Steep hill facing the UUP

Noel MacAdam outlines Alex Kane’s speech in South Belfast on Monday, in which he raised the question of leadership, and how his party might draw lessons from the party’s previous difficulties. Full version of the speech follows:By Alex Kane

I know that most of you will expect me to talk about the “Talks” but, to be honest, there isn’t very much point at this stage. But let me make one comment. In December 2000, I wrote an article in which I set out my difficulties with the issue of accountability of the Executive collectively, of individual Ministers and of the nature of the relationship between the Executive, the Assembly and the Committees. Dean Godson’s biography notes my comment that certain aspects of the Executive were actually less democratic than Direct Rule.

So I welcome the fact that the DUP is determined to resolve those matters now—for once you get Ministers into power it becomes much more difficult to sort out how they exercise and account for that power. I welcome the fact, too, that the DUP is building around the framework that we created, rather than attempting some sort of wholesale renegotiation. It has taken them seven years, but at long last they have reached the same position and conclusions that we reached in the autumn of 1997.

But as far as the Ulster Unionist Party is concerned our only topic of conversation must be about putting our own house in order and preparing for the electoral battles ahead. When a party has four election results in a row which require an explanation, or “spin,” for the poor performance, then you have to ask how much worse the results can become before we even whisper the term “meltdown.”

Yes, the UUP always underperforms against the DUP at the Euro election; and the electoral evidence since 1979 indicates that upwards of 25% of our traditional vote has rowed in behind the unionist candidate who is perceived as being most likely to top the poll.

So, in one sense at least, it was no surprise that the DUP should outperform us again so soon after the Assembly setback. But we also need to remember that Jim Nicholson was the only sitting member seeking election—indeed, seeking it for the fourth time. He was up against a DUP unknown and he should have had an added edge this time round. In reality, it was Jim’s and the party’s worst ever performance. And, for the first time in its history, the UUP failed to breach the psychologically important figure of 100,000 votes.

REALITY: THE UUP, ONCE THE DOMINANT POLITICAL FORCE IN NORTHERN, IS NOW ATTRACTING LESS THAN 1 in 6 OF THE 600,000 PRO-UNION VOTES IN NORTHERN IRELAND!

There is evidence, too, that a section of the UUP vote chose not to vote for us: but chose not to vote for the DUP either. That trend has been apparent for almost a decade, but must noticeably since 2001 (the first elections after the Assembly election in June 1998 and the subsequent sharing of power with Sinn Fein). It seems reasonable to conclude, therefore, that there is a growing body of former UUP voters who would rather not vote at all, than abandon us and vote DUP. That fact, in itself, may explain why the total pro-Union vote has continued to decline. (At the Euro election the total unionist vote was only 48%! And it is worth noting that the DUP has only increased its vote by taking ours rather than reaching out elsewhere)

The question we have to ask is this: Why aren’t they voting for us?

Is it because of their views on:

· Our Leader

· Our Policy

· Our Image

· Our Recent Legacy

It is a question we must address, and, having reached a conclusion, we must be prepared to respond appropriately—however unpalatable that response may prove to be to individual members, office holders, or, the Leader himself.

In other words, we have to know what to do to win back those votes which have gone to the DUP, as well as those pro-Union voters who have stopped voting.

However much we may try to pretend that all is well, there remains a deeper and more damaging reality for us. We have a lack of footsoldiers on the ground. Many members have left—from both sides of the house, too. Many others are elderly. There is evidence that members are picking and choosing the candidates they will help.

Actually, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the party has become little more than a loosely linked collection of cabals and semi-autonomous branches and associations. For all of the brave talk of rebuilding ourselves under a new dispensation, I suspect that most of our members have little hope and even less expectation.

At the most recent AGM of the Ulster Unionist Council we endorsed a new constitution, which will, with any luck, go someway to addressing our internal organizational and disciplinary problems. But the truth, of course, is that not all of our problems can be resolved by a new constitution.

Is The UUP’s Position Salvageable?

I happen to believe that many of our media and electoral problems stem from general perceptions (some unjustified), both about us as a party and about our political rivals. Let me list some of them—albeit in no particular order of importance:

· We are perceived to be a party at war with itself.

· We are perceived to have little effective control from the centre.

· We are perceived to have done a bad job of “selling” the Agreement.

· We are perceived to have been poor negotiators.

· We are perceived to have abandoned electoral pledges and to have been wrongfooted on the RUC, on decommissioning and on Tony Blair’s support.

· We are perceived to be a party which doesn’t listen to our own grassroots.

· We are perceived to be a party which is out of touch with unionist opinion in general.

· The DUP is perceived as being better organized on the ground.

· Sinn Fein/IRA are perceived to have got a better deal than we did.

· The perception of the media and of many of our own members is that the last few campaigns have been poor—in terms of presentation and content.

· We are perceived as failing to get our message across to our own voters, to the wider electorate and to the media

· We are perceived as lacklustre and lazy “on the ground.”

· There is a perception that we are now a reactive rather then proactive party.

· We are perceived as a party which is slipping into political and electoral insignificance.

Add to that, the fact that we went into the last two elections without a devolved government—the very thing for which we had taken all the political risks!!

As a party, we have an uphill struggle; not only to convince the electorate that we are worth voting for, but to convince our own members that it is worth staying and fighting.

Our survival cannot depend upon a hope that the DUP will get it wrong. It cannot depend upon Tony Blair or the electorate riding to our rescue. Our survival begins by a willingness to face the realities as they are now. It begins by not being afraid to ask the questions about our leader, image, policy and legacy.

And let me say this about the Leadership issue. David Trimble is neither infallible nor immortal. He is into his tenth year as leader and we have a right to examine his record. I have some sympathy with those who say that he should step aside and allow the party to rebuild under a fresh team. But, anyone who wants his job,—and I don’t expect it to be a long list—has a duty to set out a programme for recovery.

But be it under his continuing leadership, or the leadership of someone else, I believe that we need to concentrate on four key areas:

· Strategy/Policy: What, exactly, is our way ahead? I can’t be the only one in the party who hasn’t a clue what our policy is on most current issues.

· Communication/Message: The electorate needs to be clear where we stand. The media need to know. Our own branch members and elected members need to know. Our Press Officer, Alex. Benjamin, is one of the unsung heroes of our party, but he really does need more professional support. Volunteers are always welcome, but we cannot rely on amateurs.

· Election/Campaigning: It has to be a non-stop exercise. I am glad, therefore, that we have, at last, appointed Tim Lemon as our Director of Elections and Campaigns.

· Rebuild/Reconnect: At this stage there is no point wasting time, energy or finance on recruitment campaigns. (People are not going to join this party again until we start sorting ourselves out) We need to bring together the existing membership and build from the grassroots upwards. That means much greater input from Cunningham House and from the constituencies.

Will The UUP Be Salvaged?

That depends on the collective commitment of the UUP and its members. The challenges before us are formidable—not least the immediate hurdle of agreeing upon what the problems are, and how we address them.

What I do know for certain is that vague promises from HQ, and campaigns which are barely thought out, and rarely carried through, are not the way forward. Brain dead and borrowed slogans—like “Simply British” and “The Future Not The Past”— were an insult to our own members and the wider electorate.

What we do in the next few months will determine (or destroy) the long term viability of the Ulster Unionist Party. No one person has all the answers. It will have to be a collective effort. This party is built upon collective leadership—officers, executive and UUC—so it is ironic that much of our failure can be attributed to the fact that there has been a collective willingness to indulge individualism in the name of broad church democracy.

We are entering our centenary year. The line between ovation and obituary is finer than most people appreciate. Fear is a political party’s most effective opponent. It begins with a few niggling worries and doubts and grows into something that shakes the very foundations. We must resist the temptation to give up and roll over in the wake of those fears. We must not be afraid to face up to and express the cause and nature of those fears. And we must not allow ourselves to be convinced that we are doomed to remain the secondary and diminishing voice of unionism.

This party fought to create Northern Ireland and it has a duty to continue to promote and protect the Union and the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom. We have a mammoth task and little time. But it can be done. There is an electoral pool out there, which can be approached and embraced. We can create the policies which will attract them. We can fashion this party into a modern and efficient vote winning machine. Now is not the time to ape the DUP, nor retreat into a bunker. Now is the time to put this party back on its feet.