SATURDAY’S meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council turned out to be a much better one than many people had expected, particularly in terms of turnout and atmosphere.
Media stories of spats and fallouts, along with website rumours of “rebellion on the day from the floor,” did nothing to dampen the spirit of the delegates. Indeed, it is possible that it actually encouraged the higher than anticipated turnout, with the grassroots determined to prove that it wasn’t going to tolerate any more internal wrangling.
The unanimous vote in favour of the resolution to overhaul the party was, as most commentators have noted, a very important decision by the UUC. But only time will tell if it was a genuinely historic decision. Reform of the Ulster Unionist Party has been on their agenda for over 30 years. This was Brian Faulkner’s view of the party in the mid-1970s:
“The Unionist Party had started off as a vehicle for the mobilisation of the entire spectrum of pro-Union opinion and its structures reflected that fact. Within it there was a remarkable range of social and political attitudes. The central party headquarters in Belfast had little control over associations. All of this meant that a relatively small number of dissidents could perpetually harass and embarrass…by calling a series of meetings of the most important bodies of the party to discuss motions of no confidence or criticisms of party policy.”
Yet almost 25 years after Faulkner’s resignation as party leader (having lost a vote at an emergency meeting of the UUC in January 1974), David Trimble had exactly the same difficulties: constantly ambushed and undermined by a minority of internal critics who were exercising the “rights” afforded to them by a constitution which remained geared to the needs of an umbrella organisation rather than a political party.
I have listened to reform motions being debated in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and again, last Saturday. Delegates, generally speaking, are always in favour of the principle of reform. But when a rules committee produces the precise details of that reform the vested interests and affiliated organisations flex their muscles, deploy their delegates and either wreck entirely or massively dilute the proposals.
It will be a Saturday morning in September or early October that will prove to be the key moment in this latest phase of the reform process, for that is when the UUC will be reconvened to consider the recommendations of the review panel. How sweeping and draconian will those recommendations prove to be? As one delegate put it: “There must be no cow so sacred that it cannot be slaughtered; no individual so exalted that he cannot be removed; no heirloom so precious that it cannot be taken to the car boot sale or auction house; no institution so deeply embedded that it cannot be uprooted and dumped; and no part of the existing constitution which will be regarded as immune from scrutiny.”
My sense of the meeting, and it is only my sense, is that delegates really do want to settle the reform issue finally, quickly and ruthlessly. The very worst thing that could happen to Northern Ireland, to the Union and unionism generally would be for the DUP to consolidate and build upon its position as the majority voice of unionism. The DUP lacks political vision, moral courage and any real sense of leading from the front. It has always followed in the footsteps of the UUP.
And those wishy-washy, boneless, pallid, fence-sitting, all-things-to-all-people ninnies of the Alliance Party aren’t much better. They may claim to be nominally pro-Union, but it is a claim which carries the same sort of credibility and conviction as my claim to be an unassuming soul who wouldn’t say boo to a passing leader of the UUP. Yet if the UUP doesn’t get its act together within the next few months then it is those two parties who will be the main beneficiaries, while Northern Ireland and the Union will be the main losers.
Sir Reg Empey’s speech to the delegates reflected the two major problems facing his party; the urgency and necessity of reform and the refashioning of the party into a vehicle which, in terms of policies, candidates and impact, mirrors the real face of the Northern Ireland which has been created by the Belfast Agreement (which, despite claims from the DUP, hasn’t gone away, you know).
His hope, today, must be that the review process is both speedy and suitably draconian. I have some personal reservations about the make-up of the review panel and I think, in the initial stages at
least, it would be preferable if neither he nor any officer was involved. He must hope, too, that the rift which seems to exist between him and a few key players can be repaired fairly quickly. There may well be a battle royal further down the line when some parts of the party discover that a century of autonomy is about to be removed from them, and it is at that stage when the leader is going to need all the friends he can get.
I don’t minimise the problems which still face the UUP and I won’t overstate the apparent success of Saturday’s meeting. But I did detect a sense of urgency and reality that I haven’t often noted before. This is a party that has, at long last, faced up to the fact that it is facing a battle for its very survival. If the mood of the meeting and the endorsement of the resolution is anything to go by, then this is also a party which is determined to win that battle.
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