UUP: Can the party get off the mat in 2016?

The story of the Ulster Unionist Party in the 21st century has not been a happy one. With the huge success of the DUP and the emergence of other unionist parties, it could be argued that the party of Edward Carson and James Craig may be well and truly past its glory days, especially when examining their electoral record since the Assembly first came into being in 1998. Current leader Mike Nesbitt believes that the party could yet regain its strength as it prepares for the 2016 Assembly election. Having committed himself to a “hard slog” when he first took over as party leader, Nesbitt told The Irish Times in October 2015 that he believes politics is cyclical – “what goes around comes around”. Of course, anything can happen in elections, but how likely is the UUP to recapture its old heights?

2003: Danger Signs

Things got off to a very bad start with the Westminster election in 2001. The UUP received over 40,000 less votes than the previous election in 1997, losing five seats in the process. The loss was offset by only one gain, that of Sylvia Hermon in North Down, but that was of little comfort to the party. The UUP was now under threat by Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party as the unionist community split on the issue of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and this threat manifested in the 2003 Assembly election in which the UUP fell to second place behind the DUP. Although the party lost only one seat, it had won less votes than both the DUP and Sinn Féin, which was a mere three seats behind it.UUP 2003The UUP’s support had not entirely disappeared – results in Fermanagh, East Antrim, East Belfast and North Down were still reasonably strong, not to mention Jeffrey Donaldson’s phenomenal support in Lagan Valley – but the cracks were beginning to show. Peter Weir had already defected to the DUP before this election, and only a year afterwards Jeffrey Donaldson followed suit, transferring his large share of support to the rival party. Other MLAs like Arlene Foster in Fermanagh and Nora Beare, also in Lagan Valley followed Donaldson. The bad news kept coming with a huge drop in support for Jim Nicholson in the European elections that year (though he retained his seat), and in 2005 the party lost 55,000 votes and 39 seats in that year’s local elections. To top everything off, party leader David Trimble lost his seat in that year’s Westminster elections, in which Sylvia Hermon was elected as the sole Ulster Unionist MP.

2007: Collapse

Against this backdrop of malaise, the new party leader, Reg Empey, attempted to revive the UUP’s fortunes by forming the Ulster Unionist Party Assembly Group, which would include all 24 Ulster Unionist MLAs and Progressive Unionist Party leader David Ervine, arguing that such an arrangement could take an executive seat away from Sinn Féin and create a “unionist executive” which would “reflect a unionist majority”. This move was opposed by the DUP due to the PUP’s links with the iUlster Volunteer Force, and the UUP membership was also split on the issue, with Sylvia Hermon in particular voicing her opposition to the move. In the end, the proposal was struck down by Assembly Speaker Eileen Bell, but it was only the first of a series of ideas to reshape the party to try to stem its decline.UUP 2007The 2007 Assembly elections were disastrous for the Ulster Unionists. Their vote fell in every single constituency and the highest result it achieved anywhere was 23.7% in North Down. The overall vote share fell by 7.8%, the party lost 53,000 votes from its 2003 result, and it lost 9 seats, including its sole seat in West Tyrone. After the election, and with the 2010 Westminster election in mind, Empey announced that the UUP was in talks with the Conservative Party to strengthen the two parties’ ties. In 2009 it was announced that the two parties intended to field joint candidates in the upcoming European and Westminster elections under as “Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force”. As with the Ervine proposal, this pact backfired on the party. The 2009 European elections saw the party perform slightly better – Jim Nicholson’s vote share saw a slight increase and he beat the DUP’s Diane Dodds to take second place, but this good fortune would prove to be an isolated incident. Sylvia Hermon again announced her opposition to a pact with another party, culminating in her resigning from the UUP in 2010. Later that year, she kept her House of Commons seat as an independent, and the Ulster Unionist Party was left without any representation in Westminster for the first time in its history.

2011: Falling to Fourth Place

If the 2007 Assembly election was bad for the UUP, the 2011 election was a calamity. Under the leadership of Tom Elliot since the aftermath Hermon’s resignation, the party dropped the UCU-NF label and limped into the 2011 election with a reputation as a tired, backwards party. The party’s share fell to a dismal 13% and it lost another 16,000 votes down to 87,531. Although it won more seats than them, on this occasion the UUP actually won less votes than the SDLP, putting in fourth in terms of overall support. Yet more votes and seats were lost in that year’s local elections.UUP 2011This time, the party’s highest vote share in any constituency was 20%, and it didn’t even run candidates in Foyle, where it had never won a seat since the creation of the Assembly. It managed to regain its West Tyrone seat, but this was offset by the loss of East Londonderry, where its MLA David McClarty had resigned and won the seat as an independent unionist candidate. Even in its old bases such as North Down and East Belfast the party found itself overtaken not just by the DUP but the Alliance Party and the Greens, while Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice party ate away at its remaining support in North Antrim. Slight gains from the DUP in Strangford were small comfort for a party which seemed entirely directionless.

Tom Elliot duly resigned and was replaced by Mike Nesbitt, who pledged to win back support from the DUP and restore the Ulster Unionists to the strong position they once held. As the 2014 local and European elections drew near, political spectators waited to find out if the party’s support would continue to dwindle. Jim Nicholson’s vote share fell again and he was elected on the eighth count. The local elections saw a slight increase in the party’s fortunes – the total number of local council seats was reduced, but a marginal increase in their vote share meant they won proportionally more seats than in 2009.

2016: Pacts, Pledges and Possibilities

However, it was the 2013 Westminster by-election in Mid-Ulster that marked the beginning of a new strategy not just for the Ulster Unionists, but unionist parties overall. In an effort to prevent Sinn Féin from keeping Martin McGuinness’ seat, the UUP and the DUP entered talks to explore the idea of fielding a unionist “unity” candidate who would have the support of all of the main unionist parties. Jim Allister and his TUV party also threw his support behind this idea, and Nigel Lutton was put forward as the candidate. With the combined support of the UUP and DUP, Lutton performed reasonably well in the by-election. He fell just under 5,000 votes short of beating Sinn Féin’s Francie Molloy, but the 34.4% share of the vote he received there was a slight increase on the share of the combined unionist parties in the 2010 election. Of course, there were still those who disagreed with the pact. Two UUP MLAs, Basil McCrea and John McCallister, resigned in protest and formed the new NI21 party.

The pact remained in place for the next Westminster election in 2015. The DUP and the UUP made a deal not to run against each other in certain constituencies: the DUP would not run in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and Newry and Armagh, while the UUP would stay out of Belfast North, Belfast East, and separately North Down, where they allowed Sylvia Hermon to run unopposed. At last, the party experienced some good news – an increase of 12,000 votes meant that the party returned to the House of Commons with two seats – Tom Elliot narrowly beat Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh. Danny Kennedy failed to be elected in Armagh but Danny Kinnahan took the South Antrim seat from the DUP’s William McCrea.

As the Ulster Unionist Party prepares for the next Assembly election in May, they are hopeful of more good news. Mike Nesbitt has tried to present the party in a more modern light than its traditionally conservative reputation, and growing co-operation with the other unionist parties in the future may continue to aid it. Of course, these parties still remain rivals when it comes to Assembly seats, and the UUP is in a less secure position than the DUP when facing off against challenges from the TUV, UKIP and the PUP. Recent years have seen some defections from these parties to the Ulster Unionists, and William Cudworth’s defection from the TUV this week has the party hopeful that things are turning around. Mike Nesbitt says that “the pipeline remains open” for members of other parties to join the UUP. The party are presenting themselves as optimistic about winning new seats in areas such as Fermanagh, Upper Bann and South Antrim. Any gains at all would make this election an improvement on the last four, and a result which sees any increase in its votes and seats will be a successful one for the UUP.

Politics may be cyclical, and while the Ulster Unionist Party will most likely never recover their dominant position from the past, they may finally see some of their old support and influence restored. If this election follows the previous trend, however, it will be difficult to see any viable future for the party that once ruled over Ulster for five decades straight.

  • Nordie Northsider

    Mike Nesbitt says that “the pipeline remains open” for members of other parties to join the UUP.

    What a strange turn of phrase that man has. Nice synopsis of where the UUP are. I would have liked to see more discussion on how realistic those targeted UUP gains are.

  • 1 Going into opposition was right thing to do, wrong reason – or right reason that now seems a bit of a stunt. Having placed UUP in Opp was because he wouldn’t sit with a Party associated with the IRA Army Council (and made big issue of DUP still being there) he then says the UUP in next Govt depends on talks around the programme for Government: a government that would still include the army council. So are you voting for a UUP that will be in govt, might be in govt, or won’t be govt?

    2 Describing the singing of the National Anthem as a ‘stunt’, in an ‘apology’ to a member of Sinn Fein? That would be the same Sinn Fein, who Nesbitt says the UUP wouldn’t sit with in Govt (or maybe he would). Not the kind of leadership Unionism is looking for at the moment, or the kind of leadership Nesbitt presented at the end of the summer. It isn’t leadership at all.

    Having lost three MLAs since last time (four if you include McClarity in the last election), the UUP must reclaim those seats just to be at its 2011 strength. That is a stretch in itself. Added to which, Arlene Foster may viewed as a new generation DUP. True some of the old guard are still lurking. But a DUP heading into an election without any Robinson and with Paisley(ism) dead and buried is a different DUP to that of the last Assembly election. Being “Not the DUP” isn’t as big a pitch as in 2011: there are a lot of Parties offering that option in 2016, and the DUP is less poisonous to many without either Robinson or Paisley in leadership.

    The outcome (for Unionism, perhaps all) will be in game of transfers; the final seats. With so many Unionist players it will be interesting to see what falls out at the end of the night – or a day or two after the election, if past counts are anything to go by.

    Still the election is a few months away, so who knows?

  • Paul

    As a Catholic I was interested in voting for the UUP. Let’s face it the union isn’t an issue anymore and Mike seemed to be a progressive, forward thinker. However, I believe he’s just a master of the grand, empty gesture. He talks about moving forward together. A better Northern Ireland for all. Yet his councilors and MLA’s don’t seem to have bought into the program. Take the Causeway Coast and Glens for example. The UUP have been obsessing about the Union flag, renaming town halls, naming rooms after members of the UDR and the recent debacle over the leisure centre in Dungiven. No talk about infrastructure or jobs in the area. Just grand meaningless empty gestures that divide rather than unit. Mike is all talk.

  • mjh

    The recent electoral evidence is mixed. 2014 Council vote share up 1.0% – possibly helped by having a higher proportion of sitting councillors standing again than rival parties managed. But Euro vote down 3.8%.

    Two new Westminster MP’s. But one delivered courtesy of the DUP. While the party’s share in the 13 seats which were fought by both the UUP and DUP producing a drop of 1.1%, from 16.1% to 15.0%.

    Looking at the Council and Westminster shares in individual constituencies suggests that they should win back the seats they lost in South Down, East Londonderry and Lagan Valley ( irrespective of whether McCrea holds on) – but that they will fail to regain the second seat in Strangford.

    Of the three seats suggested here as targets their best chance is South Antrim – where failure to gain a second seat would represent a fall back from their recent performance. They would have to gain more ground to take Upper Bann (which is not impossible). A month ago Fermanagh looked odds on for a second seat – but the withdrawal of their sitting MLA and the elevation of Arlene Foster to FM may well put them at a disadvantage.

    If an unexpected gain is to come from anywhere it would most likely be North Belfast.

    One interesting thing to note: in a number of constituencies the party are selecting one more candidate than received wisdom says that they ought to. This could suggest that they are aiming to maximise their vote share rather than genuinely expecting to make gains.

  • Ryan A

    Potentially another seat in East Antrim at the expense of SF/DUP and possibly one in North Down if they get their act together. The addition of popular independent councillor Alan Chambers to their ticket will go some way to helping. At a very outside shot there could be two in Lagan Valley; there are a lot of religious fundamentalist views coming from the current free presbyterian dominated DUP association in Lagan Valley (4 seats) at present and my feeling is Lagan Valley is not anywhere near North Antrim on that spectrum.

  • mjh

    The figures suggest these are longer shots – although nothing is ever impossible.

    Agreed that the Council and Westminster elections suggest the DUP could be in real trouble in East Antrim – but it is unclear that the UUP will profit. On the basis of the Council results the UUP could take a DUP seat, although it looks like the TUV might just beat them to it. Their Westminster performance, however, was poor – down 4.9% to 18.8% – with a very strong UKIP showing. So I would, on balance, rank a UUP gain as less likely than in North Belfast.

    In Lagan Valley they have been going backwards since 2011. Against a background of gains elsewhere they dropped their Council share from 22.2% to around 20.5%, and their Westminster by a whopping 5.9% to 15.2%. This is one of those constituencies where I would expect a serious attempt to gain a seat to dictate two candidates. Instead they announced three which suggests they hope for no more than the one they won last time, and are aiming just to increase their first preference vote share.

    The same is true of North Down. It would require a truly enormous 11.4% swing from the DUP to give the UUP a second seat – and yet they have three candidates. Alan Chambers should give them a boost – but at the cost of transfer leakage at later stages of the count. They did particularly well at the Council elections – boosting their share from 14.3% to about 17% to 17.5%. But they did not fight Westminster last year which is a disadvantage for their local organisation.

  • Lord Coleraine

    Do you really think McCrea will hold on? I think he’s toast. Agree on South Down and East Londonderry. McCallister and Sugden are genuinely nice people, but not well-known enough.

  • mjh

    I don’t know. The electoral evidence – his markedly high personal vote in 2011 and the vote for NI21 in the Council elections within Lagan Valley (about 7.5% to 8% share, equivalent to half an Assembly quota) – both suggest that it is just possible.

    However whether his personal vote would be as high again – particularly from DUP supporters – when he would no longer be designated unionist must be open to question.

    The other factor is how badly the events since the 2014 elections will have effected him. I’ve no special knowledge or evidence on which to make that call. But my gut tells me he won’t make it.

  • Lord Coleraine

    Yes I agree. Events since 2014 (NI21 collapse, the outrageous scandal over their spending on gadgets and the resignation of Johnny McCarthy) have shown McCrea as a bit of a fool and on that basis I wouldn’t think he is electable.

    Out of interest, what do you see happening in East Londonderry?

  • mjh

    The UUP vote in the Council elections was equivalent to 1.2 Assembly quotas, and although they did not do quite as well at Westminster they still hit the equivalent of 1.1 quotas. So long as they do nothing stupid – like running two candidates – they should take a seat.

    The DUP are safe for two, but their third is at risk. Their Council performance would have delivered only 2.0 quotas. The TUV looked best placed to take the third DUP seat with two thirds of a quota – and a handy pool of a quarter of a quota between the PUP and UKIP from which to draw potential transfers. The DUP recovery at Westminster is less comforting for them than appears. It looks like they merely sucked back the TUV, PUP and UKIP supporters who had no candidates of their own standing.

    SF are safe for one. It would take a 4% swing from the SDLP to SF to give them a second. There was nothing in the Council or Westminster results to suggest that this is possible. (Although the SDLP suffered a drop of 3.1% points to 12.3% at Westminster, SF only benefitted by 0.5% points.)

    Normally I would say that this left the SDLP seat looking safe, but the party’s own recently leaked report says otherwise. Are they worried about the possibility of further slippage towards the centre? And could this really be big enough to cost them the seat?

    I can hold out little hope for Sugden. McClarty had built up a personal vote that normally takes many years to achieve. Sugden has had nowhere near the same time. In addition the special circumstances of McClarty’s victory – the spectacular mismanagement of his deselection by the UUP and the party’s ridiculous decision to run two candidates – gave his campaign a terrific boost which will not be available this year. Finally I question whether Sugden has the necessary electoral organisation and activists available since they did not participate in either the Council or Westminster elections. (Perhaps you have some local information on this?)

    The principal beneficiary of an SDLP stumble could well be Alliance. Their Council results were poor, but their Westminster vote was equivilant to 0.53 of a quota.

  • the keep

    Sorry who is the UUP candidate for South Down?

  • the keep

    The UUP have no chance in North Belfast if they hold their two seats in Belfast they will have done well.

  • mjh

    The UUP require a relatively small swing of 0.7% from the DUP to take a seat in NB. In 2014 they held, or marginally improved their vote share in the Council elections (by about 0.5% to 1% points) while the DUP dropped about 8% points.

    Certainly their decision not to contest the Westminster election may well have cost them organisationally in the constituency – but it is possible that the consequent electoral victory in FST will have helped them more politically.

    If there were a swing to the UUP from the DUP big enough to deliver two or three seats then there is every chance that this would include NB.

    Of course no swing, no gain.

  • The UUP doesn’t have an ‘organisation’ in North Belfast.

  • jeep55

    A lot of talk here about the possibility of the Ulster Unionists gaining seats. But Michael McGimpsey has just announced that he is standing down and based on last year’s Westminster election the sole seat in South Belfast is at risk.

  • mjh

    Yes it is. The Council shares would almost certainly see the UUP retain the seat, but the Westminster shares would give it to the DUP.

    The party faces both potential snakes and ladders at this election. As always, it simply depends on whether its vote goes up or down.

  • Paddy Reilly

    Look. A quota is 14.28% of the vote, two quotas is 28.57%.

    In the 2015 general election, the UUP won 18.8% of the vote in East Antrim, 15.2% in Lagan Valley. So your idea that the UUP is going to win two Stormont seats in either of these constituencies is pure wishful thinking.

  • Hugh Davison

    Good post. Raises questions that nobody else on here wants to address. I’m afraid that when it comes to NI politics, there’s only one show in town.

  • Robin Keogh

    Am i right in thinking that TUV UKIP and PUP will most likely transfer to UUP over DUP?

  • mjh

    Looking at the TUV transfers in 2014 Council elections shows very little in it. In the 14 District Electoral Areas where there both parties were available when a TUV candidate was either elected or excluded the UUP got only a handful more than the DUP. Well within the margin of error.

  • Robin Keogh

    I am wondering/hoping that maybe the fragmentation within Unionism might lose the DUP enough seats to put SF ahead in the Ass elections?

  • Ryan A

    How many times does it need to be said? General Election = First past the post. Assembly Election = STV. Let’s wait and see. In any case the DUP will not return four candidates. McCrea will not hold his seat and the SDLP won’t take one. East Antrim may come from SF as that was a fluke result in 2011.

  • Ryan A

    Not a hope -SF have one realistic gain this cycle with three potential losses and the DUP would need to lose eight not accounting for those possible losses. Right now I could see a maximum of six DUP seats at risk and only likely four in any case that will fall.

  • Robin Keogh

    Yes I agree that SF are likely to lose a couple of seats, East Antrim, West Bel and poss FST but if they hols them and the DUP get squeezed on all sides ?

  • mjh

    Ryan A is right. Currently DUP have 38 seats and SF 29. If SF merely hold that number the DUP would have to lose 10 seats to put SF ahead. If, as you suggest, SF loses seats – the gap gets even wider.

    As things stand at the moment, if the UUP get three or four more seats than they got last time they will have achieved at the very top end of their potential. Frankly even getting one more than last time wouldn’t be a bad result – bearing in mind they lost three since through defections.

    On a totally cataclysmic day for the DUP they might drop one each to PUP, TUV and UKIP. But those may not all be additional losses to the DUP. In some cases it could simply mean that they lose the seat to (for example) the TUV rather than UUP.

    Even though such a result would be far worse for the DUP than anything suggested by the Council or Westminster results it would still not be near enough to put Martin McGuiness into the FM role.

  • Paddy Reilly

    In some constituencies there is a distinct FPTP behaviour in General Elections, but not East Antrim, because it is an overwhelming Protestant and Unionist constituency and thus there is no chance of losing the seat to, or gaining it from a Nationalist. So what we are seeing is the various Unionist parties contending for first place, which at the moment is taken by the DUP, though not so overwhelmingly that the other parties will not get a look in at Stormont. Nicholas Whyte, speaking of the 2015 General Elections results, says: “If cast in a six-seat Assembly election, these votes would probably give the DUP two seats, and one each to the UUP, Alliance, UKIP and SF” which I think is bang on.

    The census reveals that 20% of the population of East Antrim is Catholic, and nearly 10% “Others” and “No-Religion”: this corresponds fairly obviously to an electorate which votes 30% for non-Unionist parties, SF, SDLP, Alliance and Green. So it does look like there are two non-Unionist quotas in this constituency: it would be more appropriate for the SDLP to take the last seat, but for geographical reasons SF turned out more popular in 2011: this was no fluke.

  • Robin Keogh

    Ya i hear you. Thats makes sense. Next time maybe.

  • Ryan A

    Worth noting though: One of the most significant results of the election – the only
    case where boundary changes which favoured Nationalists actually
    resulted in a gain (whereas Unionists gained three Nationalist
    seats for this reason). A good result for SF who were only 45
    votes ahead of the SDLP in 2010 but outpolled them almost two to
    one this time, and took the second UUP seat as a result. Alliance
    came within 69 votes of a chance at a second seat; in the event
    the runner up was McCune of the UUP, 499 votes behind McMullan.

    Could be a better split between Alliance candidates may hand them the SF seat. I had been led to understand McMullan wasn’t running again which may harm their chances of holding it.

  • shea_mus

    Im afraid the union is the issue!
    they know the tide has turned and now castle catholics like your goodself are filling the missing quota.

  • Paddy Reilly

    It was certainly an ill-wind for Nationalist candidates when the redrawing of constituency boundaries led to just one SF gain in East Antrim at the expense of a SF loss in Lagan Valley and SDLP losses in both South and North Antrim.

    But this may well be a temporary blip: censal data shows remarkable growth in the Catholic percentage of the population in all these constituencies:-

    http://belfastmediagroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Screen-Shot-2013-05-21-at-14.29.37-15.54.432.png

    so it would only require a loose correlation between Catholic religion and Nationalist voting for the lost seats to all be recoverable.

    As I previously pointed out, a quota is 14.28% of the vote: Alliance in East Antrim gained 15%. That is enough for one seat, but far too little for two. If they persist in running two candidates, all that will happen is that one of them will get circa 8% of the vote and the other 7%: Sinn Féin, coming up between them will have circa 7.5%, so the 2nd Alliance candidate will be eliminated and her votes transferred to the first.

  • Colin Lamont

    Off the top of my head:
    UUP potential gains: EL, FST, EA, NB, SA
    Possible losses: SD, SB, S’ford, UB.
    It’s actually quite difficult for them to make any gains on 2011 I now think.
    Non unionist parties staying pretty much as they are in seat terms. Possible SDLP losses in UB and SB.

  • Ryan A

    That assumes the SDLP will transfer to SF over Alliance which is rarely the case. East of the Bann, Alliance clean up SDLP transfers. I wouldn’t disagree generally with those losses but I think the SDLP is far too weak to recover anything this cycle.

  • the keep

    Colin i cannot see the UUP taking the second unionist seat in FST nor EA certainly not NB or SA especially when they run a candidate like Adrian Cochrane Watson have they not learned why Danny K. was such a good candidate for the UUP at the Westminster elections?The last seat in East Antrim i think will be won by UKIP.

    I dont think they will back the seat in SD as John i suspect will sneak in. South Belfast i suspect they are in trouble as Micheal retired before the seat was lost they could hold the seat if Jeff Dudgeon was selected a good candidate and is very popular with the local party there.S`ford will be tight but should just hold on and UB they will hold onto their two seats.

    I suspect they will just about get back to where they were in 2011 and that was a really poor election for them.

  • Paddy Reilly

    Well, I assumed that SDLP might take a seat in Lagan Valley, because it gets more 1st prefs than SF.

    In East Antrim, SF got 8.2% of the 1st preferences in 2011, which is more than the second Alliance candidate could muster, (and if the total Alliance vote is 15%, more than any 2nd Alliance candidate could muster), so the 2nd Alliance candidate was eliminated and Alliance ceased to be a possible destination for transfers. So SF was elected partly by its followers and partly by the fact that it was no longer possible to vote against it.