The UUP: Rebuilding from Ground Zero

The Watchman sends us another of his think pieces on the UUP. Here he argues that the election of Sir Reg Empey gives the party the opportunity to rediscover its essential centre right values. This, he argues amongst other things, will involve adopting and promoting a non sectarian political voice if the party is to mount a future challenge against the DUP. But it must not lapse into what he terms “community relations-speak”.By The Watchman

If the Ulster Unionist Party bungles the next few weeks and months as it has bungled just about everything else in the last 8 years then it really will be dead in the water. It has to realise that the electorate has given it a savage vote of no confidence. Its former leader, who often seemed divorced from reality, might blame everyone other than himself for the debacle. But a shattered party has no such luxury.

The post-Trimble UUP has not made a good start. The three leadership contenders publicly focused on internal party reform, not unimportant but comparatively peripheral. None mentioned the metaphorical elephant in the living room: the cumulative alienation of the unionist electorate thanks to an inept engagement with republicans. Trimble failed to grasp the interdependence of the IRA’s political and military wings. He believed that republicans were on a road that was certain to end in purely constitutional means and took political risks on that basis.

The result was a long list of failures: putting the unreconstructed IRA/Sinn Fein into power in breach of previous pledges, bungling the UUP’s approach to policing, endorsing procedural chicanery in the Assembly, and an ideological passivity (Dean Godson’s phrase) in the face of republican pressure. It discredited the UUP as a robust defender of unionist interests and the party’s centre-right vote duly floated off to the DUP.

The party may decide to advance towards a centre ground already occupied by the Alliance Party. That offers ideological purity but also a vote combined to bien pensant Greater Belfast. The Roy Garlands who argue for this approach have long been on the periphery of unionism. They regard an Olympian detachment from the concerns of most unionists as a mark of non-sectarian virtue and are happy for company in the wilderness.

They are often as dogmatic as Old Paisleyites in their own way and have learned nothing from the fates of Faulkner and Trimble. (Their stance misses the lesson identified by T.E. Utley 30 years ago: that the UUP always suffers more from fragmentation to the right than to the left.) The unexpectedly high vote for Alan McFarland suggests there may be a future powerful push in this direction from a large minority in the party.

Some may be attracted to a merger with the DUP but they should be more cautious. The DUP’s shortcomings have been obscured by the sheer awfulness of the Trimble UUP. Despite profound changes within the party, a united unionism under the DUP flag poses lots of problems:

· The party is still imprinted for the foreseeable future with a profoundly sectarian outlook.

· Although many representatives have a well-earned reputation for constituency work, the flipside is a long-standing parochialism. The DUP has never properly exploited its Westminster presence and constantly misses opportunities to build up support for unionism outside the Province. Its involvement at Westminster in matters that do not concern Northern Ireland has traditionally been dilatory.

· The tight control over the party exercised by a coterie at the centre would give enormous control over the future representatives of a single unionist party to a very few.

· Finally, the DUP’s opposition to the Belfast Agreement lacks credibility. Its fierce attacks on the UUP since 1998 have concealed a tacit acceptance of the Agreement.

In its first negotiation as the lead unionist party, only the intransigence of Ian Paisley kept the DUP out of what would have been a suicidal decision to share power with Sinn Fein just before the Northern Bank robbery. One constraint on the vaulting ambition within parts of the DUP is a unionist party that can hold the DUP to account. Parties exist to win votes and seats. The UUP must start again to compete with the DUP over the key centre-right, which comprises unionism’s centre of gravity. This has several implications:

· The UUP must make a clean break with the past. Its overriding priority must be to rebuild trust and credibility with the unionist electorate that has been shattered by David Trimble’s tenure. The UUP’s key strategic misjudgment was to believe that the IRA was in the process of giving up violence and that forming the Executive would accelerate that process. It needs to apologise for its mistakes and admit that it has learned from them.

· The party must differentiate itself from the DUP by trumpeting an assertive, proactive and robust brand of unionism that defends the quality of UK citizenship without reducing its cause to sectarian head counting. That brand must then be allied to sounder strategic judgment. Never again can a unionist leader entrust his own credibility and that of his party to the IRA. Many of its problems arose from Trimble’s determination to do a deal with the IRA at almost any price. Never again can terrorists be got in government on the basis that Trimble permitted.

The UUP must learn that there is a difference from setting out a non-sectarian prospectus and a discourse that just sounds wet. The difference can be easily illustrated. On his Let’s Talk debut, Tyrone Howe, a likely rising star of the party, lapsed very quickly into community relations-speak about “reconciliation”. At no point did he sound like someone who understood identifiably unionist concerns or would articulate them.

When, say, Bob McCartney makes the same comments, he can do so without losing credibility as a unionist champion because of his well-known combativeness on other issues. Howe, admittedly intelligent and telegenic, sounded like an Alliance spokesman. Nothing in terms of his delivery or content will ever pull back a DUP vote.

Unionism is constrained by a Belfast Agreement that is loaded in favour of Republicans. The DUP is discovering that the only basis for a return to devolution is another leap in the dark and putting its fate in the good faith of Sinn Fein. Unfortunately, it is not in the IRA’s interests to wind up its armed wing and, in any event, the nationalist electorate will never punish Sinn Fein even if the DUP accuses it of reneging on a deal. That puts unionists at a huge disadvantage and will test the DUP’s traditional unity and discipline to the limit. A key test for the UUP is to look beyond the Agreement.

· The party desperately needs new faces that are not discredited by past failures. There is a deficit of rising talent. (Proof of that can be seen in the website of the Young Unionists that has run comment threads full of puerile gloating at Paul Berry’s expense.) The UUP must creatively build new non-institutional links with Orangeism, for the estrangement of rank and file Orangemen from the party has been an overlooked factor in the party’s decline. It must also reach out to other burgeoning cultural groups within the Ulster-Scots movement and hopefully draw on the grassroots talent there.

· In terms of organisation, there must be a clear out of the Trimble faction from Cunningham House. May 2005 may have been the worst reversal but it was not the first electoral setback. A new leader will succeed or fail on whether he can build a sharp campaign machine to rival that of the DUP. The decay at a constituency level must also finally be addressed. Towering ambition and in-fighting should not be allowed to wreck any more constituency associations, as the sorry lesson of South Belfast should demonstrate.

There will be no quick fix for recovery. But despite the DUP’s current ascendancy, there is clearly a place for an alternative brand of unionism: constitutionally sound; non-sectarian; and non-parochial. The DUP may be less stable than it looks on the surface and its eventual leadership succession is likely to weaken the party in a number of ways.

It may have cornered much of what talent there is in unionism, but it still has its mediocre representatives. It is beatable. The task for the new UUP leader is to show, through strength of personality, strategic direction and firmness of purpose, why the party deserves to lead unionism once again.