UUP: still fit for service?

Political pundit Dr John Coulter of the Irish Daily Star maintains we shouldn’t just be focusing on the Ulster Unionists’ problems. He reckons the DUP could also be heading for stormy waters. Oh, and stand by for an extended metaphor of prodigious length!By John Coulter

There’s so much focus on the rudderless and leaderless HMS UUP, the political eye has been taken off the motionless DUP U-Boat basking calming off the shores of electoral victory.

We now know the real reason for the stalled peace deal between the Shinners and the Paisley camp last Christmas had nothing to do with humiliating republicans or unionist demands for a few photos, but had everything to do with inflicting meltdown on their political rivals.

The big problem for the process is whilst the DUP dished out its end of the annihilation deal to Trimble’s Ulster Unionists, Sinn Fein could not deliver the same political kick in the balls to the SDLP.

Battered and bruised it may be, but the SDLP is still in business and talk of a formal merger with Fianna Fail has been relegated to the long finger.

Talk has now returned to the notorious peace train about to leave the mythical station as if it was a political version of the Hogwarts Express from the Harry Potter films.

May’s elections have confirmed the DUP’s seats in the first-class compartments, next to the Shinners in second-class. For the rest – and especially the UUP – it’s standing room only in the economy class.

Ever since the October 2002 Assembly suspension, there has been a constant media barrage the train must leave without Sinn Fein because of a lack of IRA decommissioning, disbanding and republican criminality.

However, the real danger is faced by the Paisleyites. They are the party of government within unionism. It’s their responsibility as a devolutionist party to deliver a working, legislative Stormont – only this time, DUP ministers will not be able to work the electorate by staying outside the power-sharing Executive.

There is the real threat to unionism the British, Irish and American governments give the peace train the signal to move on, with Sinn Fein sneaking into the rear guards van at the last moment, but leave the DUP still squabbling with its hardline Right-wing fundamentalists on the platform.

It is the DUP that has shifted its ground – from the ultra-Right ‘Ulster Says No’ to the modernising ‘do a deal centre Right’. The DUP may well have stolen the UUP’s political garments, position, policies and voters. But it has also inherited the fleas’ nest of internecine feuding.

Electoral euphoria may well hide the effects of the flea bites for a few months. The real crisis will come when Paisley has to sell the Sinn Fein deal to the ‘no Provies on our patch’ religious fundamentalists.

As for the UUP, forget the trendy talk about becoming a liberal party. That’s what the late Brian Faulkner’s Unionist Party of Northern Ireland tried after its Westminster defeats in 1974 – and it’s now in the political cemetery.

The UUP must re-establish itself as the party of the positive radical Right under the leadership of either John Taylor or Reg Empey .

The UUP needs a committed leader – not an interim boss or corporate leadership. This must be a leader, who with the full backing of the UUC, has the stomach to clear out any existing Trimbleite supporters within the officer team.

It should not be forgotten around 100,000 people still voted UUP this month. What they deserve is not a brutal leadership battle – they urgently need a rudder for their ship.

If the recent party executive meeting is a gauge, there’s so much bitterness still in the HMS UUP, the crew can’t even find a trusty First Mate, let alone a seaworthy skipper.

First published in the Irish Daily Star.