Pan-Union Politics: A Policy Without a Party for a Party Without a Purpose

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.

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  • JoeBryce

    I wonder if the ship hasn’t left the port.

    In the late 90’s and early noughties I was thrilled by Trimble’s re-imagining of the Union as an inclusive expression of a multi-cultural polity. At the time, the rejection by the unionist electorate of Trimble’s vision seemed like straightforward depressing laagerism. But now I wonder. It begins – just begins – to look as though Paisley’s rather startling legacy may be to have led northern protestants to see themselves as an Irish community.

    If that is right – and of course everything depends on the continuing quiescence of republican xenophobes and rejectionists – then it may just possibly be that the re-casting of the Republic brought about by the economic meltdown will flow into the centripetal development of Scottish devolution so as to re-orientate the direction of the pro-Union people.

    Whatever happens, it does seem that politics has replaced mayhem, for which the UUP can take the lion’s share of the credit. The uncertainty comes from the fact that one never knows what is going to happen in politics!

  • granni trixie

    Such a rosy view of Trimble and of the contribution made by the UU …none so blind?

    I base an opposite view not only on my own impression of what went on but from reading. The current dimise of the UUP for instance may be placed at his door for he neglected his party.

  • Cynic2

    ” ideological” ?

    The UUP??

  • Dec

    “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.”

    This could have been lifted from any one of thousands of Slugger comments prior to the last UK General election (though it curiously fails to mention UCUNF). How did that work out again?

  • joeCanuck

    The world that the old UUP ruled over has disappeared. If they ever really did have an ideologoly other than exercising unlimited power, it is no longer relevant. The DUP have moved somewhat to the centre and there really is no role for the UUP. The smart ones left behind should either join the DUP and push it more to the centre or else join Alliance. I can’t see them ever regaining the unionist top dog position.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Dec is right. This could have been copied and pasted from those optimistic posts about UCFPP which of course turned out to be a total disaster.
    Even as the snow fell from the ditch because of Empey screwing everything up (February-May) the notion that any Catholic in South Antrim would vote to save ex Vanguarder Empey was as risible as any Catholic voting to save ex Vanguard man Trimble in 2005.
    The fact that most o the “nice” people from May 2010 have moved from UCDFF to Alliance or merely to do a lot of navel gazing means the project is even more doomed to failure than it was a year ago. Which is of course exactly what it deserved for its false promises.

  • Nunoftheabove

    All this tireseome scratching about for a reason to exist, for the love of god.

    Idea-impoverished, organizationally inept, moribund. Given the entirely unlovely history of this horrid political party I for one look forward immensely to its demise and the sooner the better – we should all consider it a deliverance to be rid of them at long last.

  • john

    The link with the Torys and the normalising of politics in Northern Ireland all sounds great in theory but as many have alrasdy mentioned the link up with the Torys at the last election was a a disaster and proved that most unionists would rather vote elsewhere and the few who would be in favour of giving it another go have probably already jumped ship

  • JoeBryce

    I think FJH may be premature in concluding that the sectarian voting blocs are set in stone forever. The UCUNF undoubtedly failed that test in advance of the last election and I think (because paradox abounds) that that failure was a major factor in the party’s rout. But we have now such extraordinary phenomena as a protestant sitting as a SF MLA in my old home town, something as unimaginable 10 years ago as a SF MLA of any kind would have been 20 years ago. What I am saying is, that once people stop killing each other, once politics takes over, there really is no saying what can happen. Personally I would like to see as many protestant nationalists and catholic unionists as we can muster. I think we shall see more of each in the coming years.

  • Old Mortality

    “There are those similar to Lady Hermon who are materially left-wing unionists”

    Far too many of them, as it turned out, for the UCUNF experiment to work. No party associated with an attempt to reduce the boundaries of the state can hope to prosper in Northern Ireland. Turkeys and Christmas. Cameron et al saw this growing danger across the water and the Tory cuts are as much about reversing it as dealing with the deficit. The integrationist approach is appealing in the longer run as it would allow Westminster to cut the state down to size here and create more space for a genuinely liberal and right-wing party.

  • Whilst I agree with the Dilettante (and the majority of the commenters) that the UUP have probably passed the point of no return, I would be cautious to repeat the basic mistake which doomed the original Conservative and UUP project to failure.

    Many of the traditionalists that D. identifies are much closer in their cultural, social and economic outlook to the DUP than they ever will be to the modern UK Conservative party- for these people (which included the present leader) there was no genuine commitment whatsover to the ideas supposedly behind the UCUNF.

    The Conservative Party, if the likely scenario post May evolves, should seriously consider (if they’re serious about remaining a presence in Northern Ireland that is) offering an open invitation to all in the UUP who are comfortable with their political outlook and philosophy. But a full merger, even if it were to be agreed to by the UUP (which it won’t) would not deliver the kind of end result the likes of Dilettante (and myself) are after.

    Incidently, the often considered “leftward” leaning Lady Hermon is actually quite a social conservative as Lee pointed out here: http://ultonia.blogspot.com/2011/01/lady.html
    Probably would have fitted quite easily into New Labour, not so sure about Ed’s Labour.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    “I think FJH may be premature in concluding that the sectarian voting blocs are set in stone forever”.

    Im not sure I actually concluded that. Merely it would take a people and Party more credible than the last bunch to try.
    The UUP has lost some of the more serious champions of liberal or non sectarian unionism….and in my life time Phelim O’Neill, Basil McIvor, Richard Ferguson, Peter McLachlan right up ro the current lot….have always bean a beaten docket.

  • Zig70

    A few points – Did I lose concentration and miss it or did the whole commentary miss The OO. I thought this was the glue that held the UUP together. I don’t understand why anyone would think the English conservatives would do anything to benefit us or have done anything that was not primarily in their own interest. I don’t think most Catholics see UK conservatives as not sectarian and hence a Tory pact won’t benefit from Catholics joining the UUP in any numbers. Why would Catholics who believe that there is a benefit (taxes) from remaining in the UK wan’t to join the UUP or the Tories unless they mitched from history in school. Anyone that I knew that wanted to associate with UUP types where motivated by career progression, not any love for the Union. I’d like to see an Ulster conservative party that concentrated on what we need, in this little place we call home.

  • “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.”

    I presume you are advocating a merger, rather than a newly revamped form of UCUNF. If it is the latter you are proposing, it is doomed to failure for the reasons that UCUNF failed. If you are advocating a merger, where will the support for that come from within the UUP?

    I personally hope that such a merger never occurs. If it did, it might attract a number of unionists but it would have the effect of entrenching the sectarian divide. It might shock Conservatives that I am saying that but there it is. Normal politics, where the majority of people from both communities vote along left-right lines, rather than comunal lines, will be as far away and as unreachable as ever.

  • Cynic2

    I thought the UUPs raison d’etre was to keep chickens in Fermanagh in smaller cages?

  • Fair Deal

    “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.”

    This is a bit of a myth Lady Hermon’s does not place her in Labour’s ranks.

  • Fair Deal

    Correction

    Lady Hermon’s voting record does not place her in Labour ranks

  • “Alliance Party – once the party of non-sectarian unionism but now officially neutral on the border” Surely the other way round.

  • The Conservatives have made an announcement this morning. Hopefully, somebody from Slugger will post about it very soon.

    Jeffrey Peel was the first to write a post. The link is here.

    http://jeffpeel.net/2011/02/03/conservatives-dump-uup/

  • O’Neill and FD – her voting record doesn’t support a Labour affiliation, but she appears to see herself in those terms.

  • granni trixie

    thedessenter:neither is right. We describe ourselves as ANTI sectarian and are much more diverse than “unionist” describes. Its not so much that we are “neutral” on the border issue than that we accept the present status quo and believe there should be no change unless the people of NI signalled that this is what they wanted.

  • IJP

    I really don’t like to be the purveyor of the inconvenient truth, but the fact is the Conservatives’ latest announcement tells us nothing new.

    The Bangor Office had in fact been leased before the decision not to run for the Assembly was known, with the intention of running an Assembly campaign. This is still not happening!

    Local Chair Irwin Armstrong said clearly he would not accept not running for the Assembly. Yet he’s accepted it.

    Meanwhile, it is far too late to start a local election campaign with unknown candidates.

    Thus, all of this bluster will lead to no one being elected, CCHQ saying “I told you so”, and other parties saying this is proof Tories can’t get elected in NI. UCUNF will have resulted in a local organisation which is deemed permanently unelectable, and no Unionist party wanting to do a deal with an unelectable brand.

    It’s really all incredibly stupid, and as a result, sadly, yet another generation will now be denied any prospect of competitive issue-based politics.