The UUP’s election: the past is another country

In the almost a month since the elections a number of attempts (Alex Kane’s is usually the best) have been made to analyse the UUP’s fortunes. The clear message from most (less so from Alex) has been that the UUP did badly and is in decline: quite possibly terminal decline. A number of reasons have been proffered for this state of affairs, most of them relating to the perceived rightward move of the UUP (again I point out that the perception of hard line unionism as right and softer as left is erroneous as is its converse on the nationalist / republican side but it is a useful shorthand) and its centre of gravity having shifted to the rural parts of Northern Ireland.

The UUP undoubtedly lost percentage share of the vote (down 1.7%) and suffered a net loss of two seats. They were saved from further losses in part because, having also underperformed at the last set of Stormont elections, they had a number of constituencies with extra fractions of a quota: hence, a loss of votes did not always translate into a loss of seats.

The picture is, however, considerably more complex than many have suggested. Even to divide it into east and west of the Bann is an oversimplification. However, that simplification has some merit.

East of the Bann and especially in the “nice” constituencies the UUP did do badly. Their share of the vote was hammered especially in North Down and East Belfast (they lost a seat in North Down). They also lost a seat in East Antrim though they have not been strong there for years and boundary changes have made that seat a more complex proposition to analyse. They also lost Fred Cobain in North Belfast.

That last seat is a relatively easy place to begin: Fred Cobain seems a pretty decent sort of chap but his star seems to have been waning for some years and the DUP have been steadily gaining in that seat for a long time: few will forget Cecil Walker’s disastrous TV performance caused by him not hearing the questions but not having sorted out that issue before he started the interview. However, the DUP have put the work in on the ground and Nigel Dodds has been one of their most effective performers. Fred Cobain was never likely to hold his seat and relatively little regarding the UUP other than general malaise can be read into his defeat.

North Down and East Belfast, however, have been seen as symptomatic of the UUP being left behind, being too rural and having not become civic unionist enough: North Down has always been very “civic unionist” and East Belfast provided Alliance with two seats at the election; all of which speaks to civic-ness and liberalism.

There is, however, an opposite reading that indeed the recent efforts at “civic unionism” helped cause the UUP’s disastrous performance in both these constituencies. Much of the rot in East Belfast was sown at the last Westminster election. Then the chief poster boy of civic unionism (especially its internet manifestation – its main natural habitat) stood. Trevor Ringland was the mould breaking, perfect unionist candidate according to many; a standard bearer for the Conservative UUP tie up. Unfortunately on the campaign trail he proved a disaster, lost badly to a truly effective candidate in Naomi Long, then flounced out of the UUP having failed to bully Tom Elliott and followed that with a bizarre volte face to supporting the likes of Dawn Purvis. With that debacle only a year previously there is no surprise at all that the UUP did badly there. It is rather almost a surprise that they managed to hold a seat at all such was the mess created largely by a man who rose to fame playing a team game but whose self importance led him to ignore that politics is also a team activity.

In contrast the Conservative UUP tie up deprived the UUP of its only Westminster seat. Sylvia Hermon was and remains a practically perfect example of a civic unionist. Unlike Ringland she has a track record of relating to normal people and a track record of electoral success. Much of the overall failure which was last year’s Westminster election and the failure in North Down this time was down to the loss of Hermon. That she was sacrificed on the altar of the Conservative tie up which was supposedly about civic unionism is one of the ironies to which civic unionism’s chief priests seem oblivious.

The other constituency where the UUP lost a seat was East Londonderry. Here the issue was not really civic unionism (though David McClarty is a pretty civic unionist) but rather an intra constituency party wrangle. Essentially McClarty simply kept most of his own vote whilst some other UUP votes defected to the TUV. McClarty’s two opponents were even more civic than him which was a mistake for the UUP in a constituency which is home to amongst the most hard line unionist vote. The UUP in East Londonderry seem incapable of realising how hard line East Londonderry is: presumably because most of the hard line part of that constituency party (the majority) gave up years ago. Had McClarty not stood, the DUP would have been well advised to run a fourth candidate who might well have got in: something the DUP should probably try next time in East Londonderry.

Although the UUP did badly in East Londonderry (though the more typical UUP candidate, McClarty, won) in the rest of the places where there be dragons they did rather better. In F/ST they lost almost no percentage and Tom Elliott overhauled Arlene Foster in votes (though the DUP were careful about vote sharing probably artificially reducing her popularity). In West Tyrone they gained a seat from the DUP, though the vote shares were complex and the DUP did not do especially badly. Other places inhabited by dragons also showed UUP gains. In Upper Bann they made steady gains in voting percentage as compared to the last assembly election. This constituency was also instructive in that despite Alliance deploying the ex civic UUP Harry Hamilton they made little progress and the UUP vote was only 0.9% down from Hamilton’s percentage (and up from 2007). South Down showed a modest improvement and Newry and Armagh a significant one. In part this shows that civic unionism of the sort beloved by those on the internet and some within the Pale does not really work where there be dragons. In addition, however, a number of those constituencies are also interesting because they contain a strong party and also have hard working MLAs (exemplified by Tom Elliott and Danny Kennedy).

Finally to prove that a truly strong candidate can benefit the UUP even east of the Bann, the UUP gained a seat in Strangford (though I am suspicious that the Ards peninsula may contain the odd dragon). Mike Nesbitt was practically the only shiny new civic unionists who stuck with the party and the only new civic unionist from the Westminster election debacle to have managed to get elected.

The picture which emerges then is one poor showings in the places east of the Bann where the UUP were already weak and especially where last year’s CU project either lost them an MP (North Down) or else resulted in a particularly poor candidate (East Belfast). In contrast with a truly good new candidate (Strangford) or in the traditional west of the Bann seats the story was one of minor losses, standing firm or even small advances.

Hence, one can read the latest Stormont election results as much less bad for the UUP than the last Westminster ones. This is important as the narrative suggested by the civic unionists is that their dreadful, dreary farmer leader helped loose the UUP lots of votes and seats: this is clearly utter nonsense. It does not even hold water in the “nice” areas as the disasters of East Belfast and North Down are much more due to the CU project of last year then they are because of farmer Tom. The contrasting position put by many in the Dreary Steeples is somewhat more believable: namely that the UUP needs to consolidate on its core vote, concentrate on constituency work, avoid idiotic splits and rows such as resulted in Sylvia Hermon and David McClarty’s defections. That analysis may well prevent some self inflicted wounds but it does not look like a viable strategy to regain the vote lost to the DUP. Some may claim that with the DUP moving “leftwards” and the TUV quite probably dying then the UUP will make subsequent gains. However, that is probably little less naïve than the civic unionist internet battalions’ beliefs. The DUP has not moved to the UUP’s left: rather it has done a Molyneaux on them and produced a party simultaneously to the right and left of the UUP; both more hard line (Gregory Campbell) and more moderate (Alex Easton).

The most accurate reading of the UUP’s election is probably that Tom Elliott has produced a situation of stasis / managed decline along the lines which the UUP have been experiencing since shortly after Trimble took power. Overall there may have been a small drop in the vote but there have been more significant losses in some East of the Bann seats resulting in almost destruction of the party there. In other areas where there is still a decent party structure and good candidates the situation is static and beyond the Pale, in the Dreary Steeples and in the middle constituencies there is some prospect of modest growth. In actual fact Elliott has stabilised the UUP to a greater extent than might have been expected. Had Basil McCrea been elected it is highly likely that the party would have split and that these results would have been considerably worse than they turned out to be. It must be remembered that the last two UUP leaders, Trimble and Empey, both led their party to much worse electoral defeats and much larger drops in percentage share of the vote than Tom has just done.

Having stabilised the situation Tom Elliott must now hope to move forward. However, although he has done pretty well on stabilisation the small steady drop in votes is still there and faced with the overwhelming machine which is the DUP there seems little obvious prospect for major improvements in the UUP’s position. By hard constituency work and traditional voting patterns along with the odd good new candidate it is highly likely that the UUP will not go away for many years. However, this stasis / minor managed decline is not going to bring back the halcyon days when the Blessed Viscount was in charge of one of the most effective election winning machines in the Western World (at least in part this brilliance was entirely accidental). Nor will these strategies bring back the days when Jim Molyneaux quietly yet effectively out manoeuvred the DUP and his other opponents to make the UUP top unionist party.

Those days are past and most unlikely to return: there is simply not enough in the current UUP to achieve that much, nor are the electorate the same as they were even twenty years ago. One of the biggest problems the UUP seem to face is that the DUP have simply become the natural party for unionists. The DUP have managed to claim almost all the credit for Stormont’s successes for unionism and accrue almost none of the blame for its failures. The DUP’s political narrative is simply more attractive than that of the UUP either the hard line or the civic unionist narrative. Those who are not political anoraks care little about the charges of hypocrisy that the DUP entered an agreement similar to the Belfast one. Unionists may now largely tolerate the agreement and they seem unconcerned that the DUP used to oppose a very similar agreement or that the UUP claim to have done “the heavy lifting.”

The past is another country we did things and voted differently there.

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  • alex gray

    This is all fine but what happens if the number of MLA’s is cut from the current 108 to 80 – 16 Westminster seats x 5 or even 16 x 4 wgich is 64. The UUP will all but disappear. I might be wrong but by my reckoning if Stormont went down to 80 seats, I reckon the UUP would be down to 8 seats max. The DUP would remain at 31, the SDLP at 8, Sinn Fein at 21 and Alliance interestingly would still sit at 7. The problem for the UUP is that downsizng Stormont is going to happen and many of their MLA’s got in on the late counts. This is the harsh reality of what will happen. I do not see a UUP with 8 Assembly seats surviving unless it was as a small client party of the DUP. The likelihood of a centrist alliance taking in the UUP, SDLP and Alliance with a total of 23 seats is fantasy. It would have so many shades of colour in it that it would rival the rainbow and owuld have no chance of hanging together. Tom Elliott has become the leader of a west of the Bann party or certainly of a party which does not exist in the east of the country in much he same way as Tories do not exist North of Birmingham.

  • dwatch

    The seems to be some who still believe: “With 100,000 voters and 116 representatives, Ulster Unionism is still a force to be reckoned with, says Mark Cosgrove”

    Read more:

  • Turgon

    I do not disagree that the UUP is still a force to be reckoned with and that under Tm Elliott it has a long term future. However, I submit that that long term future is one of at best stasis with minor gains mainly west of the Bann laid upon an overall gradual decline.

    Any other leader of the UUP would in my view be likely to do no better, very probably worse. The problem is that I find it very difficult to see the UUP making a come back. The civic unionism project would to my mind kill it more quickly, moving hard to the right wwould do much the same. I think the UUP’s fate is now to an extent out of its own hands and unless the DUP does something disasterous I cannot see the UUP becoming dominant again.

    I have largely stopped the historical analogieas as they got so much abuse but think of it like the Germans on the Eastern front after Stalingrad and Kursk. They kept fighting; sometimes made advances and their generals conducted clever defensive moves. Had Hitler had his way they would probably have gone for a glorious victory and lost sooner. Instead they gradually and cleverly retreated.

    The UUP are in some ways similar: they can quietly and cleverly retreat and consolidate or they can go on a suicide charge under McCrea. They chose the wiser option. However, it may still all end at the equivalent for them of the gates of Berlin and finally in the Reich chancellory.

    I entriely agree with your suggestion if the number of seats falls. As I mentioned above I cannot see an effective way out apart from consolidation and probably managed decline.

  • dwatch


    I couldn’t agree more, like a slow sinking 100 year ship, rather than abandon ship the captain and remaining crew are doing their best to keep it afloat. Some officers and crew have already jumped ship to seek other opportunities. Pride, self esteem and looking back over mistakes made regards internecine strife within the party coupled with a deep resentment at the DUP since Trimble signed the GFA have all taken its toll. The next 3/4 years will be interesting.

  • Drumlins Rock

    A year is a long time in politics….
    The UUP has proved resiliant despite pounding the self destruct button on an annual basis, it’s main priority is the boring structural stuff, will it grasp the nettle and centralise power?
    Rebuilding in the commuter land is the next task, but ironically that is much easier done than rebuilding in rural area, which the SDLP has to do to survive. The law of democracy tells us what goes up must come down, and someday this will happen the DUP & SF Alliance, the UUP has to get itself in shape to take advantage when that day comes, be it in 10 years time or more.

  • Mick Fealty

    In a limited defence of Trevor, his Westminster total looks positively handsome compared to the party’s Assembly haul of votes.

    The party effectively abandoned its middle class base to Alliance barely making quota between two candidats by running its lead candidate in inner east.

    Drumlin, what goes up in the Irish system (STV) may take three generations to come back down.

  • Has anyone else checked out EONI – 7 May 2011 – NI Assembly Election Results by stage (full result sheets)? The sheets don’t appear to be, er, full.

    Turgon, I’ve had a look at the incomplete results for East Londonderry on the EONI website. EL straddles the River Bann, it stretches roughly from Limavady on the west to Portballintrae on the east and from the coast south to Kilrea.

    Have you factored in candidate recognition, location and previous constituency service? I’d say that the TUV was more hardline than the DUP and the DUP was more hardline than the UUP but I’d imagine that the DUP provides the most comprehensive constituency service and promotion via the local newspapers.

    Gregory Campbell has a high profile through the likes of the Nolan Show but, locally, he appears to have been one of the candidates most likely to speak out against the actions of developers – unlike some other DUP representatives.

    You mention the defection of UUP votes to the TUV yet the top recipient of Douglas (TUV) transfers was to the ‘civic unionist’ and relative unknown Harding (UUP) on the opposite side of the constituency. The complexities of transfers need more than references to hardline and civic unionism.

  • Turgon

    I know where you are coming from but my point is that Ringland’s disasterous campaign and then ludicrous prima donna behaviour after the election shattered the local party, discredited the brand image and made the UUP’s position hopeless.

    This may have been especially so amongst the middle class Ballyhackmore set whom Ringland presumed he could get to vote for him and then alienated with his hopless campaign and subsequent idiotic behaviour. That made Philip Robinson’s chance of getting that middle calss vote utterly hopeless.

    I think the aftershocks of the disaster which was Ringland were still being felt this May and indeed the wipeout of middle class UUP voting in East Belfast may be his main political legacy.

    I am in a hurry but I think the TUV transfering to UUP in East Londonderry was old fashioned anti agreement UUP (who went with Douglas their standard bearer in the past) refusing to vote for the DUP and choosing the least of several evils: in this case the devil they did not know rather than the assorted ones they did.

    Sorry there are not space to go through a long analysis of aevery constituency lest the blog be six pages long.

  • Framer

    The UUP is what it isn’t, and that’s enough to keep it going outside Belfast and North Down.

    Those areas are gone for ever, being shared out with Alliance and the DUP. They are certainly British but no longer Ulsterist.

    Trying to be modern has done the UUP terrible harm just as pushing every which type of modish and celebrity candidate has been an unmitigated disaster.

    Best to ignore the media whinings and the bloggers’ guilt tripping. Be moderately disorganised and undisciplined but unquestionably Unionist, and not democratic centralist.

  • Barry the Blender

    Just since someone mentioned the prospect of 4 seater assembly constituencies I’ve down some pretty basic sums and composed a list:

    Belfast North: 2DUP 1 SF 1 SDLP
    Belfast South: DUP SDLP ALL UUP
    Belfast East: 3DUP 1 All
    Belfast West: 3SF 1 SDLP
    S Antrim: 2DUP SF UUP
    N Antrim 3 DUP 1 SF
    E Antrim: 2 DUP All UUP
    Lagan Valley: 2 DUP UUP ALL
    N Down: 2 DUP ALL UUP
    Strangford: 2 DUP UUP ALL
    S Down: 2SDLP SF DUP
    N & A: 2SF UUP SDLP
    Upper Bann: SF DUP UUP SDLP (although the last seat here really is anyone’s)
    Mid Ulster: 2SF DUP SDLP
    W Tyrone: 3SF DUP
    Foyle: 2SDLP 2 SF
    E Londonderry: 2 DUP SF Ind

    DUP 26 SF 20 SDLP 10 UUP 9 ALL 6 Ind 1
    Total 72

    Given that we’ll probably not be using the same constituencies again for Stormont, that’s of limited value.
    However it shows that the Ulster Unionists could expect themselves not to be represented in half of Northern Ireland’s constituencies if the quota is to rise.

  • Turgon,

    “I have largely stopped the historical analogieas as they got so much abuse but think of it like the Germans on the Eastern front after Stalingrad and Kursk.”

    Never mind the spoil sports. I enjoy them. Keep em coming.

  • alex gray

    Thanks Barry for the figures. It was much the same as what I computed. Do you notice that Alliance stays about the same even with the drop in MLA’s to 64 ? I had overegged the DUP but they still represent a formidable 26 out of 64. Unionists have 35 versus nationalists on 30 with Alliance in between on 9. The other point I think needs making is that if we really want to save money why don’t we scrap the councils. What do they do ? Not much. That would save some real money whereas the cutting of MLAs won’t save much – £4 million I think. Could the council powers – rubbish removal mostly – not be moved to Stormont and keep the present numbers of MLA’s. Then we could have a Minsiter of Rubbish.

  • dwatch

    As if the UUP has not had enought to deal with other political parties on the assembly, the ugly Internecine strife between the UUP and the OO just wont go away. I wonder is all this hype & bluff by the OO wanting to show their importance to the media once again? Or will Grand Orange Lodge along with their local lodges really suspend the UUP leader and deputy leader for attending a Catholic funeral mass? Tom Elliott and Danny Kennedy do depend upon rural OO members and their families & relatives in the South Armagh & Fermanagh South Tyrone areas for their support.

    “Tom Elliott facing action over Ronan Kerr funeral”

  • “Or will Grand Orange Lodge along with their local lodges really suspend the UUP leader and deputy leader for attending a Catholic funeral mass?”,

    Dwatch, thank you for drawing attention to this news clip.

    There is a precedent. Lord McKay of Clashfern was the Lord Chancellor in Mrs. Thatcher’s last administration (1987-90). He was a member and elder of the free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. He attended the funeral of a catholic Judge and was resultantly suspended from office in the Church. This led directly to a split and the formation of the Associated Presbyterian Churches

    If the Orange Order are foolish enough to discipline Elliot and Kennedy for attending a Catholic funeral, they will do their own image no end of harm and probably cause members to leave the organisation. If they are smart about it, they will use this incident as a pretext for changing their rules.

  • Just to add the UUP’s gains and losses from the local council elections:

    Gains: Banbridge (2), Armagh (1), Fermanagh (1)

    Losses: Belfast (4), North Down (4), Coleraine (3), Lisburn (2), Ards, Ballymena, Castlereagh, Larne, Down, Newtownabbey, Strabane (1 each)

    Further evidence in support of Turgon’s hypothesis that the UUP generally lost in both directions, though it lost more of the ‘civic’ vote (the losses in Belfast and North Down particularly dramatic) than the ‘traditional’ vote.

    Elliott’s reported remarks this weekend seem strong on party discipline and short on vision. It’s all very well to be a broad church when you are pulling in the proportion of votes that the UUP used to and the DUP now does, but that narrative isn’t really sustainable at the UUP’s current vote levels. It’s all very well to be disciplined (and the UUP has notoriously not been so) but one needs to have something to devote that discipline to. I could just about imagine a common vision emerging from a combination of rural community politics in the south of the province with civic unionism in the east, but I don’t see it yet.

    Elliott’s strategy may prove viable in the end , but it may not be rapid. While the DUP enjoy dominance now, and seem unlikely to lose it, eventually things will change because they always do, and if the UUP can remain a sustainable second party of Unionism they will be there to pick up the pieces. But Northern Ireland’s electoral cycle moves exceptionally slowly; the SDLP enjoyed dominance in their community for almost thirty years, the old Nationalist party for almost fifty (and that’s if one only starts the clock in 1921), and the UUP for almost a century.

    A winning narrative for the UUP will combine service delivery for their own constituents with a positive vision of the future. In the meantime they have to continue explaining to their voters, supporters and members why it’s better to support them than the DUP or Alliance. And it’s not really happening.

  • Framer

    The UUP is, or was, more of a movement than a party. Policy is just another focus for disagreement. Best to do without it.

    Magnificent turnout at the AGM today for a party the media love to hate and say is on the skids.

    Its job is to avoid further losses and await the inevitable stresses and strains that will take the shine off the DUP and Alliance.

    Coleraine and North Down (always maverick) are retrievable if not Belfast.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Its job is to avoid further losses and await the inevitable stresses and strains that will take the shine off the DUP and Alliance.

    Let me get this straight. You can’t be bothered to come up with any new and/or positive ideas, so your best plan is to wait around for the other guys to mess up. You expect that when that happens the sheep-like voters will simply revert back to voting for you.

    With a killer strategy like that I’m reassured that the UUP is heading in the right direction.

  • wee buns

    In unionism the most progressive thinkers are the ex paramilitary’s.

  • dwatch

    “In unionism the most progressive thinkers are the ex paramilitary’s.”

    Their progressive thinking hasn’t seemed to interconnect with their actions, otherwise the working class, socialist minded underclass Prod unionist electorate would have voted for them in the last assembly election. While the PUP has no MLA’s or MP’s and is 57K in debt SF has 29 MLA’s & 5 MP’s whose salaries & expenses all goes into their fat bank balance.

    SF have no need to rob banks, or for Adams or McGuinness to put their poor poverty paddy hands out to Irish American sympathy the British taxpayer pays for it all.

  • ForkHandles

    “Then we could have a Minsiter of Rubbish.”

    There are already too many Rubbish Ministers !