New Force and the danger of déjà vu

I must admit to welcoming the Ulster Conservative and Unionist – New Force. If it produced a new mould breaking era of non sectarian politics I would be delighted. However, I would suggest that there are worrying echoes of the past in this new set up. I am of course referring to Trimble’s UUP: I know the comparison is far from exact but there are dangers lurking. Trimble’s leadership of the UUP was a triumph. This was the man who helped negotiate a new devolved form of government: he managed to move his party from opposition to power sharing and into the leadership of devolved government. He himself, managed to move from being the rather prickly, difficult, highly intelligent academic and sometime Drumcree marcher to being an internationally respected leader, welcomed at the White House and recipient of a Nobel Peace prize. He then went on to pioneer moving the UUP out of sectarian Northern Ireland politics and to a new future where “Decent People Vote(d) Ulster Unionist” and the UUP was “for all of us” and “Simply British.”

Of course then there is the reality: Trimble was the most unbelievably appalling negotiator; even his own supporters gave up any pretence of believing his assorted lines in the sand. He complained and complained and then failed to stop concession after concession to republicans. He was lauded by assorted people outwith Northern Ireland and indeed congratulated by Gerry Adams within it. He then presided over the most flawless destruction of a political party in recent British history, taking his count of seats from 10 to 1 in only two general elections; assisted by a manifesto which the 1983 Labour party would have regarded as inept.

Why do I bring all that back up again?

I am concerned that the spring in the New Force’s step is in part based on the favourable attention which they have received amongst moderate unionist politicos. These usually very nice, highly intelligent and well educated people from the Pale see themselves as “simply British” and as non sectarian, reasonable people. The sad reality for them is, however, that most people in Northern Ireland are less interested in politics. I am unconvinced that terribly many will see this new force as anything terribly exciting, fronted as it is by the same rather tired and indeed sad UUP leadership. Many middle class unionists within the Pale are not that moderate (I used to be one). Also moving outside the Pale the simple reality is that non tribal politics is not viable out west where there be dragons and I see little sign of it in the north of Northern Ireland where the Presbyterians of North Antrim and Orangemen of East Londonderry are unlikely to be easily convinced.

The New Force clearly wishes to attract pro union Roman Catholics: again a very laudable aim but again one which Trimble tried in the past. The New Force’s supporters can of course counter that they have lost the baggage of Trimble’s jig up the Garvaghy Road: but he had pretty comprehensively dumped that years before and the pro union Catholics showed little inclination to ride to his rescue on 23rd May 2005. In addition the senior UUP leaders who were there when Trimble performed political voluntary euthanasia on himself and involuntary euthanasia on his party are still there; convincing large numbers of nationalists and pro union RCs of their completely non sectarian nature may be difficult.

Another potential problem is the apparent slight differences between the two parties in this match made in heaven. Even leaving aside Sylvia Hermon (their only significant politician who can legitimately claim to have defeated a DUP candidate) there do seem to be some subtle differences between the UUP and the Conservatives. These are differences which may become more evident during an election campaign and will undoubtedly be mercilessly exploited by their opponents. It must be remembered that the public do not like divided political parties: again one need only look back to Trimble’s leadership to remember that for much of his time he had internal opposition and that air of division and uncertainty is always politically corrosive.

The other thing which worries me for the New Force is the appearance of shiny English Tory types. I know I have discussed this before but I do feel at times that some in the UUP are bewitched by a bit of Received Pronunciation, ideally along with a public school education and an Oxbridge degree. I well remember many of us the same age as Steven King suggesting that although he was hard working, intelligent and affable; the fact that he was popular with the media especially in GB and RoI did not mean his ideas were going to take the UUP to heroic successful glory (unless one regards the Charge of the Light Brigade in that context). Again I fear that the New Force could be bewitched by party advisors etc. brought in by the mainland Tories. These people are extremely good at their job; however, that job is in England (and to a limited extent in Wales and an even lesser one in Scotland). They use things like polling data and such like which are notoriously inaccurate in Northern Ireland. Much as the New Force supporting denizens of the Pale may wish it: in electoral terms Ulster is not the same as Finchley.

There is a danger that the New Force is repeating exactly the same mistakes as Trimble’s UUP did: by focusing on and listening to themselves and sympathetic politicos and journalists; believing their own propaganda and spin and losing sight of their own electorate. By doing this they may manage to alienate a considerable proportion of their core support and yet pick up very few new voters: just because they think that they are presenting a “New Force” does not mean that the Northern Ireland electorate will agree with them. It is of course possible that this New Force may break the mould of NI politics; alternatively it may have no effect or even decrease Jim Nicholson’s chances of election. Clearly I am biased but there is a warning from recent history.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.