Risk of going beyond either/or…

This is article was first published in Fortnight magazine back in February 2003. Chris Farrington is now a Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellow funded by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences’ in the School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin.

Although the circumstances it describes has changed radically and a large swathe of the dramatis personae referred to have shuffled off their political coils, the principles he describes are to some extent hardwired into all of Northern Irish politics: our parties at time obsessively balance cross community dealing with internal constituency management. His book on Unionism is published this week by Palgrave.By Chris Farrington

The Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan-Smith recently told his party to ‘unite or die,’ a comment all too familiar to observers of Ulster Unionism. Journalists found that the story in IDS’ comments was that it seemed to put a self-imposed strain on his own leadership. IDS was not helped by the ambivalent support of some senior Tories, past and present. The issue at stake was IDS’ leadership and at least part of the criticism understood that it was part of his job to unite the party.

David Trimble faces some of the same problems, although unity in Unionism is understood in many different ways. Those such as Burnside want Unionism to unite under one party and can foresee conditions under which it might happen. Others merely want the Ulster Unionist Party to unite. As with the Conservative Party, the expectations that this latter preference might occur seems slim and the problem is not simply Trimble’s fault.

It’s no secret that Unionism has many fault lines on many different issues not solely related to the Agreement and that for much of the last century the Unionist Party’s concerns were to ensure that these divisions did not become political parties. Ultimately, that project came crashing to earth in the 1960s but since then the Ulster Unionist Party has tried to maintain the idea that it’s a ‘broad church’ capable of accommodating many different hues of Unionism. This is the first problem for Trimble’s leadership.

When this structure was first established in 1905 the issue of leadership was crucial. There were many factors that maintained the cohesiveness of the Ulster Unionist Council but Carson’s position is more easily explained. He was marketed despite his personal failings and he was marketed in such a way that he could draw on resources of trust, respect and commitment from those Unionists that followed. Unity was an issue but the insecurities of division did not derive from a suspect leadership.

Any analysis of contemporary Unionism has to come to the conclusion, probably much to the delight of Ian Paisley, that comparisons between time periods is more favourable to the DUP than the UUP. It doesn’t take many conversations with DUP activists to realise that they sell their leadership (of Paisley, Robinson and Dodds) like a teenager raving about their latest favourite rock band, TV programme or Harry Potter film. Of course nothing breeds success like success but the resources that the DUP leaders can draw on appear to be substantial and significant.

The symbiotic nature of political leadership is not usually fully appreciated. Leadership relies as much on the grass roots as it does on the party hierarchy and in this respect the comparison between the DUP and UUP is stark. The infectious enthusiasm of the DUP for the leaders is conspicuously lacking among UUP activists. They speak of the courage and bravery of Trimble in taking the party through the negotiations and implementation of the Agreement but the reverence which is enjoyed by the DUP is instead replaced with a belief in the importance of independence of mind. At least some of Trimble’s problems stem from the attitudes of grass roots UUP opinion towards the institution of leadership. As with Margaret Thatcher, they too believe leaders can come and go but the party will survive.

This is reflected in the nature, structure and organisation of the Ulster Unionist Council, the ruling body of the Ulster Unionist Party (which technically does not exist outside of the elected chambers). Trimble got many votes in the 1995 leadership election on his promises to reform the party structure, most of which have not been followed through but Trimble’s position would be substantially strengthened if he could reform the lines of command, the centralisation of decision making and, perhaps most importantly, curb the powers of constituency associations. All of these hinder the creation of a strong leadership, as an institution apart from Trimble’s own personality, within the Ulster Unionist Party.

Trimble’s difficulty with these reforms has been that the first hurdle they have to face is the most emotive and difficult. Severing the Orange link is much less important than, for instance, centralising party membership but one cannot be tackled without the other and so everything has been shelved for the moment.

However, the intention here is not to exonerate Trimble because several criticisms could be made. The consensus around Molyneaux’s leadership has been neutral at best and outright hostile at worst. Molyneaux was criticised for providing no direction and for being concerned almost exclusively with maintaining party unity. Indeed, the best way to describe Molyneaux’s leadership is ‘party management.’ Trimble has at least replaced the stasis with some sort of action but as per Molyneaux, Trimble’s leadership has been defined by his regular periodical ‘crisis meetings’ and the preoccupation with party management.

This is due, at least in part, to the ‘broad church’ culture of the UUP and the problems of the leadership in general in the party but Trimble has to bear some of the responsibility in that, if he truly believes his strategy for Northern Ireland is ‘high risk,’ as some of his supporters do, then accompanying that strategy with a project of party management was only ever likely to lead to the periodic crises that the Agreement has faced.

Pro-Agreement Unionists lament that Trimble is so well respected abroad and in Britain but denounced in Northern Ireland, while Nationalists complain that Trimble has not shown the leadership that they expected and that would be required of him. Both views contain elements of the true picture but both also forget that you can’t lead people where they don’t want to go. The problem with the UUP is that Trimble isn’t even in a position to be able to try.

First published in Fortnight in February 2003.