“Don’t write off the UUP just yet”

Alex Kane’s speech to the Lagan Valley Ulster Unionist Association last night makes the Newsletter today. Whilst his assessment is not exactly upbeat, he thinks the party’s opponents are too quick to write their potential resilience in the upcoming elections. Full text below:By Alex Kane:

Hans Christian Andersen—the bicentenary of whose birth falls this Saturday—was a deeply paranoid man. In his later years he convinced himself that he would be accidentally buried alive and, no matter where he slept, had a notice pinned to his nightgown and above the bed itself, reading: “I May Just Be Sleeping”. It may be necessary for the Ulster Unionist Party to hang a similar notice on the front door of Cunningham House, once the general and local government election results are in.

From both the historical and political point of view, though, the Ulster Unionist Party has a legacy of which it can be mostly proud. With its roots in the Home Rule crisis, which dominated British politics from 1886 to 1920, and formally constituted in March 1905, the party has survived under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. It was created to protect the union between Great Britain and Ireland and then, later, to govern and maintain the newly created Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.

And now, a century after the party was formed, and 84 years after Northern Ireland was created, Northern Ireland is still within the United Kingdom. Still there after a sustained and bloody terrorist campaign. Still there after forty years of vicious and inaccurate propaganda from both nationalism and republicanism. Still there after the congenital spinelessness of successive British governments. Still there after one stupid policy initiative after another from the Northern Ireland Office. Still there because the Ulster Unionist Party never wavered nor deviated from its primary mission.

So, the Union is safe, but what about the Ulster Unionist Party itself?

Since 1972 and the prorogation of the Stormont Parliament, the UUP has been trying to find a new and clear role—both for itself and for unionism in general. That hasn’t been an easy task. The simple fact of the matter is that unionism is not in a position to dictate its own terms and it hasn’t been in that position for almost forty years. Oh yes, it was in a position to say no to an awful lot, but it wasn’t in a position to deliver its own alternatives. Indeed, after the collapse of the Sunningdale Agreement in May 1974, unionism was effectively sidelined, ignored and marginalized—-standing helplessly by as one political indignity after another was heaped upon it.

From being a party that had thrived on the mantra of “United We Stand” Ulster Unionism began to crumble into warring cliques, factions, cabals and even new parties. To be honest, that wasn’t a surprising development. When one of the primary tasks of the UUP was to provide continuous government for Northern Ireland it was very much easier to ensure control and cohesion from the centre, while stoking up the fearful consequences of what could follow any public or private disunity.

But once that task had been removed from the party—and once it became clear that there would never again be a single party government—it became impossible to control Ulster Unionism. Splits, formal and temporary, were inevitable, aided by the re-introduction of Proportional Representation and the electoral opportunities provided thereby. Aided, too, by the fact that the UUP lacked—and still lacks—the centralisation and disciplinary structures required by modern political parties. Take Lagan Valley’s own MP. In the UUP Jeffrey Donaldson was a go-it-alone thorn in the side, who exploited internal structural weaknesses for his own ends. In the DUP, Jeffrey Donaldson is a lobotomised patsy who does exactly what he is told to do by his new masters.

It is also worth noting that the UUP did very little internally to respond to the changing political circumstances. There was an assumption, that, come what may, the party would always be the dominant force within the pro-Union community. And even today, there are those at the centre of the party who believe that the DUP’s present lead is a mere aberration and that the electorate will quickly return to its senses. That, I have to say, is a fundamentally stupid approach to the situation. There is a very strong case for saying that the DUP has been utterly hypocritical in the past sixteen months; but the bigger question is this—why have more unionists been prepared to vote for hypocrites than to vote for this party?

My own view is that the UUP pursued the right course of action over the past seven years, at least in terms of policy. We were right to do what we did; right to negotiate, endorse and attempt to make a success of the Belfast Agreement. Yet, here we are, seven years on, and the Agreement is lifeless in the water, the party is divided and diminished and the DUP is seemingly on the verge of sweeping all before it on May 5th. How can we be in such a mess if we pursued the right policy? Putting it more bluntly, how can the DUP, which now endorses exactly the same policy as we did, be in such a strong position?

There are five main reasons;

Perception. Presentation. Policy. Leadership. And psychological.

We were perceived as disorganised and disunited.

We took the Oscar Wilde approach to selling the Agreement, allowing it to become the policy that dare not speak its name. And we had to spend too much time explaining why we were collapsing the structures, rather than enjoying and exploiting the benefits of a stable and successful form of government.

In terms of policy we didn’t and aren’t setting out the vision that supposedly underpinned our commitment to the Agreement. There were very strong social, moral, practical and political reasons for doing what we did, but when was the last time you heard them?

In terms of leadership I neither see nor sense a realistic strategy for the way ahead. And nor do I detect any evidence that the leadership is prepared to accept that it might have handled things better.

One of the most basic facts of electoral life is that people tend to vote for parties which either look like winners, or, at the very least, look like they will hold their own. The UUP is no longer the biggest party in terms of votes. No longer the larger of the unionist parties. No longer the largest at the Assembly or Westminster. It fell to its lowest ever vote last June, when it didn’t even break the 100,000 barrier! It is registering a mere 16% in opinion polls!

There is absolutely no point in fighting the election unless we take all of these factors on board. Each of them can be addressed. Speaking about them does not represent a sign of defeatism: but denying the existence of the problems we face is a sure-fire route to continuing and wider spread setbacks.

That said, the situation is not as bleak as it may at first appear. Despite the relentless pounding and pressure of the past seven years the party has not gone into electoral meltdown and I don’t believe that such a fate awaits us in a few weeks time. Since 1993 we have declined by about 7% overall and shed around 30,000 votes. That is not good, but it certainly isn’t catastrophic, particularly when you consider the internal and external problems we faced. And I also take the view that much of the decline is attributable to our own incompetence in terms of strategy and discipline. I don’t believe that this election will represent our shining hour, but nor am I anticipating our obituary.

But, that aside, we still need a clear and unambiguous message for the electorate—and one that represents the real feelings of our members, those who have to sell it on the doorstep. We must avoid the hackneyed claptrap of the “Simply British” campaign, with its pictures of fish and chips and Mini Coopers. That campaign diminished our efforts, trivialised our risk taking strategy and insulted our members and our voters.

· We must have a message to hold the voters who have stayed with us.

· We must have a message for those who stopped voting for us, but who haven’t voted for other unionists.

· We must have a message for those who have never voted before.

· We must have a message for those who left us to vote for other unionists.

And the bases of those messages must be built upon and around our legacy. We have been, by any definition of the term, a very successful political party. Yes, we have had problems, but one hundred years on and we are still standing and still fighting our corner.

In its centenary year I think this party will emerge from the election strong enough to rebuild, reconnect and reengage. I believe that we actually need two vibrant mainstream unionist parties; cooperating when necessary and working separately to build and maximise the total pro-Union vote. It’s no longer enough to say we are unionists. Instead, we need an image, identity and range of policies which will consolidate our remaining vote and attract a new vote. And I’m not talking about trying to move to the right of the DUP or trotting out the slogans about a return to traditional unionist values.

The pro-Union electorate have a very important decision to make on May 5th. The UUP has proved itself capable of realistic thinking and realistic policies. It took the risks when others stood in the wings. The Union is still here. NI is still part and parcel of the UK. Unionism has a new-found respect and influence. That is the doing of the UUP.

The DUP on the other hand has precious little to show. In fact, it has nothing to show. And that is what people need to remember when they reach the ballot box in a few weeks time. The DUP cannot point to one policy or strategy of its own which has made a button of difference to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. It cannot highlight any particular success of its own. It has promised much and delivered nothing. After years of bombarding us with policy papers and position documents there is no new agreement; no new Assembly; no new decommissioning; no new devolution. For all of its recent claims to be the new voice of unionism, the DUP remains the No No No party of old.

While it is true that the UUP has been seriously damaged and weakened in the past seven years, it is not the case that the faults are terminal and its demise inevitable. There is a very broad swathe of the pro-Union community, which has distanced itself from the two unionist party political machines, both in terms of membership and voting. I take the view that that is largely because neither the UUP nor the DUP has made a serious or sustained effort to either engage or re-engage that constituency, choosing, instead, to concentrate on a pointless battle to be the dominant force in an ever-diminishing pool of voters.

Whatever happens on May 5th, there will be a new spirit in the UUP and there will, inevitably, be a new leadership within a matter of months. It is vital at that stage that the restructuring process begins immediately. Passing the leadership to anyone, merely on the Buggins’ Turn principle, or the “they are the best of a bad bunch” option, would be the very worst thing that the party could do at this stage.

The Ulster Unionist Council has nothing to lose by taking a risk with the leadership issue. I don’t think there is anyone who can unite the party and heal the wounds overnight, so it needs to look for someone who can appeal beyond the traditional core and create a new form of unity around a new way of doing business. Whoever wants the job will need to set out a clear gameplan for recovery. Whoever gets the job will have a maximum of two years to rescue the party. Survival now depends upon the UUC making one of the most difficult decisions it has had to make since March 1905.

There are still some very difficult decisions ahead for the unionist parties and the pro-Union community. And there is still a vital role for the Ulster Unionist Party to play. I don’t believe that the DUP has the instinct for taking the really tough decisions in politics; but I do believe that there are tens of thousands of potential voters out there who will respond to this party when we put our house in order.

This party laid the foundations of Ulster Unionism. It has been consistently faithful to its primary duty to protect, promote and preserve the Union. It has never avoided the difficult decisions, or refused to take necessary risks. We have nothing to be ashamed of and much to be proud of. When it comes to this election we must ask the electorate to examine our history and judge us on our record. But, most important of all, we must give the electorate the assurance that we will get our act together this time, and become, once again, the voice and choice of the pro-Union majority in Northern Ireland.