UUP: Thanks to you Mrs (and Mr) Robinson…

Steven King spends much of his time in London these days nevertheless keeps a close eye on Irish matters with his weekly column in the Irish Examiner. This week he’s been ruminating on the Tory party’s decision to spurn the advances of the DUP (it’s thought the party had tasked Jeffrey Donaldson and David Simpson) to love them up into some more formal collaboration.Inevitably perhaps, the First Minister and his wife take a bit of a roasting:

Calling homosexuality an “abomination” might be biblical but it was hardly going to endear the DUP to a Tory shadow cabinet that includes two openly gay MPs and is desperate to appear in touch with modern, secular, multicultural Britain.

As if enough damage hadn’t been done, Mrs Robinson then claimed that “the government has a responsibility to uphold God’s laws”. Which God, Martin McGuinness asked, reasonably enough: the Protestant god, the Catholic god, the Hindu god(s), Allah, who? To cap it all, it was reported that Mrs Robinson had told a Commons committee “there can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality and sodomy, than sexually abusing children”.

The so-called Notting Hill set — the well-heeled, right-on inhabitants of Torydom’s Dublin 4 — blanched. Who were these Neanderthals, they asked? Are they British at all? After these outbursts, the nice-but-dull UUP seemed reassuringly familiar and with the Tories perceived as the coming force across the water, opening discussions made sense to the UUP too.

But what’s in it for the UUP:

Not only is there the opportunity to influence the non-devolved agenda — including the all-important allocation of funds to Stormont — and to hold ministerial office at Westminster, but a keen sense also that here might be a way of differentiating the UUP from the DUP. Who’s the more British now, they might ask their electorate? Supporters of a Fianna Fáil link-up within the SDLP would love to challenge Sinn Féin similarly on the question of Irishness.

THIS is far from a done deal. The UUP and the Orange Order might be separated — if not quite divorced — but adopting the fuzzy-wuzzy language of the “Cameroons” will still be a challenge. And then there is the “Sylvia issue”. Lady Hermon, currently the only UUP MP and something of an admirer of Tony Blair in his time, will have to be convinced that the new Tories really are as compassionate as they are conservative.

If the grassroots and the MP for North Down can be squared, though, and with the DUP structures atrophying as members express their disgust at the Sinn Féin partnership, it is just conceivable that the UUP can find a new life and purpose. [Emphasis added]

There is more than the Sylvia problem, there is the rampant illiberality of some voices remaining on the UU benches. For this to work, the new movement will need to be seen to be new. That likely will mean drawing in the very people who in Mark Langhammer’s memorable phrase who left politics to play golf in 1969 and never came back.

The party is not short of youth, or age for that matter. But there is a talent gap right in the middle. To make a revival more than a temporary blip, it will need to recruit real talent (preferably experienced folk from private industry and the voluntary sector if it’s to follow Cameron’s new liberal Tories) who have something new and enervating to pitch into the space.

And in the meantime, some of it’s crusty old veterans will need to moved sideways, or in some cases, asked to move upstairs (to the Lords) to make some new space. on the ground floor (the Commons).

That’s a tall order, and one that looked completely impossible just a few weeks ago. And indeed as King says, it could still all go ‘belly up’. But one imagines that people inside the party others once felt little else but pity for, are enjoying themselves for the first time in an very very long time.

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