Can Election 2014 revive the political fortunes of the PUP?

One of the interesting aspects of the local government elections of May 2014 will be the performance of the UVF-linked Progressive Unionist Party.

The fringe loyalist party was once regarded as a potential electoral and political rival for the two main unionist parties, but whatever capacity it had for punching above its miniscule weight was lost before the passing of David Ervine.

Since then, it has largely been reduced to fulfilling the role of sabre rattler for the UVF, shedding most of the electoral support it had garnered along the way.

In the past few years, though, the PUP has had something of a second wind, and it is clearly pinning its hopes on making an electoral breakthrough later this month to finally announce its emergence as a credible alternative force within unionist politics to the mainstream unionist parties.

Charting its electoral growth and decline over the past 20 years allows us to see how the promise of the early peace process era gradually faded with the passage of time and realization that the party offered little different to the larger unionist parties, save for an association with a military wing in the UVF which has still not exited the scene, and to which much of the sectarian and racist violence of the past number of years has been attributed.

The Rise and Fall of the PUP

The 26,000 votes it received in the 1996 Forum elections represented 3.4% of the vote, a jump from the 2,350 votes (0.37%) in the 1993 local government election in which its solitary councillor, the late Hugh Smyth, was returned.

The 1997 Local Government election saw the party secure 7 council seats on 2% of the vote, gaining representation on four councils (Belfast, Lisburn, North Down and Newtownabbey), setting the party up for the 2 Assembly seats secured in the post-GFA 1998 Assembly election on 2.5% of the vote. David Ervine’s 3.3% in the 1999 European election on 22,000+ votes confirmed the party’s modest upward growth.

Alas, the PUP’s downward decline began with the 2001 Local elections in which it returned only 4 councillors on 12,000 votes, losing representation on all but Belfast of the four councils it had representatives elected to in 1997, but gaining one new councillor in Castlereagh.

The 2003 Assembly election saw the party vote plummet to just 8,000, 1.2% of the overall vote, with Ervine alone returned as MLA.

In the 2005 Local Government election, the party was reduced to just two councillors with a paltry 4,591 votes (1%) and now limited to representation on Belfast City Council alone.

In the 2007 Assembly election, the party retained its solitary East Belfast seat, but with only 3,822 votes at 0.6% of the overall vote.

By the 2011 Local Government election, the party was fighting to merely retain its two Belfast seats, successfully doing so with 3,858 votes on 0.6% of the vote.

The loss of Dawn Purvis left the party with an uphill battle as it sought to retain its record of securing election to the Assembly in each post-GFA election. But the 1,493 votes it secured represented just 0.2% of the overall vote and was less than a number of independent candidates secured on their own.

PUP Electoral Performance: 1993-2011

Election Vote % Elected Reps   Election Vote % Elected Reps
1993 LE 2350 0.37% 1   1996 Forum 26082 3.4% 2*
1997 LE 12051 2% 7   1998 Assembly 20634 2.5% 2
2001 LE 12261 2% 4   2003 Assembly 8032 1.2% 1
2005 LE 4591 1% 2   2007 Assembly 3822 0.6% 0
2011 LE 3858 0.6% 2   2011 Assembly 1493 0.2% 0

Charting the actions of the party in recent times, as it seeks to reinvent itself and revive its electoral and political fortunes, has been revealing.

Monster UVF marches and demonstrations have been used to bolster the party’s credibility within grassroots loyalism.

The September 2012 Covenant Day commemorations included a UVF parade and was followed by the 2013 UVF parade to Fernhill House in which PUP leader, Billy Hutchinson, donned attire to resemble Edward Carson before reading extracts of a speech by the founding father of Ulster Unionism.

The UVF gun-running parade in Larne last month was but the latest attempt by the PUP to muscle its way into the mainstream of loyalist band culture in a way that- they must hope- can generate renewed interest in and enthusiasm for the party within grassroots loyalism.

Party representatives have been busy making presentations to loyalist flute bands in recent weeks to encourage electoral support for the party, and at least one flute band has publicly declared its support.

This is something that the DUP are clearly aware of, and their strategy to usurp the upstart loyalist party has included weaning support from the main rival paramilitary faction within loyalism, the UDA.

This article in January 2013 illustrates how the DUP has sought to cultivate its relationship with the UDA over the past few years, not least in East Belfast, where the loss of the Westminster seat to Alliance’s Naomi Long continues to bite.

Just over a decade ago, Frank McCoubrey was a close associate of Johnny ‘Mad Dog’ Adair as the crazed loyalist wrought havoc on loyalist communities after doing same for the previous decade to catholic districts across Belfast. He is now a DUP councillor. In East Belfast, loyalist and former prisoner, Sam ‘Chalky’ White, is a DUP candidate.

And it is in this context that the entirely cynical and utterly deplorable support from both the PUP and DUP for the Twaddell loyalist camp must be understood. The nightly marches and Saturday rallies are being used to enhance the status of the PUP within the north and west Belfast loyalist community, and the DUP’s continuing support for a camp sited at the peaceline and nightly parades to same interface is as much about checking the advances of the loyalist party as it is the age old desire to assert the supremacist rights of ‘the people.’

Whilst the PUP has sought to use the flag and parade protests to agitate for electoral advance, it has failed miserably to make any attempt to distinguish itself on non-constitutional matters in a way that could pose a challenge to the right of centre economic and moral consensus that exists within political unionism (on that note, there can rarely have been a more depressingly sectarian contribution to the educational debate than this piece from the unidentified PUP “Education spokesperson.”)

Perhaps this will come in the event of electoral success and the promotion of new candidates with the time and inclination to articulate policies and devise credible strategies to challenge the DUP/UUP position on issues like same sex marriage and other social/economic matters, but that would require a willingness to engage the unionist political mainstream in a manner that the aspiring minnows of the PUP have deliberately steered clear of to date.

The flagging electoral fortunes of the party since the turn of the millennium has meant that, with the groundwork laid over the past couple of years, the party is all but assured an increase in its vote share this time around, though the key will be whether or not the PUP can convert votes into a cohort of seats which gives them the traction, profile and stature to find a place within the unionist political spectrum distinct from the mainstream parties.

If that distinction continues to boil down to its association with a UVF still waging war on ‘The Other’ as manifested by the minority catholic community of Short Strand and the foreign national population of south and east Belfast, then any electoral breakthrough will be short-lived.

Addressing that elephant will be central to securing a lasting electoral and political role for a grassroots based loyalist party.

Time will tell…..

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