DR JOHN COULTER is a political columnist and Unionist revisionist. Here he flies a controversial kite and argues that the Ulster Unionist Party should swing to the Radical Right if it is to have any meaningful future in Ulster politics.By John Coutler
The badly bruised Ulster Unionist Party can take its first tentative steps on the long road to recovery by re-launching itself as a Radical Right-wing movement with a positive ultra-conservative agenda … but first it has to elect a Right-wing, tough-talking, no-nonsense leader at the end of June.
The essential problem for the leaderless UUP is that in terms of a realistic policy, it is also rudderless. The Paisleyites have stolen the UUP’s clothes, policies, place on the political spectrum and ultimately its voters in the General and local elections.
Morale at the party executive meetings, branch meetings and general conversations amongst ranks and file members has been temporarily lifted a little by trying to write off the election meltdown as a massive vote of no confidence in David Trimble himself, not the party as a whole.
Whilst this may be true to some extent, it does not explain the total collapse in the UUP vote in many constituencies. The Ulster Unionists must face the bitter medicine that they have lost their way as a party and are stuck in the political equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle.
The essential question which any prospective new leader must answer in late June is – what is the difference between the DUP and the UUP? If it’s only a name, then the best path is either to wind up the UUP – as if it was the late Brian Faulkner’s UPNI – and let members join whatever party they want, or formally merge with the Paisleyites to form a single movement.
At this point in time, neither option is realistic – that would be akin to taking the political suicide pill. That leaves only one choice for the humbled and humiliated Ulster Unionists – they must re-position themselves so that the electorate can see clear blue sky between the party and the Paisleyites.
Again, the UUP has two options – the Centre or the Radical Right, given that the DUP has control over the unionist family’s entire Centre Right. A move towards the liberal unionism of sole MP Lady Sylvia Hermon, or former Fermanagh South Tyrone MP Ken Maginnis is a non-starter for the time being.
If the UUP re-positions on the Centre, it might as well merge with the Alliance Party. Whilst that would certainly suit Lady Hermon in ensuring North Down remains an Ulster Unionist Westminster seat, it would spell disaster for the remainder of elected representatives in the Ulster Unionist Councillors’ Association, and more significantly, the UUP’s Assembly group.
The real danger for the Ulster Unionists is that if the DUP – as seems likely in spite of Paisley’s fundamentalist rhetoric – cuts a deal with Sinn Fein and gets Stormont back to legislative mode. In this scenario, the Paisleyites may well call for a Spring 2006 Assembly election to supposedly copper-fasten the new agreement.
If the May General Election results were applied to the 24 UUP MLAs, up to 15 of them would lose their seats to the DUP, leaving the Ulster Unionists no more than a glorified Alliance Assembly group, which has six seats.
To survive in the short-term, the UUP has got to return to its traditional Right-wing roots and effectively become an official Opposition party to the pending DUP/Sinn Fein government at Stormont.
And even if Tony Blair – or Gordon Brown – does decide to activate the Assembly without Sinn Fein, the DUP will still be in the driving seat in terms of First Minister. However, given the way in which the DUP controlled the Hard Right since its inception in 1971, there is a false perception that being Radical Right is akin to the 1980s Ulster Says No campaign.
The new-look Radical Right UUP must become a 21st century brand of ultra-conservative Thatcherism. It must offer Northern Ireland middle class – and especially unionism’s sizeable non-voting middle class – an open invitation to re-engage in Ulster politics.
In short, the Right-wing UUP has got to put pride back into politics. It can do so by adopting radical policies on health, education, the re-organisation of bureaucracy, joy-riding, immigration, and even European federalism.
What a radical Right-wing UUP certainly cannot do is hope that those who deserted the UUP to vote DUP simply to rid the party of Trimble will drift back to Ulster Unionism in future elections. The SDLP ‘lent’ voters to Sinn Fein in a bid to encourage the republican movement to follow the democratic path – and they stayed with Sinn Fein!
The onus is now on the DUP, a traditionally devolutionist movement, to deliver a fully legislative Stormont Assembly with Ian Paisley as First Minister and Gerry Adams as Deputy First Minister.
The DUP also has an ace card which it previously never owned in the political pack – a significantly increased Westminster team with the possibility of two more seats in another four years’ time if there are agreed DUP candidates in South Belfast and Fermanagh South Tyrone.
The Paisleyites also want their fair share of peers in the House of Lords. A Blair Government may continue to staff the NIO with mainland Labour MPs whilst Paisley is still DUP boss.
However, if the Assembly collapses permanently beyond mere suspension, a Brown Government in a post Paisley era may well be tempted to staff the NIO with Ulster MPs from the DUP and SDLP. This is assuming the DUP cannot move ahead with Sinn Fein because of the issue of IRA decommissioning and criminality.
Even in this scenario, Sinn Fein could toss a spanner in the works by deciding to take the oath of allegiance and take its Westminster seats. Martin McGuinness may well become education minister again, not in a Stormont Executive, but as an NIO minister with portfolio.
However, whether the DUP is in government at Stormont or through the NIO, the Ulster Unionists must still become the voice of radical opposition, holding the Paisleyites to account on their decisions. The Radical Right UUP will have to remain there until the passing of Paisley senior when the dogfight for his successor begins.
Through his powerful persona, Paisley has managed to keep the rival wings of his party in toe. Without his physical presence, however, the modernisers who want to cut a deal with Sinn Fein, will go head-to-head with the religious fundamentalists who traditionally view the Pope as being part of the empire of the Anti Christ.
At some point, a post Paisley DUP will split, with the outcome likely to be the fundamentalists forming their own version of the Protestant Reformation Party. At this point, the Ulster Unionists must be prepared to form a pact with the DUP modernisers to fend off the influence of the fundamentalists.
Eventually, the UUP will have to formally merge with the DUP to form one organisation, known simply as The Unionist Party. It is in the immediate post Paisley era that Ulster Unionism’s liberal wing will come to the fore as a vital tool in the negotiations to merge the two parties.
In the meantime, Ulster Unionism must content itself with having to do the unthinkable compared to 1998 when its brand of far-reaching New Unionism helped bring about the Good Friday Agreement. The UUP must, in its centenary year, reach back to its hardline roots in the anti-Home Rule period.
It has forced out Trimble, the man who spent a significant section of his political career in the Radical Right-wing Vanguard movement. Ironically, to survive, Ulster Unionism must again follow Trimble’s example and adopt a Vanguard mentality in the coming months.
In late June, no matter who the Ulster Unionist Council decides is the new boss, he or she must become a Carsonite figurehead with a Thatcherite agenda based on a youthful Trimbleite structure.
Bitter medicine it may be, but its better than the total isolation of the political cemetery where the UPNI, Vanguard Unionist Party, Ulster Democratic Party, United Ulster Unionist Party, United Unionist Assembly Party, and the Northern Ireland Unionist Party now rest insignificantly.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty