If the TUV lost heavily the CU’s were practically no better. The party which ruled Northern Ireland from its inception until the fall of Stormont; the party which as recently as 1997 held 10 seats is now reduced to none. Bob Balls has his thoughts over on Open Unionism but I thought a few other things might be worth mentioning.
At a very fundamental level some in the UUP still do not seem to understand that it is no longer the lead party within unionism. Some seem to think that the electorate will wake up some day soon and realise that they (predominantly the fairly big house unionists) are clearly the natural leaders of Northern Ireland and will duly scurry off and vote in such a fashion. In the past they often failed to do the hard work on the ground and although they have to an extent improved on this there is still the perception that the DUP are the party to get something done for you.
One problem which cannot be escaped has been Reg Empey’s leadership. Reg Empey is no doubt a civil and pleasant individual: however, he is no charismatic orator nor an inspiring, visionary leader. In many ways he seemed to try to be a successor to Jim Molyneaux and be calm, placid and yet cunningly lead his party to success after success. The problem is that Molyneaux was a man of overwhelming political intelligence and cunning; a good manager of people and a man who created a broad church party. Reg Empey lacked the personal political talent and in addition had too little of other people’s political talent within the party to manage Molyneaux’s trick of creating a party which could envelop the DUP and gradually devour it. Whilst Molyneaux sat at the centre of the spider’s web of different opinions as its undisputed leader; Reg when he tried the same thing seemed vacillating and to be flip flopping between one faction and another within his party. Also with Molyneaux until the very end no one would have dared suggest challenging his leadership: with Reg it seemed there were a nearly endless list of potential replacements always lurking in the wings.
In 2007 Empey played second fiddle to Margaret Ricthie as the star attraction at the UUP conference. The fact that a member of another party and one with diametrically opposed views on the union upstaged him was ludicrous and in many ways it was actually an attempt to create a distraction to stop people from what might have become an attempt on his leadership.
A year later, however, Reg set the course which more than any other has defined his leadership: the Conservative link up. In some ways recreating the link with the Conservatives sundered in the early 1970s made sense: it appeared to out flank the DUP and offer a new inclusive unionism. One could even see how it could be used to make the new civic unionism both more moderate and more hard line than the DUP. However, it was a politico’s dream rather than an idea grounded in reality; especially when it came to opposing P&J devolution whilst the Tories supported it.
In addition the assumption that the majority of unionists are Conservative with a big C was one which never seemed convincing. In the first place those with longer political memories will remember which party porouged Stormont, introduced Sunningdale, the Anglo Irish Agreement and the Downing Street Declaration. Not only are there the problems of history but in some ways Northern Ireland is not really natural Tory territory: many unionists are pretty non conformist in politics as well of course as in religious denomination. These people are not especially well disposed to vote for their social betters to rule over them. David Cameron and his cadre of largely Eton and Oxbridge educated sons (and at times daughters) of privilege are not necessarily regarded as the natural rules of the people of Ulster. The Tories may have attracted a certain brand of UUP members longing for the halcyon days of the sainted Viscount from Colebrooke Park but the lustre of such people has long since vanished in the surprisingly egalitarian or maybe at times somewhat invertedly snobbish world view of Northern Ireland unionism. It was the same sort of foolishness which made David Trimble rely on the affable, well bred, charming and utterly useless Steven King. Here in the Dreary steeples (viscount or no viscount), amongst the dour Presbyterians of Antrim and Down, the orangemen of Londonderry and Armagh, the light of Cameronism seems more a silly light trick than the shinning vision of an inciting future: a dangerous fool with a laser pointer threatening planes’ safety rather than the landing lights of a welcome airfield.
Although most unionists are probably far from socialist there is little enough evidence that they are in actual fact very right wing in their political / economic philosophy and as such for everyone who was enthused by the Tory link there may well have been others turned off by it. Furthermore although often economically to the left of the Tories the average unionist voter is probably more socially conservative than the shiny new Conservative Party of Cameron: again a consideration no one within the UUP seems to have considered until Adrian Watson was vetoed for holding unacceptable views remarkably close to Chris Grayling’s perfectly acceptable ones.
A further disaster was the candidate choices: it was almost comically bad. Trevor Ringland a decent liberal unionist was not the man to take votes off the DUP especially not as Naomi Long was there to gobble them up much more effectively and with a track record of hard constituency work overcoming her general irritatingness. Other choices were simply bizarre. The idea that a liberal like Lesley Macaulay could take East Londonderry was utter folly. More than anything such decisions show how out of touch with the thinking of mainstream unionists many in the CU leadership had become. The fact that some CU commentators on this site suggested that she might take East Londonderry shows how out of touch they are: that said I am in little position to carp I thought Willie Ross would beat her. Instead both fell helplessly before Gregory Campbell. Similar decisions led to Harry Hamilton being run against David Simpson whilst Danny Kennedy was wasted in Newry and Armagh: the only seat in Northern Ireland where the UUP out polled the DUP. Had Danny Kennedy moved to Upper Bann there would very likely have been some blue on the BBC’s map of Northern Ireland. In Strangford there was further proof that new political blood even of the star quality was no match for the DUP: Mike Nesbitt’s star had, however, waned so much before the election that his defeat passed almost unmarked. As mentioned above Adrian Watson’s demise forced Reg Empey into bat as the candidate for South Antrim. In the past I have likened politicians to battleships: in this instance Reg played HMS Royal Oak; torpedoed at anchor in Scapa Flow at the beginning of the war.
Of course the greatest disaster (even bigger than Reg’s failure) which encapsulates all these problems was the fact that the UUP’s one popular, clearly civic non tribal non sectarian politician was removed (after endless procrastination) from the party. The removal of Lady Sylvia resulted in the final end of the debacle: To run Ian Parsley the Alliance defector against her was simply idiocy; it summed up all the foolishness of the Empey run UUP and their complete disconnect from Northern Irish society. They could not understand even North Down which is actually more British than Finchley. Sylvia Hermon was the one UUP politician who might reasonably have been expected to attract those fantasy creatures of CU mythology: the unicorns of garden centre Prods and Catholic Unionists, yet the shiny new post sectarian completely British CUs threw her away.
Where the CUs go from here is genuinely difficult to see: they have almost the divergence of opinions which the served the old UUP of Jim Molyneaux so well. They have that divergence with almost none of the political talent, organisation, common vision or the glue of success to hold them together. The aims of most of their members and their remaining voters are not dissimilar to those of the DUP but some in the party seem wedded to the Tory pact which seems to have cost them a significant number of votes. In addition there is often very significant animosity between the DUP and UUP which will make cooperation let alone unity difficult. It is also difficult to see what the UUP can really bring to the table to attract the DUP which they could not expect to gain anyway by their slow gradual destruction of the UUP over the past two decades. Having left the TUV dead in the water the DUP’s 15” guns will no doubt if necessary turn back on the CUs with renewed ferocity.
There are a few lights in this almost overpowering vision of blackness. The UUP does have a few decent politicians: Danny Kennedy, David McNarry and Tom Elliott. Elliott especially has the right credentials and being from well west of the Bann might have some understanding of the issues affecting those areas outside the Pale (as would Kennedy to be fair). As mentioned above Kennedy did gain more votes than his DUP rival and reversed the positions of the unionist parties as compared to last time. Had Tom Elliott run in FST many suspect he might have achieved something similar which against the might of HMS Warspite would have been stunning (remember before anyone says I am insulting Arlene: the most elegant and of course brutally effective British battleship of the First or Second World War). In addition the UUP do have a bit of talent at lower levels: not only amongst councillors but also more minor party members and a few young unionists do seem to have a grasp of politics. However, any road back will be an enormously long journey and one of the first things they must realise is that their Tory pact achieved precisely less than nothing. The NI Tories or even the mainland ones may want to gobble them up: unless that is resisted they UUP has no future.
A year ago I suggested that the European election was a “Dead Cat Bounce” for the CUs: I have been correct about little enough in this election; on that one I was exactly right (I also foresaw Rodney Connor’s agonising end all to easily). It was the ogres of the TUV which handed the CU’s their victory last year: now the ogres have been slain and the unicorns never came to the rescue.