DUP: Unravelling the Irreconcilable

Peter Robinson has been unusually vocal in a party political sense in the weeks following the Convenant celebrations. The predictable appeal for the somewhat elastic and elusive concept of unionist unity on the eve of the Covenant was sound party politics, trying to frighten horses in the UUP.

The mischief continued with a public statement of support for Mike Nesbitt over the standing down of the deputy leader of the UUP Assembly Group.

More interesting in that riposte was his assertion that:

“The unionist unity I want is one that reaches out and grows support for the union beyond its traditional base”.

Last week, the First Minister then declared his support for movement towards an official opposition, in order to combat tribal headcounts:

To merely turn each election into a run-off in each section of the community is to impede the development of politics here”.

Given that the main structural reason for the persistence of such tribal run-offs in local elections is due either to poor negotiating skills or deliberate connivance on the part of the DUP, (more likely the latter, given that the amendment was voted for by Lords Browne and Morrow at its passage), these two positions are irreconcilable.

One cannot have a “unionist unity” that grows the unionist electorate, as it would contravene one of the fundamental principles of electoral politics, namely that party poltical fortunes are fluid, move in cycles and reflect a wide range of factors. One negative cycle could collapse unionist turnout.

At a time when the Union is more secure than ever before, the pro-Union electorate will naturally seek to give full effect to its ideological diversity; in this light, a reductionist, single-issue platform would likely be completely disastrous to inspiring voters to come out to vote.

The First Minister’s “aspiration” for a single party, if realised, would ensure that only nationalism would benefit from his other stated aspiration of opposition and electoral competition, a bizarre position for any unionist to take.

However, perhaps what is at stake here is party politics. Peter Robinson can simultaneously appease those who long for a single unionist party as some sort of eternal deliverance, whilst arguing for opposition and normalisation, in the process attempting to outflank Mike Nesbitt’s UUP on the debate over Assembly structures.

One approach suggests balkanisation, the other normalisation, but crucially, both are poltically useful for the DUP in different contexts. Interestingly, the tactic of parliamentary dogfights I have mentioned previously may afford the UUP a mechanism to seek to unravel these contradictions, as floor motions may tease out uncomfortable realities for one’s political opponents.

Curiously, the First Minister appears to agree this is having some effect. In his eyes this may be stagnation, but for others it is the foundation stones of the smaller parties seeking to re-assert themselves as players in the political game.

What is more important, a DUP-dominated monolith doomed to eventually disintegrate or the re-invigoration of the pro-Union electorate? For the UUP, asking uncomfortable questions of the DUP is more important than ever.

  • Bigger Picture

    “The First Minister’s “aspiration” for a single party”

    He has specifically ruled such a thing out.

    “One cannot have a “unionist unity” that grows the unionist electorate, as it would contravene one of the fundamental principles of electoral politics, namely that party poltical fortunes are fluid, move in cycles and reflect a wide range of factors”

    It is about growing unionism not a political party. Don’t confuse the two.

    “At a time when the Union is more secure than ever before, the pro-Union electorate will naturally seek to give full effect to its ideological diversity”

    Exactly why the DUP and UUP have staged joint events in recent times. You are striving for something that is already happening within the unionist spectrum.

    “I have mentioned previously may afford the UUP a mechanism to seek to unravel these contradictions, as floor motions may tease out uncomfortable realities for one’s political opponents.”

    In the context of what? The UUP is a member of the Executive as well.

    “Curiously, the First Minister appears to agree this is having some effect.”

    Maybe but then why not just argue for full blown opposition this would be the more logical conclusion?

    “What is more important, a DUP-dominated monolith doomed to eventually disintegrate or the re-invigoration of the pro-Union electorate?”

    The future of unionism lies in greater coordination between unionist parties not further fragmentation.

  • Alone and Easy Target

    The DUP are the party of government with the UUP posing no threat to them or their voter base. It is pure party politics to make “nice” overtures to the UUP member and voter base while hoping to swallow them up at election time.

    The UUP need to take Jim Allister’s lead if they have any ambition left and take on DUP/SF.

    We all know the DUP connived with Sinn Fein to have the institutions in their current format to play the orange/green card at election time. What do the UUP do about that? What have they done?

    Unionist unity / one big party / hands-across-the-divide is a myth – a nice myth where everyone has the same starry-eyed goals. Unionist diversity and options will re-engage the voters.

  • Better Together

    Bigger Picture

    Peter Robinson in the second linked article:

    “Much as I would like to see it in the longer term, they were not however the first steps towards the formation of one unionist party,” Mr Robinson said.

    That, to me, looks like an aspiration.

    It is about growing unionism not a political party. Don’t confuse the two.

    I agree, the point of the article was that a ramming together of people with ideological differences merely because they share the same objectives of maintaining the Union, will retard this.

    “In the context of what? The UUP is a member of the Executive as well.”

    I mentioned that in my last piece. In effect, there is no collective responsibility- it is a myth, so that should not prevent parties using parliamentary mechanisms to score some political blows.

    “Maybe but then why not just argue for full blown opposition this would be the more logical conclusion?”

    I have a slice of sympathy for that argument, but looking at it both ways, its a chicken and egg scenario. The risk with unilateral opposition without the appropriate mechanisms is that it may leave UUP/SDLP vulnerable to charges of obstructionism.

    Structures affect incentives and the nature of the game- although there is considerable support in the media for a “jump-first” approach, it is not without risk. Nevertheless, a process of oppostitional politics must be initiated.

    T”he future of unionism lies in greater coordination between unionist parties not further fragmentation.”

    That statement is loaded. Are labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat ‘fragmented’ in Scotland? Or, is it that when their unifying principle is under challenge, they come together?

    They do not come together ordinarily, as they have different policy agendas. There may be more cross-cutting issues here, such as victims and troubles legacy issues, but one can combine co-operation on these things when needed with a robust competition for votes on socio-economic issues.

  • Red Lion

    As a believer-in-the-union I am so sick of the DUP and the feather-your-own-nest carve up with sinn fein perpetuating tribal politics in NI.

    But I am just as sick with the UUP for failing to offer a clearly identifiable alternate unionism to the DUP. Can all those so called intellectuals within unionism not see that what the union, and NI in general , is crying out for, is liberal secular unionism, expressing mainstream British liberal tolerant values???

    This is the only hope for expanding beyond the traditional base, not the DUP and UUP painting themselves and unionism into an ever narrowing corner with the same old dogmatic crap we’ve heard a million times before. Such a movement would trully shake up politics here. If only Basil McCrea and/or John McCallister had got UUP leader, then the DUP brand of union might have been idelogically challenged and exposed by sheer reason of argument. But no, we get DUP clones. The lack of critique, self scrutiny and self criticism within unionism is paralysing it from within.

  • andnowwhat

    Red Lion

    Great post. Is this what we are meant to want today, banging the drum? Last night, Peter Robinson lambasted Sinn Fein for reacting to the pressure of the SDLP. Well Peter, thats how politics is meant to work.

  • Neil

    I agree, the point of the article was that a ramming together of people with ideological differences

    Just curious, but what are those ideological differences? Ideologically they seem to be the same to me, hence this discussion. They compete for the same voters in every election, one party does well while the other does badly.

  • Red Lion

    Cheers andnowwhat. Ive been bleating on about this alot recently on various posts about the UUP etc.

    Neil, You are almost spot on – i agree the DUP and UUP are idelogically very similar, however, there is a liberal end of the UUP which if It could only become the dominant core of that party, or break off and form a liberal union party (pushing the uup rump to the dup where it belongs anyway as you say), then unionism has a proper choice, and a proper chance to thrive and flourish. Championing a liberal tolerant secular slightly left of centre union like what mainland British people can relate to, not the embarrassing angry quasi religious archaic shouting of the DUP. If such a choice actually existed, in time I reckon the liberal tolerant progressive vision wins out at the ballot box (and hopefully nationalism reacts to such a unionist moderation, by moderating to the sdlp, now a liberal unionist-sdlp power share would be a truly functional understanding, not the carveup stand off we have now).

    But such a devopment needs a spark. It appears DUP refusing to condemn sectarian behaviour outside a chapel is STILL not enough to move our liberal union politicos in these supposed more tolerant times. What will it take?

    There are plenty of liberal unionist politicians about – Basil, John MCC, Lady Sylvia Herman, Dawn Purvis, David McClarty, Harry ‘10000’ votes Hamilton (how the UUP manouvered a man with 10000 votes and a media friendly freddie mercury persona out of their party beggars belief) Paula Bradshaw, Ringland, if only they could come together into a coherent grouping and voice, a very solid foundation to build upon.

  • Better Together

    Neil

    I think there are notable differences, including one of emphasis; I think it’s fair to say the DUP would be more Ulster nationalist, compared to a more British unionist ethos of the UUP. Similarly, the internal cultures of the parties are vastly different, from iron-clad discipline to a much more open (historically too much so), democratic culture in the UUP.

    The DUP is now a heady mix of more secular unionists and fundamentalist Christians, united by strong centralism and an efficient electoral machine on the ground. The UUP are ironically, more united in ethos and a small-c conservative party.

    The problem is that there are people in both parties who could be in the same party, but many who could not be.

    What is required is to get into the detail of policy and to allow electoral competition to help shape new identities for the two parties.

  • Neil

    Thanks for that. Reckon there’s mileage in the liberal suggestion, but as you say the UUP has to shed it’s conservative image. But after UCUNF, finding the appetite to shift the party will be difficult. Nesbitt (I’ve said before if I were a UUP person I’d be spitting feathers about that guy) plans the steady ship, but a steady ship on their trajectory doesn’t sound clever either.

    But I definitely agree there’s not much out there for your leftie Unionist types to vote for.

  • andnowwhat

    As I said on another site, in regards to Robinson’s comments about Sinn Fein, SF now are exposed as hell for not being as cunning as they were given credit for. Actually, the same now goes for the two lead unionist parties. How fukkin dare they say to voters, vote unionist? Not for a left unionist, right unionist, centre left unionist etc. party?

    Believe me, I’m not saying that things are great on the nationalist side but there’s enough activity to sustain a little real politics, which IMHO the SDLP are winning

  • iluvni

    I cannot bear the DUP. They’ve never received a vote from me, even a lower preference.
    The thought of endorsing a party lead by Paisley previously and the odious disreputable Robinson makes my stomach turn.

    but.. the idea of a ‘liberal’ Unionist party with Purvis, McCrea, Hermon, Ringland et al. No, god no, a thousand times no.

  • Red Lion

    A liberal union party in NI can only afford to be slightly left of centre, in my view. ‘leftie’ is too strong.

    Iluvni – those people are only whose around now and i like some of them, but others would fall in with such a movement.

    But tell me iluvni, you dont like the DUP, and you don’t like the idea of a liberal unionist party (putting aside any personalities involved). Presuming you are unionist, what sort of unionist party would you envisage bettering NI and that you would vote for?

  • andnowwhat

    Just get Labour and the LDs to campaign over here, as well as the conservatives, at least for Westminster elections.

    Just imagine being able to be part of who runs the country? I’m sure there a word for that.

  • Comrade Stalin

    The funny thing is, for a very long time unionists very happily endorsed a single unionist party and it ran everything. No need for all this diversity stuff. Ironically it was Paisley who kicked it all off ..

  • Red Lion

    well thats true anw
    but then is there questions about Labour being neutral on the union.
    just need big house unionism to be properly challenged asap

  • iluvni

    Red Lion,
    I’ve been running that through my mind since I posted my comment. I’m struggling to see how any local Unionist party is going to enthuse me again. I think I’ll hope that ukip attracts some worthwhile voices.

  • Red Lion

    iluvni

    UUP with McCrea or McCallister at the helm? At least it would be different and fresh and have better chance of going beyond the traditional base?

  • andnowwhat

    Red Lion

    All British parties are subject to the GFA and St Anderews agreement. Cameron’s nonsense when he thought things would be tight in the last election mean nothing. They are all neutral accordin to the agreements.

    And the thing is, voting orange or green means nothing in that regard either because it is all still subject to a referendum. What it does mean is that the parties can play the same silly game as if none of the above were true and God help them should the vast majority of people suss that. If they want a border poll every four or five years, let’s keep that for the Stormont elections, if we must.

  • Red Lion

    anw, thats right it is. Perhaps we could have a tory-labour-libdem coalition organise in NI see how it gets on. Id probably vote for it.

  • andnowwhat

    Look how long our two top parties get out of their leaders? They’d make a Cuban taxi driver envious

  • galloglaigh

    Anyone see what happened on the Nolan Show? Just caught the end of it, seemed as though someone was kicking up a fuss off camera???

  • andnowwhat

    It was an anti austerity protest. Quite unfortunate that Edwina and Bumper started to smile as the protestor read out suicide stats.

  • http://gravatar.com/joeharron Mister_Joe

    The “original” unified Unionist Party had only one objective. That was to make the croppies lie down. Now that all have been guaranteed equality (thank you to the British Government who were forced finally to face up to their ultimate responsibility by the Civil Rights campaign), they do not have a purpose. They haven’t a clue about how to regain a different sense of purpose.

  • GEF

    “Now that all have been guaranteed equality (thank you to the British Government ”

    How come the original partition of Ireland was organised, orchestrated & signed by 5 members of the British Government & 5 members of the RIB forerunners to SF.
    Unionists were not even involved. Read here:

    Anglo Irish Treaty Dec 1921
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-Irish_Treaty

    In fact Carson, a born and bred Dubliner & leader of the UUP (formed in 1905) disagreed with partition but had no choice other than accept it.

  • http://gravatar.com/joeharron Mister_Joe

    GEF,

    You are confusing partition with the subsequent treatment of the minority religion in the 6 counties of Ulster (and the treatment of the other minority religion in the 26 counties). Neither treatments were justified. I have argued many times previously that the Treaty should be respected and ended any justification for continued physical force republican violence.

  • alex gray

    Don’t be too cynical about unionist unity. With Peter Robinson this is a legacy issue, something that will outlast the day to day politics Stormont is restricted to. Unionist unity is not a pipe dream. If you canvass, it is what manuy ask for on the doorstep. McNarry was sacrificed by Tom Elliott, who never belived in it because of bad experiences with the DUP in Fermanagh. It is the one thing that really worries Sinn Fein and if people had an ounce of sense and played the poker game that Stormont politics really is, they would play the unionist unity card because it would seriously spike Sinn Fein’s guns. Sorry for mixed metaphor. It would frustrate the next stage of the republican agenda.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I’d be in two minds about that, Alex. On one hand, despite the rank incompetence of successive UUP leaders the party still attracts just under half of the DUP vote.

    On the other hand, I’ve yet to see the UUP differ from the DUP on any substantive issue, most of the time in the assembly and on councils they vote as a bloc. The major social issues we’re dealing with right now such as gay marriage or abortion seem like opportunities for the UUP, but Mike Nesbitt squandered them, which is rather bizarre given that he lost a peer in the House of Lords over gay marriage.

    It would be interesting to hear from Nick Whyte or Gerry Lynch whether the numbers substantiate the idea that most voters for each of the two parties transfer to the other first, but I suspect they pretty much do. I’d say if the UUP went away most of their voters would come out and support the DUP in the absence of any alternative.

  • Better Together

    “The funny thing is, for a very long time unionists very happily endorsed a single unionist party and it ran everything. No need for all this diversity stuff. Ironically it was Paisley who kicked it all off”

    Well, it never really worked in the first place. The Northern Ireland Labour Party reflected a strong working-class unionist tradition and many dissident Protestant groups such as the National Union of Protestants helped buffet the Official Unionists.

    The only thing that held them together was the defence of the state, with nationalist acceptance of the principle of consent, even this reason has slowly faded.