UUP: plotting the road ahead

Despite the directness of Paul Nixon’s cartoon, it’s probably an exaggeration to suggest that the UUP have had a meltdown in the last election. As things stand, they still constitute a substantial presence, if not the force they were once believed to be in Northern Irish politics – particularly at council level. Below Irish Daily Star columnist and political journalist Dr John Coulter argues that if the party is to have a future must do two things: work on its structures from the ground up: and look for a viable ‘marriage’ partner with whom to face the uncertain times ahead.

By John Coulter

Ulster Unionism’s nightmare has deepened as the Titanic-style meltdown which devastated them in Westminster has seeped into the council count.

These were the last elections to the North’s 26 local authorities as they presently exist. The council front had remained the last UUP stronghold over the Paisleyites, but has once more fallen to the DUP steamroller.

The jungle drums are tapping out a gentle beat that if the DUP and Sinn Fein can rekindle their 2004 deal and get it in place again by Christmas, further elections to a revamped Stormont Assembly could follow.

Senior UUP sources fear up to 15 of the Assembly party’s 24 seats could be in serious jeopardy if the Commons crisis is repeated in a Stormont poll.

One nervous MLA told the Star: “If we are to rebuild the party in the short term, then we needed to stop the rot at council level. But the vote loss from Westminster could not be contained in spite of factors such as local issues and personalities.”

And it’s not just ex-party boss David Trimble personally who will carry the can for the UUP annihilation. Plans are already been laid for a purge of Cunningham House, the party’s Belfast headquarters.

The atmosphere there is said to resemble Hitler’s Fuhrer Bunker in Berlin as the final remnants of the Nazi Third Reich crumbled 60 years ago this month.

Do those who advised Trimble over the years decide to take the political cyanide pill and – like him – resign rather than face the Nuremberg Trial-style wrath at the next meeting of the party’s executive?

Whilst there can be no doubting that heads will roll within the UUP as a result of the Westminster debacle, the UUP has still to answer two key questions.

Firstly, who will lead the party in the post-Trimble era out of this Laurel and Hardy-type ‘fine mess’, and where will the party reposition itself it provide any real relevance within the unionist family?

Tradition may have to be set aside in the leadership race. The natural choice, Sylvia Hermon of North Down as the sole surviving MP, it has been suggested, does not want the role because of the failing health of her husband, Sir John Hermon, the former RUC Chief Constable.

The other obvious contenders – Reg Empey, Michael McGimpsey and David Burnside – were all casualties of the DUP steamroller. In reality, the party in the short-term may need to appoint a caretaker leader from within the Assembly group while it reorganises internally.

Some sources want a group leadership – John Taylor in the House of Lords as overall leader; Hermon in the Commons, with Empey at Stormont. This month, the party must regroup itself around what is left of the Ulster Unionist Councillors’ Association and the MLAs.

As for repositioning on the unionist spectrum, the UUP has three choices; two short-term, one long-term. On the latter, a formal merger with the DUP post-Paisley to form one single, united front simply known as The Unionist Party is the best option.

This would see unionism return structurally to the days of the old Stormont majority rule party – but with the religious fundamentalists and middle class in control, not the landed gentry or Protestant aristocracy.

Short-term, with the DUP holding the entire Centre Right, the UUP must either form a pact with Alliance in the Centre, or reinvent itself as a hardline Right-wing Vanguard Unionist-style movement.

Whatever decision it takes, the UUP must now do it without Trimble and his Cunningham House cabal of advisers. There is even some talk about wanting to fold up the party now and join with the DUP whilst Ulster Unionism still has some elected representatives to bargain with.

First published in the Irish Daily Star