After #LE19n …The UUP must commit to enlarging the shadow of the future…

Image source: (c) Allan LEONARD @MrUlster
The Ulster Unionist Party: Country before Party? Ulster University, Belfast, Northern Ireland. (c) Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

The Ulster Unionists are usually the party which gets the worst coverage relative to their actual performance in elections. Direct comparisons with 2014 local government election are far from flattering, but there’s been a less than 1% fall since the Assembly elections of two years ago.

There’s barely any change if you take the benchmark as Jim Nicholson’s 2014 European campaign. Of course they have problems, but as Professor Tim Bale has noted, a party around as long as the Ulster Unionist is less likely to disappear. Or not at least, not all at once.

In England the Lib Dems, written off just two years ago, have returned to places they never expected to have power ever again. And with that return to power at local level perhaps the seeds of future MPs.

The party remains steady in its traditional heartland of Fermanagh, but it is generally an outlier to a slight weakening amongst the border unionists.  But perhaps the party should look where it actually took seats from the DUP: most spectacularly in Lisburn and Castlereagh?

A well managed campaign was able to take advantage of the extreme character of the local DUP (think Paul Givan’s cut on Liofa, then amplify to local level) allowing it, narrowly, to maintain a second place over Alliance.

Here’s the conundrum for party strategists. More than any other NI party the UUP is committed to a broad church conception of its character and purpose. It grew out of a caucusing of Liberal and Conservatives in response to the political radicalisation of the Land League in the 19C.

And yet it no longer has an electoral system that can enable it to maintain such a broad church. The Single Transferable Vote system has an obverse effect to FPTP and encourages and facilitates (albeit over a long period) a healthy diversification in the political marketplace.

Fermanagh and Lisburn mark two outliers of success for the party in an election which is short on good news for the UUP. But each lie on two sides of an aisle over which it has failed to create a useful or coherent bridge.

It is in part this failure to resolve the pull between political conservatism and liberalism along with an odd factionalism within Belfast which has signalled its most visible and still ongoing failure in Northern Ireland’s first city: the failure to bring in new blood.

Jim Rodgers crude attack on Alliance was not simply a tactical mistake, but reveals one of the most corrosive ideas which has marked the parties steady decline since 2003, the conviction that sooner or later its rivals in Alliance and the DUP will make as mistakes and it will be king again.

Like neighbouring North Down, the party has all but disappeared from East Belfast: in large part because its crude, old style unionism has driven liberal unionists into the open arms of Alliance and to a lesser extent the Greens. Or not voting at all.

And yet, it still can have men (mostly) elected of the calibre of Danny Kinahan (at council), Doug Beattie (who shows that you can take a strong stand on social issues and  still get elected in a relatively conservative constituency) and Steve Aitken.

The question it must ask itself is: what must we do to change the future? In an election which appears to signal at least the possibility of a great moderation there is simply no space on the far fringes of unionism where even the TUV has struggled to retain the little it held.

The middle is crowded, but growing. They could do worse than look at the experiment that was NI21 to grow beyond those coping with the distress. Ironically in the last couple of years of his leadership Mike Nesbitt came round to believing this was the way forward for his own party.

The tragedy is that it was cut short before it had a chance to properly unwind. Back in 2012, I described the Alliance party as everyone’s coping mechanism. In this election, I would say it has functioned as a lifeboat for a much larger group of people.

What’s required is the emergence substantive political actors who are committed not to being in the middle, but who are capable of acting decisively through the middle.

That needs players like the UUP who can act with authority as a deal maker, who are not obsessed with covering up the failures and misadventures of the past, but are instead committed to enlarging the shadow of the future.

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