The last time a major Unionist party was lead by anyone from west of Portadown it was Harry West in in 1970’s. That was not a happy period of the UUP’s history. The sense of ‘otherness’ that exists amongst border Unionists is well known, researched and documented. It is not a fictional notion dreamed up to further an argument, it is fair to say they are a different sort of Unionist.
It is for that reason that the queston “does Tom Elliott get it?” is probably quite unfair. Being from his background, he probably isn’t in a position to ‘get it’, just as Harry West wasn’t.
The ‘it’ referred to is of course what Ulster Unionist voters and potential voters believe and think where the vast majority of them live, that being Belfast and it’s environs. It may very well be a commonly held opinion amongst many Protestants that all IRA members and many Sinn Fein members are scum, but it is equally in the ethos and culture of Ulster Unionism that to express an opinion in that way is simply not acceptable, for a rainbow of reasons. The fact that Elliott’s outburst has generated negative headlines nationally would suggest that this isn’t unique.
Put simply, after a shockingly bad election, Elliott has only succeeded in compounding the reason why the UUP campaign was so unsuccessful. Appealing to TUV voters is not a winning strategy for the UUP. For that matter it isn’t even a winning strategy for the TUV itself. Asking voters to stop Peter and Martin performing a sequel to the Chuckle Brothers was never going to work because the Unionist electorate simply doesn’t care. They have moved on. Hanging yourself up on who will be First Minister, and declaring that you wont serve as McGuinness’s deputy First Minister is utterly irrelevant, because to a very real extent the Unionist electorate, or at least the bit of it the UUP should be appealing to, doesn’t care enough about it. If 2010 taught the UUP nothing else, it should have taught it that the Unionist electorate vote for peace over notional principles others think they should hold.
One positive to come out of this election is that Tom Elliott can no longer ignore the growth of the Alliance Party. In fairness UUP strategy over the past 5 or 6 years has continually done so, but Elliott has been particularly blinkered to this against an increasing tide of evidence. The successes at this election came for the UUP largely in the border areas. The vote was up in West Tyrone (where a seat was rather fortunately won from the DUP) and Newry & Armagh, steady in Fermanagh & South Tyrone and Mid Ulster, so Elliott’s leadership is gaining something. But the vote is down considerably in County Antrim and significantly in Belfast. Elliott’s leadership is hemorrhaging votes to the Alliance and DUP in almost equal measure in the UUP’s eastern heartlands. Alarm bells should be ringing off the walls that the UUP has two of the 24 MLAs in Belfast City, and had to struggle for both of those.
Where else is the vote up? Strangford, South Down and Upper Bann. While the latter of those is somewhat puzzling given the circumstances, Mike Nesbitt and John McCallister as identifiable and well known liberal UUP flag-bearers have achieved what the party failed to do in the east – give people a positive reason to vote Ulster Unionist. Strong figures are hard to find just everywhere, but against a downward swing and trend, the UUP actually gained a seat in Strangford, in the end David McNarry picking up a gained seat even from incumbency.
Where else is it down? The disgraceful events leading to David McClarty’s resignation have left the UUP with exactly what it deserved in that Constituency. My feeling is that McClarty will come back to the UUP, but that is dependent on many factors, not least an understanding that he is worth more than those who forced him out.
North Down is another matter.
I commented here that I didn’t get the McFarland thing, and as it happens I was right, he didn’t win a seat. But the UUP vote is down a staggering 13%, only half of which is accounted for by McFarland. The rest is divided between the DUP and Alliance. But this for me is where the real mistakes of Elliott’s leadership have come. It was one thing to lose Alan McFarland and Sylvia Hermon over a deal with the Conservative Party. Having done so it is quite another thing to then also lose the Tory link. In fact it is downright daft. It leaves a position where the UUP in North Down is decimated for no reason whatsoever.
There are those within the party and without who argue that the only future for the UUP is some form of amalgamation with the DUP. The argument goes that Peter Robinson has moved the DUP onto the middle ground of Unionism, and leaves the UUP chasing ghosts, giving rise to the temptation to lurch to the right, and there lies the wilderness. There is some merit in this, but it is ultimately a bad idea. It is made at least partly impossible by institutional tribalism that is only to be expected amongst members of any political party. There are those who have spent far too much time and effort fighting the DUP to simply shut up shop and throw their lot in with them. But the question has to be asked, is ‘unionist unity’ (whatever that is) good for either Unionism or Northern Ireland? I have always been skeptical about actual benefits accrued to Unionism in the 1950’s and 60’s when unity was a major focus of Unionist efforts, for reasons that still apply now. How can one hegemonic entity provide adequate representation? How can taking the competition out of elections on the Unionist side be good for anyone? For me rekindling, repairing and better forging the link with the Conservative Party is not seeking to push back the inevitable tide, and nor is it ignoring a better option for the UUP. It is an active and positive alternative to a potential end for the UUP that would not be in the best interests of anyone. It would provide the electorate with a good choice between parties, and allow for what is to some a true holy grail in Northern Ireland politics – a functioning opposition bench at Stormont.
I fear that the real lesson from this election will be entirely misconstrued by the UUP leadership. Many will have been taken in by DUP and Sinn Fein electioneering and believe that the pasting is as a result of the disastrous tie to the Conservative Party. This is of course nonsense. The UUP took a beating because it was disorganized, wasteful and incoherent. It’s message was at best mixed and at worse entirely misdirected. Compare that with the election results in 2009 and 2010, which while not exactly resounding successes at least provided the party with a disciplined narrative, a clear focus, and some confidence. What worked about it is what worked about the SDLP campaign in 2005, it was a nice, simple message that appealed to core voters with the potential for expansion. It is exactly the kind of campaign that has the potential to appeal to those voters in Belfast and the surrounding areas that are leaving the party in droves for the Alliance Party. Yet Tom Elliott chose to trash it, and now it is dead for so long as he remains leader, particularly after his remarks in Omagh.
That decision to go it alone after the donkey work had been done to tie up with the national party of government for me is the key strategic mistake of the past year under Tom Elliott. That for me is where the UUP’s thoughts must return to if there is to be any long term recovery from this election, and why ultimately, Tom Elliott cannot continue for very much longer.
I used to write and get paid, now I read and don’t.
Former UUP staffer, currently living in London. @mjshilliday