David Trimble’s successes and failures

Alex Kane’s now famous/notorious column from Saturday’s Newsletter, which he wrote and sent in on the morning of the election – ie when he was blind to the end result. It looks like he got what he wanted. David Trimble didn’t resign first thing on Saturday, but he was gone in time to make the 5pm news.By Alex Kane

I usually write this column on a Friday morning and send it to the paper before lunchtime. But this week I’m writing it on the Thursday. The polling stations have only been open for three hours and it will be another full day before we have the first results from the Northern Ireland constituencies. That being the case, I do not yet know how well the UUP generally, or Mr Trimble personally, has performed. But I hope that by the time you read this on Saturday, Mr. Trimble will have resigned as leader. If he hasn’t, then I would urge him to go and to go quickly, irrespective of final tallies.

When he became leader in September 1995, he outlined two main priorities; to shift unionism from the margins, where it had been semi comatose for two decades, and to reform and rebuild the Ulster Unionist Party. In the former, he has succeeded beyond his most optimistic expectations and deserves unqualified praise. In the second, he has been an unmitigated disaster. The UUP is structurally weak, rudderless, uncontrolled at the centre and clearly out of touch with the needs and concerns of its own grassroots.

The election campaign, like its predecessors in November 2003 and June 2004, was an appalling, amateurish, back-of-the-envelope mishmash, which lacked vision, inspiration and commonsense. That is Mr. Trimble’s fault. It is also the fault of the officers and advisers who gave the thumbs up to the red bus, to the “Decent People” tagline and to the increasingly desperate soundbites and wild-eyed election predictions. It is not—and I cannot emphasise this too much—the fault of the staff who are simply there to carry out their orders.

Regular readers will know that I have expressed previous doubts about the cabal who surround Mr. Trimble; indeed, I suggested eighteen months ago that he should dump most of them. I have also been making the case for a total overhaul of Cunningham House. Last June, after the Euro election, I expressed my concerns to Mr. Trimble and suggested he should stand down. I was assured that lessons had been learned and that change was coming. I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I shouldn’t have. The party is in a worse state now than it was then.

It would help the party enormously if Mr. Trimble, the entire officer team and his key advisers were to fall on their swords, clearing the way for new people and new approaches. If they are reluctant to do so, then an emergency meeting of the UUC should make the decision for them. One thing is clear: the UUP will not survive under the present leadership. This has nothing to do with overall votes or the final number of Westminster and council seats. It has to do with the fact that the core of the central organisation is a complete shambles, managed by a group of people who have no demonstrable ability to run a modern political party.

Of course, this begs the question of who should replace him? It begs another question, too; who, in their right mind, would want the job? The next leader has three immediate and major tasks: to unite, reform and rebuild. As I see it, the new leader has to be someone who can put a credible gap between themselves and the existing leadership corp. It has to be someone who can reach out beyond the residual voter base and attract the unfairly derided “garden centre” community. It has to be someone whose appointment will generate both surprise and interest.

The worst mistake the UUC could make would be to select someone on the “Buggin’s Turn” principle; or to appoint a temporary safe-pair-of-hands simply to see them through the next year or so. Selecting a new leader will be the most crucial decision that the UUC will make in its centenary year, a decision which it cannot afford to get wrong. In other words, the election process must involve some very frank in-house discussion, and a selection procedure requiring the candidates to set out a clear gameplan for the future.

Of the three most talked-about contenders—Michael McGimpsey, David Burnside and Reg Empey—not one of them can unite the party. And if they cannot unite then they cannot reform and rebuild the party. Now, while it is true that Burnside has the necessary steel for leadership, he is more interested in a UUP/DUP merger than in the UUP itself. Michael and Reg, on the other hand, do not, in my opinion anyway, have the ruthlessness required to clean out the stables and replace the rotting lumber. I like them both and they have a valuable role to play, but not as leader.

So, the UUP needs someone new and unexpected. Whoever wins the contest will be faced with one of the toughest political problems in UK politics, the revival and reinvigoration of one of its oldest parties. That person, whoever she or he may be, will determine the fate of the Ulster Unionist Party. Good luck to them.

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 7th May 2005