Mr. Bean is one of Rowan Atkinsons greatest comic creations. Wikipedia describes the character well as follows: (he) is a slow-witted, sometimes ingenious, selfish and generally likeable buffoon who brings various unusual schemes and connivances to everyday tasks…. The humour largely comes from his original (and often absurd) solutions to problems and his total disregard for others when solving them, his pettiness, and occasional malevolence.” (Most of you must have worked out where this is going)Of all the politicians in Northern Ireland the one who seems most suited to these descriptions has to be the UUPs own Mr. Bean: Reg Empey.
At the time of the European election I suggested that the UUP might be experiencing a dead cat bounce as their progress seemed more related to the TUV slicing off approaching a half of the DUPs support than any significant advance of their own vote. However, the DUP promptly managed to develop a crisis of pretty unimaginable proportions. When Irisgate developed it looked briefly as if Peter Robinson might fall and practically all the DUPs Westminster seats looked vulnerable; all the CUs had to do was not make a mess, choose some decent candidates, keep to some sensible policies and they might have expected several seats to fall to them. Clearly the CUs had some problems especially having a limited pool of talent but they might have expected to take a number of seats.
However, cometh the hour, cometh the CUs Mr. Bean, in fairness helped loyally by an almost equally incompetent group of followers. They might have thought that having a fairly open selection procedure would raise the candidates and the partys profile, a little like it did for David Cameron with the Tory leadership election. However, the selection procedure quickly descended into farce with the much vaunted Catholic candidates pulling out. Then we had the spectacle of the Conservatives vetoing Adrian Watson for holding unacceptable views on Christian guest house owners being allowed to refuse homosexual couples: views so dreadful that Conservative shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling felt compelled to say exactly the same thing; strangely he did not get vetoed.
The UUPs tactics towards the policing and justice minister might have been sensible. They were underlining the problems with community confidence, something the DUP had stated was necessary for P&J devolution to occur. It was a reasonable political position. However, it was articulated from two positions simultaneously: the hard line one that P&J devolution was a Lundy typed sell out and simultaneously the liberal one that the DUP and SF were too extreme and hard line to allow a proper functioning executive. Such a Janus headed position might well have worked years ago (under Jim Molyneaux) when the UUP was a broad church which could be simultaneously to the left and right of the DUP. However, in the straightened times the UUP (with or without Conservative tie up) are unable to both out right and out left the DUP.
The UUP, with the CU tie up have of course tried to present their new project as a complete break with the past. However, that position has become very difficult to sustain on the P&J issue with the Westminster Conservatives supporting P&J devolution. The UUP portion of the CUs has been left looking as if it was trying to out right the DUP and making a bit of a fool of itself. That is of course unfair as the DUP were the ones who themselves stated that they would need UUP support to accept P&J devolution. Hence, this should be the DUPs problem but who ever said that politics should be fair? Indeed it should have been the DUP in complete chaos, as the UUP refused to give them cover over their P&J sell out to the wishes of republicans. However, although the DUP have been damaged in the eyes of many unionists, the CUs have failed to reap the benefits.
Reg Empey and the CUs have managed to make the situation even worse with their candidate selection. Even Trimble only just lost Upper Bann but a seat which just after Christmas looked a certainty to fall back to the UUP, especially as it became increasingly clear that there would be no TUV candidate reverted as a likely DUP hold. The CUs chose Harry Hamilton, no doubt a decent person but a poor candidate and simply passed the advantage back to the DUP.
The utter incompetence of the whole CU project is demonstrated nowhere better than by the fact that their most non sectarian and civic unionist of public representatives, Sylvia Hermon, ended up leaving the party. That self inflicted blow illustrates almost better than any other how the CUs have managed to let the near certainty of huge gains slip through their fingers.
The simple reality now is that the only gain of which the CUs can be fairly confident of is South Antrim: Strangford now would represent a significant extra benefit. In multiple other constituencies the DUPs main challengers are now the TUV. Obviously North Antrim but in addition it is difficult to see Daphne Trimble posing as much of a threat as Keith Harbinson. Jeffrey Donaldson might be the front runner but if by chance any disaster should befall him it would be the TUV not the CUs who would gain another seat. The situation is repeated in several other seats: David Vance is at least level pegging with Trevor Ringland in East Belfast and probably ahead; Willie Ross, a better and more likely option than Lesley Macaualy in East Londonderry. In East Antrim Rodney McCune has certainly been less prominent than Sammy Morrison.
Ironically despite the abject disaster which the CUs answer to Mr. Bean, Reg Empey is in the process of visiting on the UUP, he might well end up remaining their leader. Whilst the rest of his candidates may fail, Reg is the most likely to succeed and it may prove remarkably difficult for the CUs to get rid of their personally successful though corporately disastrous leader, the more so if he ends up being their only MP. If one could believe that Reg had been so Machiavellian as to engineer the Adrian Watson debacle in order to become an MP, perversely he might be worthy of some respect: He might be more Blackadder than Mr. Bean. However, to expect such cleverness from Reg would be complete fantasy. Ironically the best person for CU voters to support in South Antrim should they really want long term success for their party might be Mel Lucas.