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.