The Ulster Unionist Party: Country Before Party?

The first thing to say in respect of this book is a big thank you to the leadership of the UUP from all five authors. The UUP has undergone some tough times over the last two decades but the five most recent leaders could not have been more supportive of the survey of party members underpinning this volume. The book includes extensive interviews with the UUP’s five most recent leaders: Trimble, Empey, Elliott, Nesbitt and Swann, to analyse why the UUP went into decline, their efforts to reverse the tide and what can now be done. The book also involved lots of interviews and focus groups with ordinary members. It is laudable that a party leadership wants to know what its members truly think, even if some of those findings are uncomfortable.

Myth-busting?

It may surprise some that the UUP remains considerably larger than the DUP. However, its members are less active than those of the DUP. Whilst almost one-third of DUP members claim to be very active, only one-in-five UUP members does likewise. 18% of UUP members joined their party before 1967, when the DUP did not even exist, so they can be regarded as extremely loyal – one of the biggest strengths of the UUP.

The UUP’s traditional strength in Fermanagh remains: nearly one-in-five UUP members live in Northern Ireland’s least-populated county (compared to only 8% of the DUP’s membership). Members see themselves as more middle-class than the DUP. Alongside the old geographical distinctions lie lingering class differences. Whilst the current UUP leader has stressed his working-class background, almost half of UUP members said they were middle-class, compared to 36% of DUP members. Unsurprisingly, most party members are male, although the two-to-one ratio is slightly healthier than that in the DUP (72% male).

The myth of the integrationist UUP persists but is nonsense. 83% of members support devolution, compared to only 12% wanting direct rule. Given what happened within, it does not startle that UUP members are more supportive of the Assembly (79%) than the Executive (58%). In terms of arguably the deal-breaking Assembly fracture, UUP members are on the same page as the DUP. 93% believe that ‘only English should be the official language in Northern Ireland’ and only 4% believe that ‘English and Irish should have equal status as languages in Northern Ireland’.

Political decline and insecurities

Many UUP members feel it was their party that paid a high price for taking risks for peace. 77% believe that nationalists benefited more than unionists during the peace process – and only 5% believe that unionists were the primary beneficiaries. Only 27% of members believe that ‘there is a lasting peace in Northern Ireland’ and only 34% believe that policing has benefited from Sinn Fein’s participation on policing boards. More positively, more UUP members think that most Catholics now support the PSNI than do not (45% to 28%). The UUP continues to believe that the party helped resolve the constitutional question. 77% of members believe that ‘it has become more likely that Northern Ireland will stay part of the UK’ due to the Belfast Agreement.

Many members are rueful over what happened regarding the Belfast Agreement but don’t agree what did most damage. For example, Danny Kennedy says ‘we fatally produced a slogan that says, No guns No government’. The book indicates that Trimble was perhaps less obsessed with IRA decommissioning than might be supposed. The former UUP leader had suggested alternative confidence-building measures to the British government. In terms of Trimble’s fall, one colleague relates how he unsuccessfully tried to persuade Trimble to stand aside before the 2005 election as he could see humiliation looming for the UUP leader. Defections caused bitterness. Arlene Foster and Jeffrey Donaldson are denounced as ‘total hypocrites’ by former MLA Ross Hussey. Tom Elliott claims the first he heard that his Fermanagh colleague Foster had left was on the BBC’s Evening Extra programme.

Attitudes towards the DUP show considerable hostility to a party many UUP members do not trust. 15% support merger; the vast bulk reject the idea. 17% do not want the UUP to have any election alliances or pacts with the DUP and 41% want election alliances and pacts ‘when it suits us’. The DUP is seen as very right-wing party. UUP members place their own party at 7/10 on a left (zero) to right (ten) analysis but place the DUP at 9/10. Only just over half (55%) of UUP members say they are likely or certain to transfer a lower preference vote to the DUP, leaving a very large minority saying they are unlikely. More than one-third (37%) would go across the divide to offer a lower preference vote to the SDLP. So those who talk glibly of pan-unionism may need to be more circumspect. The UUP membership is clear-cut regarding attitudes towards GB parties. 69% feel closest to the Conservatives, compared to only 3% for Labour (19% say ‘none of them’). However, many members are scathing over the UCUNF alliance with the Conservatives which the UUP attempted in 2010 and the mixed electoral messages – DUP, Conservative and SDLP alliances (of sorts) in the last decade alone have been confusing.

Religion

Robin Swann is fond of saying he leads a political party not a religious movement. And he’s right. Nonetheless, UUP members see their party as religiously-influenced. Asked how much influence faith and church have on the UUP on a 0 (zero) to 10 (maximum) scale, only one-in-five members scored the party at 4 or below (7/10 was the largest single category). Asked how much influence faith and church should have on the UUP, half scored this desire at 7/10 or higher. In contrast, the DUP membership study showed 60% wanting high religious influence i.e. at 7/10 or higher). So the UUP is less overtly religious – but not much. It is socially liberal on abortion, in that 52% of members believe abortion should be permitted up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, in line with the rest of the UK. But only 29% of UUP members support the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.

45% of UUP members attend church weekly, although this is lower than the DUP figure of 59%. 39% of members ‘would not mind’ a family ‘mixed marriage’; 32% ‘would mind a little’ and 25% ‘would mind a lot’. Younger UUP members are less religious and less concerned with such unions.

There are big contrasts with the DUP in terms of brand of Protestantism. Whereas Free Presbyterians remain – just – the largest single denomination within the DUP, Free Ps form only 0.1% of the UUP, which is split almost evenly (43% to 42%) between the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church. But the percentage of Catholics in the UUP – at a mere 0.3% – is even lower than that in the DUP, at 0.6%.

Orange Order membership is the same as that within the DUP: 35% of each party’s membership. However, among UUP elected representatives Orange Order membership is far lower: 27% of councillors (versus 54% DUP) and 20% of MLAs (versus 62% DUP) – so the old Orange-UUP link has most certainly faded, although 64% of members say they like the Order. Only 27% of those who have joined the UUP in the last two decades are members of the Order. 41% of UUP members believe the Order should have the right to march traditional routes without restriction.

The Future

Where next for the UUP? The party is far from dead. It has recruited well at QUB and UU in recent years, but it needs to recruit much better beyond universities. The members are desperate for electoral success after years of problems and they offer fidelity to their party. The loss of two Westminster seats in 2017 was a grievous blow given parliamentary arithmetic and the preceding Assembly contest was tribal fare. This year’s council elections offer the UUP its best chance for a while for revival. They may be fought soon after the RHI inquiry report and unionists do not need to worry about splitting the vote and allowing a Sinn Fein First Minister. Ultimately though, the UUP needs to articulate more distinctive clear agendas, distinct from the DUP not DUP-lite and offer a coherent modern unionism which can attract not only those disgruntled by DUP controversies but who want a forward-thinking unionism. In the absence of an Assembly and in the context of Brexit, it’s easier said than done.

Tom Hennessey, Maire Braniff, Jim McAuley, Jon Tonge and Sophie Whiting

The Ulster Unionist Party; Country Before Party is available for purchase here