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.The 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.
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.The 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.This 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.