Both Unionist parties have tough lessons ahead

Alex Kane argues that the problem for Unionism is not so much the differences between the two main parties, so much as its failure to galvanise its own vote. Whilst he readily admits his own party (UUP) has some fundamental challenges ahead, he also beleives that the DUP has yet to truly shoulder the responsibilities of leadership against an unpredictable opponent (namely the Republican movement).By Alex Kane

It has not been the easiest of weeks for the Ulster Unionist Party and I’m sure that David Trimble would echo Hamlet’s lament; “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions”. Almost everything that the party has tried to do in terms of policy and presentation has been overshadowed by unwelcome headline-catching distractions. And, as is often the case in these circumstances, the events are beyond the control of either the party leader or the campaign directors.

For the first time, too, the UUP is being challenged for every Parliamentary seat by the DUP, and, if the bookmakers and political pundits are even reasonably accurate, then no UUP seat can be considered safe. Perhaps the most honest (albeit indiscreet) comment of all was from David McNarry: “But the upside is that the bookies are really saying we have one almost definite seat, but three remaining constituencies where it is too close to call and we are in with a strong shout of all three”.

In essence, though, what is the difference between the UUP and the DUP? Neither of them has delivered a stable and sustainable form of devolution. Neither of them has been able to persuade the IRA to disarm, disband and disappear. Neither of them has been able to convince the SDLP to support the idea of a voluntary coalition, which excludes Sinn Fein. Neither of them has been able to pressurise the British and Irish governments to face down Adams and McGuinness and move on without them.

In terms of their respective manifestoes you could hardly push a bus ticket in the gap between their policies on most issues. Indeed, as far as the socio/economic agenda is concerned, you would be hard pushed to spot any differences at all.

So what, exactly, is the difference? From the UUP’s point of view there was a willingness to take huge political and electoral risks for the sake of securing devolved government–a willingness that was not demonstrated by the DUP. That’s not to say that the DUP hasn’t shifted its position very substantially since the 1997/98 period, but it clearly hasn’t shifted to the extent that it will be prepared to take risks if it is successful on May 6.

In other words, voting for the DUP may amount to voting for continuing stalemate. Now, I can accept that for many unionists stalemate may well be preferable to Sinn Fein returning to government. But stalemate is actually bad for unionism, for it encourages policy initiatives from Downing Street and the NIO and, as we know only too well, those sorts of initiatives are rarely unionist-friendly. The blunt fact of the matter is that a vote for the DUP, while it may be a vote for no government with Sinn Fein, is not a guarantee of something better.

That said, what does a vote for the UUP get you? It has torn itself apart in what I have always believed to be a genuine and necessary effort to deliver democracy and promote the Union. Someone had to make that effort, for it wasn’t being made by successive British governments and it certainly wasn’t being made by other pro-Union parties. But there is no point in even trying to deny the fact that the UUP has precious little to show for all of its efforts.

And there, in a nutshell, is the dilemma facing the unionist voter at this election: voting for the DUP, which can’t guarantee delivery, or voting for the UUP, which took huge risks for an Agreement which appears to be flat-lining.

The temptation for many will be to stay at home. That would be a huge mistake. I have said it before, and I am going to say it again; it is vital that the unionist turnout is high and it is equally vital that the pro-Union vote is seen to be significantly larger than the nationalist vote. The gap between the two has been narrowing in the past decade, a fact that has been politically and psychologically useful for Sinn Fein in particular.

Whatever the result on May 6, and irrespective of whether or not the DUP sweeps all before it, the reality remains the same, namely, that unionism needs a long term gameplan. Stalemate is not an option. Running an empty Stormont is not an option. Trying to reopen negotiations with the IRA is not an option. Unionists continuing to knock six bells out of each other is not an option.

When the electoral dust settles, both the DUP and UUP will have huge tasks ahead of them. The UUP will have to rebuild and re-connect. And the DUP will learn pretty quickly that the price to pay for being the majority voice of unionism is greater than it could ever have imagined. I suspect it will be quite some time until the fat lady finally sings.

First published in The Newsletter, Saturday 23rd April 2005