There comes a time when a party becomes a political institution. It defines the terms of debate, and via historical dominance looms large over the political consciousness of its particular arena. The exact policies of the party – as with any party finding long term success – may change over time, sometimes drastically.
But beneath the shifting sands of policy and public opinion lies the firm bedrock of the party’s essential nature, its niche in the national psychology, its long history. Such a party can become such an embedded part of a particular political scene that it forestalls any rational consideration of what political purpose it actually serves.
This is a common phenomenon across Ireland. In the Republic, commentators are grappling with the unthinkable prospect of a post-Fianna Fáil world. The Irish Independent carries two columns that concisely sum up the state of play. Martina Devlin offers a rational analysis of why the divide between the two dominant parties – both of them centre-right entities – is illogical and to the detriment of Irish politics.
She further proposes that both of the civil war parties merge to allow a left-wing party with an English name to rise up and provide Ireland with the left-right material politics dynamic common to the rest of the developed world. Set against this is another column by Kevin Myers, which is interesting on a number of levels.
The first is his discussion of southern Unionism (hopefully the topic of my MA thesis and one rarely discussed) and the impact that ‘freedom’ had on political expression in Ireland in a wider sense. But more pertinently he describes how absolute is the ideological underpinning of Fianna Fáil’s existence. Its support is cultural and instinctive, and a rational analysis of its merits and demerits is irrelevant – it exists because Eamonn de Valera led it.
In the decline and fall of the Ulster Unionist Party Northern Ireland has a parallel experience, or at least Unionists do. For a long time the Official Unionist Party was unionism. Political folk heroes loom large in its history; it was the party of Carson, and (under the old Tory link) of Winston Churchill. It managed to retain its near-monopoly on unionist political representation for a long time and through a lot of change, from electing the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland to becoming an integrationist party under the influence of Enoch Powell. With the exception of the UUUC pact in the 1970s the UUP was the natural party of unionism until the 1990s.
Not anymore. Over the course of the peace process the party has been utterly supplanted by Reverend Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party as the dominant party of unionism, and shorn of that position the UUP has failed to find a new political purpose. The DUP have overtaken it whilst outflanking it to the right. To the left it faces the challenge of a rising Alliance Party – once the party of non-sectarian unionism but now officially neutral on the border. With support drawn away from both edges, the UUP risks becoming a schizophrenic amalgam of two divergent and oft-contradictory traditions within its centre, crippled by both without being able to capitalise on either.
The traditionalists want the UUP to remain much as it always has been, to whatever extent that is true. I don’t feel this is a viable option. The old UUP operated in similar conditions to a major political party in the United States – it near-monopolised representation of its constituency and balanced within it myriad competing political strains within the broader ‘unionist’ umbrella. The party was a mechanism for the exercise of political power by unionists, rather than a vehicle for any particularly well-defined ideology. This is a model that does not function well in the new Northern Irish political atmosphere, with an increasingly fractured pro-union vote dividing the core constituency between several parties. Failure to adapt meant that once the Ulster Unionists lost power – the exercise of which was largely the point – the electorate were provided with no compelling reasons to hand it back to them.
The liberal wing of the party has (or had) several competing visions. There are those similar to Lady Hermon who are materially left-wing unionists who have no home and don’t fancy the terrorist-affiliated PUP. There aren’t enough of them for the party to take this course, and their best move in my view would be to join Northern Ireland Labour. Then there are those who want the UUP to become the party for ‘liberal/soft/moderate’ unionism, moving into the original role of the Alliance. The problem is that moving too far in this direction is resisted by those conservatives that haven’t defected to the DUP, leaving the party in limbo.
Finally, there are those who desire greater cooperation – or outright merger – with the mainland Conservative & Unionist Party. In my experience, this tends to be more the liberal wing than the traditionalist, but in my view there are aspects of such an arrangement to suit both sides. For the liberals, a merger with the Conservatives offers the chance to offer genuinely non-sectarian mainland politics and policies to a long-isolated province. Such an arrangement has the potential to reverse the flow of defections to the Alliance Party and hopefully bring in new blood as well. For traditionalists, cooperating with the Conservative Party is a UUP tradition. The Ulster Unionist Council was the regional branch of the wider Tory party, and that link was maintained until 1974. Even beyond that there’s nothing un-Ulster-Unionist about campaigning for national politics: the party championed integration in the 1980s and functioned as the Ulster Tories until the 1970s. Edward Carson himself was an integrationist, telling the House of Commons:
Ulster has never asked for a separate Parliament. Ulster’s claim has always been of this simple character: “we have thrived under the Union; we are in sympathy with you, we are part of yourselves. We are prepared to make any sacrifice that you make, and are prepared to bear any burden that is equally put upon us with the other parts of the United Kingdom. In those circumstances keep us with you.” They have never made any other demand than that, and I appeal to the Government to keep Ulster in their united Parliament. I cannot understand why we should ask them to take a Parliament which they have never demanded, and which they do not want.
19th December 1919
Times have changed since then and the overwhelming majority of unionists acknowledge the important role that the assembly has played in achieving a peaceful power-sharing arrangement with nationalism. But the broader sentiment – that Northern Ireland is better off when it is a participatory element of the union rather than an isolated and de-normalised periphery – remains true today. The UUP’s long history and the continued taint attached to the DUP in the minds of some moderate unionists means that the UUP is unlikely to die. But if it wishes to achieve more than simply limping on, the forlorn relic of an older Ulster, then it needs to change. When the DUP has demonstrated itself capable of exercising power in unionism’s name then the old UUP structure and message no longer justifies voting for them. Mainstream politics is a principle that offers much too both wings of the party and more importantly allows it to carve out a new political space, potentially attracting pro-union Catholics as well as offering a unique prospect to the unionist electorate. By integrating Northern Ireland into national politics the UUP would also take the first steps on the road to normalising the province in the British political psyche and popular perception, making it harder to sideline and ignore. Such an outcome is good for the UUP, Northern Ireland and the Union.