UUP and P&J: battles, unicorns and the Northwest passage

The dust has settled on the Policing and Justice vote and as Mick and others pointed out, despite the UUP’s decision not to support the vote there seems to have a conspicuous absence of the sky falling in on anyone’s heads. Now with the advantage of a little time it might be worth looking (somewhat less hysterically) at possible reasons why the UUP made the decision they did and what if any the political ramifications of these decisions may be.The first suggestion might be to take the UUP at their word that they did not agree to the devolution of P&J for the reasons they claimed: namely that the executive is extremely dysfunctional and has no realistic ability to agree a programme for government that takes any remotely controversial decisions. There is no agreement on education which has been reduced to the state of a farce; a very black one when the fact is that it has caused confusion and despair for many parents and has resulted in children sitting more tests with less certainty than ever before. Genuinely having made such an unbelievable hash of education should the executive be given further power? Clearly much of the chaos has been driven by the ideological zealotry of Catriona Ruane but she is still there as large as life, as zealous and useless as ever. To be fair the favourite putative P&J minister, David Ford, a man lacking in any ideology it seems save that of his own self aggrandisement, presents less such problems. However, a combination of the high likelihood of P&J being led by the weakest minister (both politically and personally) in the United Kingdom and with his strings being pulled by such diametrically opposed parties as the DUP and Sinn Fein, is enough to make anyone outside the cosy cabal of Sinn Fein, the DUP and Mr. Ford uneasy.

However, whilst the UUP may have had good practical and principled reasons for opposing P&J devolution there is a significant feeling that there were also party political reasons for this recourse to principle. The UUP’s whole strategy in this may be an extension of the one I suggested some weeks ago: the Battle of the Nile strategy or that which Jim Molyneaux used relatively successfully in the 1980s and early 1990s (the incongruence of likening Nelsonian leadership to that of Emepy’s or Molyneaux’s is sufficiently amusing to bear repetition). Essentially this was (like Nelson at the Nile) to attack on both sides of one’s opponents. For the UUP the idea is to offer unionist voters a party simultaneously more liberal and yet more hard line than the DUP. Molyneaux managed this by having leading members more liberal and more hard line; simultaneously more socially and economically left and right wing than the DUP. Duncan Shipley Dalton has very correctly pointed out that this strategy fell apart when any form of active move forwards was required and was correctly called by John Hunter “Steady as she drifts” but it remains an attractive concept for the UUP.

The UUP may, in their more deluded moments, feel with their alliance with the Conservatives that they may be able to achieve the same sort of result and produce a united unionist party by destroying the DUP. The UUP have consistently been seen as more liberal than the DUP from the time of Molyneaux onwards; Trimble having rapidly abandoned the hard liners who elected him. Furthermore their alliance with the Conservatives could be seen as a further example of becoming more liberal within a Northern Ireland context. Hence, the CU tie up could be a good way to gain that mythical beast of great electoral power: the garden centre Prod. It could also appeal to that sentiment most common amongst unionists within the Pale that Northern Ireland should be and indeed is as British as, if not Finchley, at least the leafier bits of greater Birmingham. Additionally if the CU project could produce in material voting form that other fantasy creature, the Unionist Catholic then the CUs would indeed be on the way to electoral power. Hence, the CU pact has the potential to further “out left” the DUP and maybe eat into the Alliance vote.

Such a strategy, however, depends on the strength of the two righteous mythical creatures, the unicorns of unionist fantasy: the Garden centre Prod and the unionist Catholic. Unionist analysts have long disagreed regarding the existence of these beasts and indeed a number of quests over the years to find and exploit their power have ended pretty tragically for all concerned:Franklin’s lost expedition to navigate the North West passage comes to mind as an analogy.

Set against the dangers of a Franklin typed disaster there are of course other strategies to gain unionist support back to the CUs and it is in this context that the most cynical analyses of the UUP decision to oppose P&J devolution are made. It is abundantly clear that a significant segment of the DUP’s previous support is now very annoyed with their former party of choice. The double jobbing, dynasties and perception of arrogance all worked very strongly against the DUP in the European elections; now in addition Irisgate has been added to the mix. Most importantly, however, is the simple fact that many harder line unionists disapprove of the DUP’s decision to share power with Sinn Fein and in June last year took their revenge on the party by voting for Allister. It is unlikely that much of that anger will have dissipated now that the DUP have been seen to have had to accept a deal which, whatever their protestations, looks like a defeat for them.

Jim Allister and the TUV were of course the main beneficiaries of the fall in DUP support at Europe. However, the very clear voting dynamic whereby TUV supporters transferred to the CUs was present. In the Westminster election the TUV will of course not stand in every seat and in addition there are seats where the UUP were close to the DUP in votes and as such some TUVists might lend their vote to the UUP to bash the DUP. The exact extent of that (especially the latter) part of the voting dynamic is difficult to assess and may be small. However, it is at the heart of the CUs (or more exactly the UUPs) desire to “out right” the DUP and capture some TUV support.

In that context opposing the devolution of P&J makes sense and if the suggestion can be put across that the reasons for opposing P&J are politically “left” (in terms of competence and opposing a sectarian carve up) as well as “right” of the DUP then it might have been and may yet be a cleverer tactic than many of its detractors within the DUP and indeed the media have suggested. It is possible that opposing P&J might gain TUV typed support without further endangering the Franklin-esque quest for those unicorns. Media commentators (with a number of honourable exceptions) have for many years now, been very poor at assessing the voting patterns of unionists and suggesting that the UUP’s decision was so very flawed on P&J may be even more naive than those very commentators were suggesting that the UUP were.

However, although the plan may be a good one and may look like a Battle of the Nile, it could end up being more like the Lake Balaton Offensive, the last German advance of the Second World War where, desperate to regain the oil fields around the eponymous lake, the Germans made one last attack against the Russians and after a few brief gains were forced back yet again.

The reasons for such pessimism regarding the CU’s chances are not simply in the potential the P&J decision has to annoy the unicorns but probably more significantly (like the Germans at Lake Balaton) the lack of resources available to the CUs. The candidates they have are not especially convincing and as I noted previously there is an apparent disconnect in the matching of the candidate and the seat in question. This is nowhere more stark than in Upper Bann where Harry Hamilton, local candidate and no doubt all round nice guy that he is, has his work cut out trying to persuade TUV types to support him over Simpson; even more so if the TUV do not run.

The problem for the CUs is their lack of talent and almost complete absence of strength in depth: a problem which of course afflicts all Northern Ireland’s political parties but is particularly evident for the CUs in view of their very considerable ambition; namely to overtake once again the DUP and become the major unionist party. Ideally, should Franklin return triumphant, along with added unicorns. A further related problem for the CU’s is of course the DUP’s incumbency of the seats in question and now since Lady Hermon will not be standing in North Down for them, they have no incumbent MP. Incumbency is a major advantage, apart from where the MP in question has been a major disaster (Strangford) or has failed to really gel with the constituency (South Antrim). In all the other seats where the CUs are targeting the DUP, they are taking on an at least semi competent incumbent. North Antrim of course will not have an incumbent but there unless the CUs can resurrect Lord Carson or Viscount Craigavon, it will be a battle between Jim Allister and Ian Paisley junior and the lack of a current MP is most unlikely to be of any real help to the CU project. Even the most ardent CU fantasy explorer has not claimed any significant unicorn sightings up in North Antrim.

The decisions the UUP made over P&J may have been in part both principled and those of low political cunning. However, a political party should try to increase the options and electoral base open to it whilst at the same time reducing the options open to its opponents (or rivals to use Fitzjameshorse’s excellent explanation). The decision on P&J may have been lambasted by the chattering classes and those in the current cosy cabal up at Stormont. However, the lack of executive competence may play fairly well to the more moderate potential CU voters (and any unicorns out there), whilst more traditional NI political views may please the TUVists (the fantasy ogres if one wants). Hence, it is just possible that with the Conservative tie up nailing down the space to the “left” of the DUP, the opposition to P&J devolution can be utilised as a device to open up support opportunities to the DUP’s “right.”

In spite of the fact that the UUP’s decision may have been far from a bad one, the reality remains that the CUs may not do very well at this election: that probably has a great deal more to do with their inherently weak position and talent base, along with some poor candidate / seat matches than it has with the supposedly awful decision to oppose the transfer of P&J.

After the failure of the Balaton offensive, Hitler ordered that the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler remove their Adolf Hitler armbands as they had failed to fight properly. If the CU’s latest battle is a failure no doubt some will try to pass the blame for the failure to the P&J decision. It will be as nonsensical as Hitler’s hysterical order. However, when the T-34s, be they real or metaphorical, are about to overrun the bunker, rationality is often absent. Or turning back to Franklin: the main reason he failed was that he was about 100 years too early to have the necessary nuclear powered ice breakers.

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