (prompted by a parallel post here on Slugger): “I will take my seat and fight for your rights”.

  • http://roevalleysocialist.blogspot.com nineteensixtyseven

    I enjoyed reading that, Turgon. Thank you.

    Was the ‘distinct possibility that all this is nonsense, talked up by those with agendas which are not always exactly pro unionist (pointing directly at certain much more senior bloggers than myself)’ line a naughty dig at Mr. Mallie perchance?

  • georgieleigh

    So.

    What can we glean from this move towards Unionist Unity?

    1. The constitutional position of NI remains paramount.

    2. Attempts to attract Catholics to the UUP were essentially insincere.

    3. All progress towards reflecting a left/right or conservative/liberal split, and therefore a ‘normalization’ of NI politics is stillborn.

    The conclusion must be that Northern Ireland is a failed political entity, save for one political objective, the state’s raison d’etre – the maintenance of the Union for the benefit of around 60% of the population.

    Northern Ireland’s days are surely numbered. The only question is the route to the graveyard.

  • Stephen Ferguson

    The conclusion must be that Northern Ireland is a failed political entity, save for one political objective, the state’s raison d’etre – the maintenance of the Union for the benefit of around 60% of the population.

    Northern Ireland’s days are surely numbered. The only question is the route to the graveyard.
    Posted by georgieleigh on Jan 25, 2010 @ 04:01 AM

    If ever there was a post to read whilst finding it hard to sleep it’s this one. ZZZzzz…

    Have you still not go the message that there will only ever be a United Ireland when the one million British citizens in the North East want it? Bleating on about ‘failed states’ and ‘days are surely numbered’ is like moaning about a lack of snow in the Sahara – it aint gonna happen!

    1. The constitutional position of NI remains paramount.

    – Surprising that for Unionists isn’t it?

    2. Attempts to attract Catholics to the UUP were essentially insincere.

    – There have and always will be catholics in the UUP. However, candidate selection should be based on who has the best chance of winning – not their religion.

    3. All progress towards reflecting a left/right or conservative/liberal split, and therefore a ‘normalization’ of NI politics is stillborn.

    – Whilst a sizeable minority of the population want to live in another country the Unionist/Nationalist split is always going to take precedent over a Left/Right split.

  • http://sun@set.com N.Exile

    Interesting analysis of the ebb and flow of Unionism, Turgon. Thank you for sharing your insights.

    From a nationalist perspective, let me give you my take/perception on Unionism. You like military analogies, I will use rocks. Bear with me…

    There are three Unionist rocks on the table. The UUP rock, the DUP rock and the TUV rock. The DUP is the biggest rock. It’s composed of very strong material (paisleylingerus). It could crush the others if it so inclined. The UUP is a slightly smaller rock, made of softer material (regiusempius) but still a fairly large rock. The TUV is the smallest rock. While a newly discovered rock, it’s cut from the same cliff face as the other two (the rock of orange). Despite its small nature, the TUV rock’s combustible composition (allisterjimius) could inflict some fairly heavy damage on the other rocks if used for that purpose

    However, at the end of the day, despite the differences in size and composition, to the outsider, all three are just rocks. The subtle (and some maybe not so subtle) differences that may entrance and enchant a geologist for hours are lost on most outsiders. All we see are rocks. Of varying size, yes. Of slightly different shadings, yes. Possessing variable capacities to inflict damage on themselves and others, yes. But, at the end of the day, when all is said and done, all three are simply rocks. Rocks. Hard objects that never move (recent glacial movement in the Cenozoic era excepted).

  • Cynic2

    Heard McDonnell this morning on Radio Ulster. Down in the sectarian gutter and desperately grubbing for votes in the leadership election. Desperately demanding a personal meeting with Cameron in an attempt to big himself up, he epitomises why we need a new style of politics in NI.

  • Scaramoosh

    “Whilst a sizeable minority of the population want to live in another country the Unionist/Nationalist split is always going to take precedent over a Left/Right split.”

    “Have you still not go the message that there will only ever be a United Ireland when the one million British citizens in the North East want it?”

    Politics should be about persuading people, and there are many arguments (not least economic) against a United Ireland. Unionism, however, seems incapable of grasping this fact, and, as is reflective in your words, operates as a one-dimensional, one-trick pony.

    As for the Shinners, they are quite used to, and quite happy, playing a long game. They know that demographics and immigration will deliver them their United Ireland.

  • http://www.unionistlite.blogspot.com oneill

    There is a distinct possibility that all this is nonsense, talked up by those with agendas which are not always exactly pro unionist (pointing directly at certain much more senior bloggers than myself).

    Turgon,

    A interesting piece and along with BobsBalls’ latest, containing much more nuance than Messrs Walker, Mallie and McDonald seem capable of at this moment. Your analysis of the potential dangers facing the UUP seems also seems sadly too accurate.

  • New Blue

    Stephen Ferguson

    - Whilst a sizeable minority of the population want to live in another country the Unionist/Nationalist split is always going to take precedent over a Left/Right split.

    This is spot on.

    However….

    The issue for people like myself is not the ‘head on’ challenge of Unionism over Nationlism, my issue is the growth of politics that provide opportunity and ‘product’ (see waht I did there?) for the electorate.

    I keep banging on about the Scottish political model – in an ideal world it is where I would like to see Northern Ireland.

    Those who are pro-union (and more importantly the growing number of people who are less than interested in the Nationalist Vs. Unionist battle) should have the opportunity to engage in left / right politics. Not to offer this to the electorate (regardless of that electorates religious or other beliefs)is to treat the electorate with ignorance and disdain.

  • aquifer

    The more successful the Unionist ‘Right’ the odder they look from England, the more credible SF becomes, and the more likely they are to get dumped from the UK.

    Orange Protestant Unionism carries the DNA of its own destruction and should be decommissioned as unfit for any political purpose.

    It may continue to function as some form of club or male cult, but it makes a unitary irish state more not less likely.

    Agreeing about what is wrong is not the same thing as doing something about it.

    Male pacting makes you look nervous, and proves you are alone.

    It is a symptom of political failure, not a recipe for success.

    I am content that my real relationships with the UK do not need Ulster’s sectarian ‘Unionism’.

  • New Blue

    Very well put aquifer.

  • PACE Parent

    Cynic2,
    Spot on with the McDonnell interview on Good Morning Ulster.
    It seems that Alistair is panicked about the prospect of losing his gifted seat in South Belfast and has employed sectarianism and the Orange Orders as the excuse for his impending failure. There is no shortage of Catholics within the Cameron Conservative Party. Now the question arises over who the middle class Catholics of South Belfast vote for? Gerry Adams’ Sinn Fein or the Conservatives?
    If the Assembly arrangements collapse he may have the opportunity to rise like a phoenix from the ashes as part of a voluntary coalition.

  • Cynic2

    Strange that SFs criticism of the pan Unionist talks has been somewhat muted. They have said what is necessary, nothing more. So perhaps they actually realise that if they want an agreement – and I think we can assume they do – the conservative analysis is right and that without a centrist Unionist coalition (of whatever form) they cannot get the agreement and stable Government that is in all our interests.

    Of course that will annoy the extremists like the TUV and the opportunists in the SDLP who both graze in the political cracks and have most to lose

  • Framer

    Turgon’s notion that “Alasdair McDonnell is insufficiently obnoxious to unionist sensibilities” may be true amongst churchgoing Protestants in South Belfast whom McDonnell has smarmed over at coffee mornings but his enraged, irredentist nationalism which emerges as soon as unionism does unionist things has been well noted and the electorate will be reminded of it.

  • Henry94

    Strange that SFs criticism of the pan Unionist talks has been somewhat muted

    Unionist unity would suit nationalists in my opinion. It would be worth a couple of Commons seats to have a Unionist block that could deliver.

    But nationalist unity should be on the agenda too. The SDLP lack momentum and the Sinn Fein project is stalled. I think we need a new party that can take the best elements of both and ditch the baggage.

  • PACE Parent

    Cynic2
    You ignore the impractical nature of mandatory coalition which has proved to be the undiagnosed,unresected malignant tumour quietly metastasising while the political body only concerns itself with the cosmetics. The DUP may have adapted their histological profile to keep the Assembly and their self-interests alive but upon microscopic examination they are still part of a highly malignant form of unionism.
    The TUV appear benign in comparison.

  • http://ModerateUnionist@googlemail.com Moderate Unionist

    Turgon,

    looking at things from the TUV perspective alone, surely its best chance of survival and growth will be if a deal is done between SF and the DUP?

    In relation to long term Unionist strategy it seems unlikely that there can be both Unionist unity and an arrangement with the Tory party although the suggestion of both being simulataneously possible is tactically very sensible.

  • Duncan Shipley Dalton

    Interesting piece and nicely written. I thought that was a very good description of the Molyneaux years although I think it was John Hunter who captured it more precisely with the phrase ‘steady as we drift.’ The problem with it of course was that the coalition was so fragile that the moment the perceived threat from the barbarians at the gate receded (they stopped the battering ram and asked for some talks) the coalition began to fracture.

    The notion of single unionist monolith arising again is very unlikely in my view. The political reality is one aspect i.e. the submerging of the lesser talents of the senior UUP beneath the DUP talent ship and would be of serious concern to the UUP members concerned but there remains the issue that the DUP whilst it has widened its reach has not really become a friendly place to those of the moderate unionist bent. The attitudinal and world view of the DUP is still pretty fossilised and I just don’t see those in the UUP of a more secular and modernist outlook having a comfortable place in it. The UUP has room for the likes of me (well in theory but not actually!) and has someone like Alex Kane (a talent you missed out mentioning) in a senior position, the DUP would have problems finding space for a self confessed anti-monarchist, atheist as its PR officer I suspect.

    In the short term a limited electoral agreement to give SB and FST a better run is worth it and in the interests of both parties and whilst we might not be moving in with the DUP there is nothing wrong with a quick fling as we still have some things in common.

    I think the Conservative UUP alliance is under pretty serious pressure though I have to say. In my view the local conservatives always took a far too expansionist and self important view of the whole thing. The argument for a pact with the Tories is reasonable but the argument for the UUP maintaining its independence (i.e. its interests and sometimes NI’s, don’t necessarily always align with the wider Conservative party’s interests) remains and at this point a short term link with the DUP for the selfish local reasons of both keeping SF out of the FM office and knocking out 1 or 2 nationalist/Republican MP’s is pretty sound. Add into this mix the fact that I still don’t think the Con/UUP pact is worth losing Sylvia Hermon and the balance is tipping against it. Tough to see how the UUP extricates itself at this point and Reg and others have invested lot of political capital into it but ultimately politics is the art of the possible and the pragmatic and I think pragmatism will likely win out here.

  • granni trixie

    The incompetant way that the UU have gone about the new project ie in not convincing their own team/members as to the benefits of formal links with the Tories, is hardly likely to inspire voters to vote for them? Another serious weakness is the initial discourse about inclusivity, given that Peter McCann and didnt find it so. What a nice mess they have got themselves into.

    DSD:in these circs, couldnt advise you to come back!

  • http://Conquistador17@gmail.com Conquistador

    Te SDLP lack momentum and the Sinn Fein project is stalled. I think we need a new party that can take the best elements of both and ditch the baggage.

    Posted by Henry94 on Jan 25, 2010 @ 08:51 AM

    I think Alex Attwood suggested that once on “The Folks on the Hill”. Something along the lines of the Irish Republican Alliance?

  • Framer

    Trevor Ringland is not home and dry. Tim Lemon is also in the running.

    Either way I suspect the candidate names will all be suspended about a week before nomination and a new set agreed.

  • Frustrated Democrat

    I am surprised that anyone thinks the Conservatives would countenance a deal which included the DUP either directly or through a third party.

    It is clear that Owen Paterson acting in his role as Shadow Secretary of State hosted a meeting to attempt to sort out Policing and Justice to avoid problems for a Cameron government if elected, it may be the UUP and DUP strayed onto other matters, if they did that would not mean the SSOS agreed with what they said. The fact that none of the Conservative NI team was present underlines the fact that this was not a party political meeting but the SSOS acting as he should.

    It is my understanding, contrary to weekend reports, that Owen Paterson has the full support of the Conservative Executive in NI and always had. For journalists to hide behind the term Senior Conservative is oportunistic jounalism, it is clearly apparent that not one Senior Conservative in NI would have made that statement.

  • granni trixie

    FD: good try, but an unbelievable spin.

  • Frustrated Democrat

    GT

    Fortunatley not spin but true

  • John Joe

    Hard to see who will benefit out of this, other than Cameron calling a long shot on unionist MPs holding the balance of power after the westminister election, and even then it would be very short sighted to go along with him now in case (a) he loses, or, (b), more likely, he swiftly loses interest if he doesn’t need the extra votes. For the assembly, surely there would have to be a merger rather than pact so that the conjoined parties would appear as one technical grouping, but if SF collapse it sooner rather than later, there would be no possibility of an official merger (anyone know the current status of designated parties to the Assembly or for future elections?).
    Oddly, other than from a competitive point of view, it’s hard to see whether SF would really care about losing Westminister seats to unionist pacts, since they don’t sit. The SDLP, particularly McDonnell, would be devastated to lose his seat (never mind the meltdown if SF took Foyle from them).
    Whatever about Westminister, where official and unofficial pacts between unionist parties have a long history, the Assembly has always had a reasonable seat bonus for the UUP and, more recently the DUP (in terms of the number of votes needed to elect an MLA). Whatever way the maths are done, its hard to see how a pact would have any real impact on Assembly seats, particularly with the difficulty in predicting the scale of the erosion of voters in different directions (Alliance, TUV, Green) that a pan-unionist pact is likely to have.
    Out of this whole episode, it looks like only the Tories might win, and even then, with the opinion polls showing a narrowing of the gap, what future for the Tory/UUP/DUP pact, in the event of another Labour government?

  • georgieleigh

    Stephen Ferguson

    “If ever there was a post to read whilst finding it hard to sleep it’s this one. ZZZzzz”

    And then you woke up and answered it. Hope your sleep wasn’t too interrupted.

    “Have you still not go the message that there will only ever be a United Ireland when the one million British citizens in the North East want it”

    Ermm. Calm down Stephen. I said NI’s days were numbered, I didn’t mention a United Ireland. Oh, by the way, I was under the impression that any future Border Poll would not have to be unanimous.

    “1. The constitutional position of NI remains paramount.

    – Surprising that for Unionists isn’t it?”

    Nope, just gently pointing out that there has, is and only ever will be one question up for discussion come election time. Not very normal that, Stephen.

    “However, candidate selection should be based on who has the best chance of winning – not their religion.”

    Aye aye, we get the message.

    “Whilst a sizeable minority of the population want to live in another country…”

    Well thanks for the laugh. You point out that Northern Ireland, a state that was designed to have a Nationalist minority, has indeed a Nationalist minority.

    Albeit an increasing one.