The long implosion of the UUP

Guest writer, the Stormont Watchman, argues that David Trimble’s key mistake was in misunderstanding the intentions of Sinn Fein – or what he refers to as “the ideological DNA of the republican movement”. He believes that Ulster Unionist politicians (under the direction of DT)were too keen to close a definative deal with Sinn Fein. Their best long term hope, he argues, may lie in waiting for the DUP to make the same mistake.ULSTER’S BRANCH DAVIDIANS

By Stormont Watchman

The writer HBC Pollock described the IRA as “the traditional combination of an open movement within the law reinforced by a secret organisation of criminal habits”. He could have written this after the Northern Bank robbery, but the quote actually dates from 1923. These 2 sides to the republican movement are inseparable and interdependent. The IRA may evolve in response to changing circumstances, but it always does so in accordance with that “traditional combination”.

David Trimble’s failure to grasp the revolutionary character of the IRA – the ideological DNA of the republican movement – is the root cause of the UUP’s implosion. Trimble bought into the idea that the IRA was moving from armed struggle to constitutional politics. That meant the UUP’s task was to encourage the IRA to complete this transition or to support its exclusion in the absence of such completion.

Why Trimble’s reasoning is wrong turns on the understanding of transition. For Trimble and others, “transition” refers to means, namely the methods by which the IRA pursues its objectives. But for the IRA, transition is considered in terms of ends, and the current dispensation is considered to be a mere staging post to Irish unity.

The Northern Bank robbery and other less prominent criminality are incomprehensible if the IRA really is simply on a journey that ends in purely constitutional methods. Instead it shows that the IRA needs to retain its “secret organisation of criminal habits” if Sinn Fein is not to slide into becoming a slightly greener SDLP and also to exert pressure on the governments.

Trimble’s unduly optimistic assessment as to the IRA’s final destination explains why the UUP formed the Executive in the absence of the prior decommissioning it had once demanded. From the UUP’s (flawed) perspective, it was a rational decision. The party claimed to be putting Sinn Fein to the test and boasted of its risk-taking.

But although the test was meaningless (for the UUP did not then leave the Executive despite evidence of IRA criminality), the risks for the party were very real. Put bluntly, Trimble gambled not only his political future, but also that of his party on the IRA completing, as he saw it, its supposed transition to democracy.

However, from the IRA’s perspective, why should it fully decommission? It has a long-term strategy of political engagement underpinned by criminality, at which the nationalist electorate does not jibe. The IRA needed the Executive far less than Trimble did – and the DUP does – which is something that may be of great significance in the future. The stop-start nature of the Executive and the UUP’s consequential pyrotechnics exposed the bankruptcy of Trimble’s engagement with the IRA.

There were other side reasons, of course:

– Trimble’s minimalist unionism that was too narrowly focused on the consent principle, the desire of nationalists to pursue the “greening of the North”,

– A fractious party,

– Poor candidate selection (it was entirely predictable that the UUP would lose South Belfast if it fielded a Trimble loyalist, particularly one as unappealing as McGimpsey),

– The incompetent “muppetry” of the Cunningham House “strategists” like Steven King and James Cooper.

But Trimble’s misjudgement of the IRA was the real killer blow.

The end result has been the protracted but inexorable collapse of the UUP’s voting bloc as the out-working of Trimble’s failings. Such a collapse does not happen overnight: there was nearly a decade between Nigel Lawson’s economic errors and the Tory landslide defeat of 1997, and the unravelling of the UUP has taken almost as long.

Historically the UUP cornered the liberal and centre right wings of unionism, whilst the DUP rested on a basically evangelical vote. As recently as the Forum election result in 1996, under the same boundaries as May’s debacle, the UUP outpolled the DUP in 14 out of 18 constituencies. Thanks to Trimble, the centre-right, symbolised by Donaldson, has floated off to the DUP. Its loss is crippling for the UUP.

The UUP looks increasingly like an ageing liberal rump. It is seemingly locked in decline, has little immediate prospect of recovery and, worst of all, lacks talented people who are untainted by past failures. By contrast the DUP, having annexed swathes of former UUP support, looks like a young, vigorous, mainstream unionist party. The baby barristers matured in the UUP; now their future counterparts are likely to build careers in the DUP.

The one possible glimpse of daylight for the UUP is that elements in the DUP think Trimble’s mistakes lay simply in negotiating technique. Last December, the DUP was desperately fortunate that its leader set the bar too high for Sinn Fein. If it had secured a deal to restart the Executive just before the IRA robbed the Northern Bank, and it came very close to it, the DUP would have been in dreadful trouble. Its possibly conclusive May victory would not have happened.

Now as the leading party in unionism, it is faced with the same choices, pressures and constraints as faced the UUP. The DUP desperately wants devolution and it remains to be seen whether its pragmatism overrides its sense of self-preservation, particularly in the absence of credible unionist rivals. If it does, this may not be the last convulsion within unionism. As the saying goes, those who do not learn from the past are doomed to relive it.