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.