UUP must accept decline is not temporary but a generational shift

UUP banner logo - slightly croppedExcellent analytical piece by the former UUP, now DUP member, Lee Reynolds (and late of this Parish) at the Critical Reaction blog on the roots of his old party’s underlying malaise. It cuts much more deeply and finely than any rash analysis of a single constituency.

For instance, he highlights the essentially introverted nature of the beast:

The UUP’s years of success had led to a complacency that blinded it to a steady decline in organisational capability. Its record of constituency work was poor – something of more significance in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the UK. Indeed, the DUP’s far superior performance in this regard was a key factor in it always avoiding extinction at the hands of the UUP monolith. Decades in power instilled the UUP with the belief that the party and the Union was one and the same thing. Added to this was a ‘Leader’ culture verging on feudalism. A common joke was that if the Party leader proposed a United Ireland, he’d have had the guaranteed support of at least 40% of the party delegates. This inwardness and self-contentment blinded its decision-making to the public mood.

He goes on to identify three key failures:

Beyond the party culture, however, and even the evident decay in basic organisation, three main political failures stand out. The UUP first failed to see the changes that were occurring in the SDLP, with John Hume’s greener, pan-Ireland hue being in marked contrast to Gerry Fitt’s openness to an internal, Northern Irish solution. Thus the UUP didn’t grasp the importance of the attempt at administrative devolution in the early 1980’s: something Paisley and the DUP did.

Instead, encouraged by Enoch Powell, close friend and trusted adviser to James Molyneaux, they pursued the 1979 Conservative manifesto pledge of integration. Powell mistakenly believed that Thatcher’s personal respect for him extended to policy. But without its primary architect, Airey Neave, brutally murdered by the INLA, the will to implement the policy was not to be found. The normal Tory behaviour of one policy for Ulster in opposition and another in government won through with the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement (AIA) the result. The Agreement and the failure of Unionism to defeat it was the UUP’s second failure. This political emasculation meant that the scales in any future negotiation were not tipped well for Unionism. And it would make any future agreement a difficult sell: Unionist voters knew that 1985 had been a colossal political defeat, and were inevitably going to react harshly to more and still greater failure.

The third failure was in the battle for ideas. Nationalism offered a framework for the solution to Northern Ireland – the so-called three strands (relations within NI, on ‘the island of Ireland’, and, between Dublin and London). Unionism simply didn’t engage. This meant that when the peace process began Nationalism was offering a route map and Unionism wasn’t. This policy drift had been highlighted in a 1987 paper, the Task Force report, jointly produced by leading members of the UUP and DUP (including the now DUP leader Peter Robinson). However, its criticisms were buried and the drift continued.

His menu for regeneration:

The party needs to end its self-justificatory position on the peace process and admit the errors its lost voters long since convicted it of. The party needs a new and distinctive narrative which is relevant to voters, and is one that its representatives can convincingly sell. The party needs to accept its decline is not a temporary situation but a generational shift. The party needs to stop imagining that its internal prejudices are shared by the Unionist electorate. The party needs to demonstrate that it is competent. It needs to develop a culture of discipline. It needs to engage in and win the battle of ideas in terms of the policy competencies of the Assembly. Its needs to gain a reputation for constituency work. And the UUP needs a coherent and sensible approach to Unionist co-operation.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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